Journal: News & Comment

Friday, September 13, 2002
# 8:40:00 AM:

Smiley nuker

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Online archaeologists recently confirmed that Scott E. Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University invented the "smiley" -- you know, this thing :-). It happened almost exactly twenty years ago, in 1982, and smileys didn't take long to spread around the world, even a decade before Internet access became common and most people online (like me) were just phoning local bulletin board systems (BBSs).

They became so widespread, in fact, that only a few years later the sysop (system operator) of my favourite local board, Steve Hillman of the Twilight Zone, was so sick of them that he wrote a little program for his BBS, called the "smiley nuker," to get rid of them.

At the time, the only way to enter text into a BBS message system was to dial up to the (usually single) phone line and use a terminal program to write into whatever text-input mechanism the sysop had set up. That meant all the text processing was happening at the BBS end -- what we'd now call the server -- instead of on the user's local machine (the client), as we usually do now with e-mail software and even Web browser text-entry fields. (Even chat software worked that way -- instead of typing a line or two and then sending it off as we do now with instant messaging, your co-chatter would see every letter you typed onscreen, as well as every typo, backspace, or other error, live.)

So the BBS computer saw every character that went by as you typed it. Steve wrote his software so that if it saw anything that looked like a smiley or any then-known variant of it, your cursor would back up right over it -- quite visibly at 300 bps -- so you couldn't post it. This had three consequences, only one intended:

  1. As Steve wanted, it discouraged people from using smileys willy-nilly all over their BBS postings.
  2. It created an ever-escalating arms race, as TZ users determined to use smileys started trying all sorts of tricks (adding extra spaces, using new characters such as letters and periods, inventing new smileys and other emoticons) and Steve responded by adding the various permutations to the smiley nuker.
  3. As the list of banned character combinations grew, it erased anything that looked like a smiley, even if it was actually a legitimate use of punctuation.

It was a good lesson in software development: when trying to squelch a problem, beware of the unintended effects of your solution.


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