Megan Garber at The Atlantic has published a very interesting history of the smiley emoticon. It stretches back further than you'd think:
“We were just nerds, goofing around,” Fahlman, now a research professor at Carnegie Mellon, told me. “This was not meant to be a serious invention.” But the smiley and its cousins succeeded where generations of misunderstood sarcasts had failed. In the late 1800s, the poet Alcanter de Brahm proposed a point d’ironie resembling a backward question mark—a suggestion echoed, a century later, by the novelist Hervé Bazin. Nabokov wanted “a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.” Ambrose Bierce offered the “snigger point” (a horizontal parenthesis...) to punctuate “every jocular or ironical sentence.”
The next time someone rails against emoticons as illiterate garbage, you are now obligated to point out that Vladimir Nabokov thought they would be useful.