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How Pixar and Psychology Helped Facebook Design Its Emoticons

Facebook teamed up with a Pixar illustrator and a psychologist to make the most emotive emoticons it could muster

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Image: Facebook

Those who logged into Facebook recently might have noticed some new faces—emoticons that users can now tack on to their status updates. These emoticons are highly engineered: Facebook teamed up with a Pixar illustrator and a psychologist to make the most emotive emoticons it could.

UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner studies how people emotionally interact on social media. Pixar illustrator Matt Jones knows all too well how to manipulate our emotions with little animated characters. Together, they created the set of emoticons that Facebook settled on. Popular Science reports:

They started looking at how compassion research could help Facebook address the kind of interpersonal conflicts the company saw emerge in issue reporting. When people inserted a little more emotion into their messages asking friends to take down photos, Facebook found, the friend was more likely to respond or comply rather than just ignore the message.

So Facebook started thinking about how to add more emotional information to Facebook messaging. “There’s all this communication that happens when you’re talking to someone face-to-face–you can see that they’re nodding and you can see their smile–that is not present when you’re communicating electronically,” Bejar explains. “One of the questions that we asked was, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a better emoticon that was informed by science?’”

Of course, Pixar and Facebook aren’t the first ones to think of using emoticons to help people express emotions. That’s what the things were invented for. Mashable has a brief history of emoticons, which traces the murky beginnings of the little faces. A transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln speeches included a winking face, but most agree that was probably just a typo. Mashable writes:

Various reports (that we’ve been unable to verify) suggest that in 1979, an ARPANET user called Kevin MacKenzie, inspired by an unidentified Reader’s Digest article, suggested using punctuation to hint that something was “tongue-in-cheek,” as opposed to out-and-out humorous.

Apparently, MacKenzie thought a hypen and a bracket — -) — would be a suitable symbol: “If I wish to indicate that a particular sentence is meant with tongue-in-cheek, I would write it so: ‘Of course you know I agree with all the current administration’s policies -).’

Last year, the classic yellow smiley face turned 30. It was originally the face of State Mutual Life Assurance Company. ABC News explains:

The “smiley face” designed by Harvey Ball has become a ubiquitous symbol since the Worcester, Mass., designer was hired by the e State Mutual Life Assurance Company to design a morale-boosting symbol for the company. Ball’s design, which was first used on buttons, desk cards and posters, has since become a lasting international symbol.

Today, Facebook has added a bit of science to that yellow smiley. And they tackled some emotions that aren’t usually represented by emoticons, like sympathy and gratefulness. Here’s Popular Science again:

Sympathy, for example, can be hard to really get across in traditional emoticon form. “It’s an under-appreciated emotion in Western culture,” Keltner explains. “We now know what it looks like and sounds like because of science. They created this dynamic emoticon that when you see it, it’s really powerful.”

Using little pictures to convey feeling, rather than words, might elicit more of a personal response from users. Or, at least, that’s what Facebook hopes.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Who Really Invented the Smiley Face?

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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