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I'm aware of modern colon notation being used in web forums in days gone by — I have fond memories of using :rolleyes: in vBulletin! Indeed I assume (though I'm happy to be corrected!) that this usage directly inspired the thing I'm about to talk about. But I'm curious as to what the first application to use this colon notation for emoji substitution. For instance, on many sites I can type :hammer: and get an interactive picker to replace it with a 🔨️ character. Though I'd also be interested in seeing early non-interactive examples that work with emoji, as opposed to emoticons, if any exist.

I'm aware that Slack and Discord both support this, so perhaps one of these is a likely source? But I'm wondering if perhaps a more popular social media site might have provided the impetus, as Slack and Discord both seem relatively niche for such a common feature.

I've tried searching around for the answer but I can only find people claiming that this functionality exists, libraries to implement this functionality, or unrelated things. Perhaps my Google Fu is simply not up to snuff.

(Apologies, I'm not sure if "history of UX patterns" is in scope for this site. If it isn't, I'd appreciate a suggestion of a better place to ask this question.)

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Here's an article answering your question: Github did it first.

And a Github post from 2012 announcing the feature

article showing github being first to implement emoji shortcodes

github post from 2012 announcing colon support for emojis

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I think it was just a logical evolution of the colon being used to make smiley faces, being the most constant part of the different faces. So from :) and :( and :-* we went to :hammer:.

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