Emoji: That Extra Layer of Communication? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
How many emojis do you use on a daily basis? If you’re like us, you generally rely on a small number that you feel best convey your particular attitude, style, or tone. They can be used for punctuation, or for anything that the written word doesn’t quite convey.
By now the new iPhone emoji, which come with iOS 10, are old news. Many publications have reported on the changes to emoji that came with the new iPhone operating system, from more gender equality among the professions to more options for different skin tones, and the controversial replacement of a handgun with a squirt gun (reportedly due to lobbying by the group New Yorkers Against Gun Violence). And the response has not been 100% positive.
Emoji, of course, were originally derived from emoticons. And emoticons were originally designed specifically not to be ambiguous. Rather, they were meant to clarify the tone of written language. If you know something about the history of the Internet, you may know that the computer scientist Scott Fahlman was the first documented person to use typographic symbols to express specific emotions. His original proposal was posted on the computer science general board at Carnegie Mellon back in 1982:
From: Scott E Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers: : – )
Read it sideways.
Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use : – (
Within a few months, those smile and frown emoticons had spread to the ARPANET and Usenet. Variations quickly followed. It was useful for people who were communicating primarily through text, rather than speech, to have a way to convey tone, in addition to simple information.
The first real emoji were created by Shigetaka Kurita, a developer on the team that created the mobile internet platform NTT Docomo. Kurita and his team’s 176 pixelated symbols include faces that not only expressed happiness and anger or frustration, but also worry, surprise, goofiness (winking with a tongue out), a music note, an umbrella, a penguin, phases of the moon, astrological symbols, and more.
By bringing in symbols that do more than convey the tone of a written statement, Kurita created a new role for images to play in written communication. As linguist and cognitive scientist Neil Cohn says, Kurita’s emoji filled “a very effective role for communication that’s natural,” but separate, from the role of language itself. “Because of that, they aren’t really going to be a (passing) fad.”
This may help to explain why the general reaction to iOS’s new predictive emoji is less than enthusiastic. The vast majority of people who text don’t actually use emoji to replace specific nouns and verbs, as the new iOS would have us do. Said another way, we’re not replacing words so much as adding an extra layer to our communications.
Zoe Mendelson of Slate is of the opinion that the new, bigger, shinier, simpler, predictive emojis of iOS 10 have ruined emojis altogether. The way the images have been simplified, she points out, makes them less flexible. Take the grin-grimace emoji, for example, which used to convey a “slightly-guilty-slightly-pleased-slightly-embarrassed-but-still-excited expression.” In the new operating system, it has become a much simpler smile. For Mendelson, the ambiguity of the original “made it a favorite, I suspect, because we often experience this dynamic maelstrom of feelings in real life.”
She also argues that the new predictive functionality ruins all the original fun of finding a funny image that added new meaning to one’s written communication, rather than just illustrating it. “More cultural fetish than a tool,” she writes, the emojis of iOS 9 were great because they were so random and decontextualized. “They were extremely unlikely everyday vocal candidates. Floppy disk. Fishcake. Space invader. Old-school mailboxes. Barely recognizable houseplant cactus. It was deliciously random.” For an English-speaker, because “emoji effectively did not have fixed meanings,” they invited testers to play with ambiguity, and with the element of interpretative surprise.
Like them or hate them, it seems that the new emoji are here to stay. But it seems to us that most people don’t have quite the passionate response that Mendelson and others have. According to a Twitter poll we posted this month, the response of the vast majority of folks to the new predictive emojis is… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.