Maybe you love them, maybe you hate them, maybe you [See-No-Evil Monkey] them, but there’s no denying that emoji are in the digital air. There’s just something about those funky little characters that can simultaneously warm our [Big Red Hearts] while also making us scream “WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” I like to think of them as the bright red maraschino cherries that sit atop our textual sundaes — artificially sweet, unnaturally bright little bursts of guilty pleasure.
It seems that not a week goes by without the release of some new emoji-powered distraction: Imoji, an app that can turn your selfie into a textable emoji; EMOJI IRL.LOL, a Tumblr account which brings emoji to life; an emoji translation of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” video; and, for the more literary-minded, Moby Dick has been translated into Emoji Dick. There’s even an emoji-only social network that launched last week, called Emojli, in which users must pick an emoji name. Yes, it’s absurd, but you better believe I claimed mine: [Finger Pointing Right] + [Happy Person Raising One Hand] + [Happy Person Raising One Hand] + [Finger Pointing Left], which one of my social-media expert friends told me was a terrible choice. I’d like to tell her she’s nuts, but she’s kind of an #emogenius.
Instagram served as my gateway drug and my shooting gallery. When I first saw my friends’ photos—beautiful sunsets, covetable outfits, syrupy brunches, adorable pets—I’d simply double tap and move on. But when I found a photo that really struck a chord, I’d find myself struggling to craft the perfect comment. And that’s when—[Electric Lightbulb]—it hit me. I could use emoji to virtually transmit the feelings that I had yet to forge into actual words. Before I knew it, that style of #emojinal communication had crept into all of my textual communications, and everyone else’s. At this point, the speed and convenience of this form of visual communication is overtaking traditional text.
Like karaoke and Pokémon, emoji come from Japan. The word emoji stems from the Japanese words for picture (絵, e) and letter (文 字, moji). In the late nineties, Shigetaka Kurita—the Gutenberg to the emoji printing press— began developing them as an enhanced alternative to kaomoji, or emoticons. Remember those? ; – ) Then the telecom company Docomo launched the first mobile pictogram, the beloved heart, on its Pocket Bell pagers, and the Japanese teens went wild. By the late aughts, they had become a crucial part of Japanese smartphone culture. But it wasn’t until Apple added a native emoji keyboard to iPhones in 2011 that emoji became ubiquitous in the United States. Now even our moms use them.
And since mom usage generally foreshadows mainstream recognition, the word emoji was added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013, along with selfie and my mom’s least favorite word, twerk. Earlier this summer, version 7.0 of the Unicode Standard, a worldwide character coding system, added approximately 250 new emoji, including a middle finger (for Lyft drivers to text Uber drivers and vice versa); a levitating businessman (who looks like Steve Buscemi in Reservoir Dogs); a dove of peace (because Pope Francis clearly grew tired of texting the peace sign, which is technically called “Victory Hand”); and, my personal favorite addition, the Vulcan salute from Star Trek. I’m so looking forward to the day when I no longer have to hashtag #LiveLongandProsper and can simply send a symbol in its place.
Emoji communication has become so popular, in fact, that linguists have started describing its usage rules and conventions. (Could there eventually be an emoji chapter in Strunk & White? I [Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes] when I imagine E.B. White telling us which pig emoji—[Pig Face] or [Pig Nose] or [Pig]—is the proper Wilbur.) Linguist and emoji expert Tyler Schnoebelen analyzed approximately 500,000 sequences of tweets and assembled a set of rules of [Thumbs Up Sign] based on his observations. Among many usage patterns, he found that we tend to add our emoji at the end of our thoughts. “It’s not a story of simplicity, it’s a story of enrichment,” Schnoebelen told Time.
But it’s not just a story of enrichment. It’s also a story of abridgment. Using emoji saves us time, characters, and spares us the stress of specificity. Case in point: my friend just texted me, “Dinner plans?” I don’t have any, but I don’t particularly feel like making any. I also don’t feel like I have the time to search for the right words to express the precise mix of ennui, misanthropy, and homebodiedness I am feeling. Responding, “No, but I don’t feel like hanging,” seems too blunt and would probably raise questions. So I’m picking three goodies from my #RUE (Recently Used Emoji): [Slice of Pizza] + [Man and Woman Holding Hands] + [Fork And Knife], which vaguely convey plans for a pizza date with my boyfriend. After all, the likelihood of that sort of glamorous end to my evening is always high. I’ll let you know what she texts back.
But getting back on track [High-Speed Train], people who have been using emoji longest are quick to describe the transformational effect they are having on our written communications. Masashi Kawamura, founder and creative director of the Tokyo- and New York–based digital creative agency PARTY, told me that emoji “lighten communication and enrich the nuance of what you write.” And Takehiro Ariga, an editor of Japanese trend magazine Nikkei Trendy, told NPR’s All Things Considered that “Japanese [people] hate direct communication. So saying my emotion by using [an] emoji or [a] picture is [a] better way to express myself in [a] more gentle, softer way.”
All or which, to me, begs the question: What effect is our love affair with emojinal communication having on our actual emotions? A researcher at the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, South Australia, Dr. Owen Churches, recently published a study demonstrating that our brains respond to emoticons as though they are human countenances. “I would expect the response of face sensitive parts of the cortex to emoji,” Churches told Mashable, “would be very similar to that of real faces.” In a [Chesnut] shell, If you send a [Smiling Face with Smiling Eyes] to someone, that person feels like you’re smiling at them even though you may not be. But does this mean our communication of emotions has become more efficient, or have we lost something meaningful?
#UPDATE: My friend just texted me back, with “Fun! [Big Red Heart] + [Slice of Pizza] + [Face With Stuck-Out Tongue]. Had she asked a follow-up question, I would have of course clarified, likely resorting to the use of actual words. But she didn’t. So now I can’t help but wonder why our conversation came to such an abrupt end. She’s come over for [Slice Of Pizza] in the past. Does she not want to have [Slice Of Pizza]? Had my rapid-fire emoji create the impression that I was dismissing her inquiry? Should I invite her over to have [Slice Of Pizza] with us? Wait, does my boyfriend even want [Slice Of Pizza]? Do I? Yes, I always want [Slice Of Pizza].
This exchange, in other words, has become a “WHAT DO YOU MEAN?” emoji moment. But the other day, I had a very different emojinal exchange, when a friend was textually lamenting a relationship gone wrong. I responded by texting: “Don’t worry, you’re so much better off now [Big Red Heart] + [Dancer] + [Smiling Face with Sunglasses]! I feel like she picked up what I was putting down: your awesome life party is just getting started. In fact, I know she was feeling me, because she responded with “[Big Red Heart] + [Smiling Face With Smiling Eyes]” Needless to say, we would have had a drastically different experience five years ago. I would have canceled my plans, and we would have stayed up all night in our snuggies, drinking [Wine Glass], eating [Slice of Pizza], and debating the virtues of Ben and Jerry’s (my favorite) vs. Häagen-Dazs. Now, a single emoji-laden sentence, which took me less than a minute to compose, does all of that heavy emotional lifting [Flexed Biceps].
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter,” goes the often repeated quote, “so I wrote a long one instead.” This appeared in my Instagram feed recently, unattributed and captioned simply, “[Pencil] + [Scroll]” So I Googled it, and its attribution has been contested. Some say Mark Twain said it. Others claim it was Benjamin Franklin, Blaise Pascal, Henry David Thoreau, Cicero, or Woodrow Wilson. In any event, I think it’s safe to say that the words embody the collective wisdom of a long span of history. As we circle back to a post-postmodern form of hieroglyphics, all I could think about was its likely digital expression: “I didn’t have time to write anything, so I sent some emoji instead.”
The post Connected: Are Emoji Making us Emojinally Unavailable? appeared first on Vogue.