Arguments in the Recent History of Emoji -- In Honor of World Emoji Day 2018

The first emoji was created in 1999 on Japanese mobile phones. As of the time I (just) Googled, there were 2,666 existing emojis. For the sake of the flow of this article, please expect no funny pics of emoji in between sentences 😂.

Emoji: A step forward or back for our language?

During an event at which Apple announced new, upgraded emoji features (added icons, color effects, etc.), one of the company’s developers claimed that using emoji is in conflict with the development of understanding the English language: “The children tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language.”

Supporting this idea was a female blogger’s 24-hour experiment, in which she texted her friends and family using only emojis. After the experiment, she came to realize several challenges of [using] pure pictorial communication {with emojis}. First, emojis are not fixed in meaning and are highly open to interpretation across cultures or background knowledge. For instance, the use of an emoji of two hands palm-to-palm is not consistent across cultures. According to researcher Neil Cohn, “🙏” tend to be used by Asians to express appreciation (“thank you,” “please”), while Western cultures generally use it as a substitute for “praying.” In this case, if one emoji could stimulate various responses or sensations, it is beyond prediction how a complete sentence built by only emojis would trigger massive misinterpretation.

Second, emojis lack syntax to tie content together. For example, it is hard to express the idea of prepositions with the current choices on the emoji keyboard. This is important to consider because the lack of prepositions will limit one to discuss relationships between physical objects as well as more abstract relationships.

On the bright side, though, the use of emojis also fosters creativity by forcing the user to parse semantics without language. Susan Herring, a linguistics professor explained that emojis represented a sort of pictorial pidgin language — “the primitive tongue that emerges out of necessity between two populations with no common language.” Emojis could benefit communication in a similar way. With a red heart-shaped symbol, or a smiley/shy/cool face, the users’ emotions are accessible to the other interlocutor, even though their own working languages are not mutually intelligible. Also, in terms of sentence structure, what happens in Pidgin is that a sentence is usually comprised of nouns and verbs “strung together;” emojis, when used to express an intensified idea, also contain simple pictorial representations “strung together.” For example, in Pidgin language, “extremely quick” would be “quick quick;” in emoji, “a lot of love” would be represented by multiple hearts, and “a lot of work” might come out as multiple symbols of papers and pencils. In addition, emoji is also a favorable outlet to express visual metaphors that are sometimes too obtrusive to put in words, like the eggplant emoji that appears frequently in raunchy conversations.

Diversifying emoji.

In response to criticism, a new series of emojis was released by iOS to expand the representation of skin tones starting from iOS 8 in 2014, which received mixed comments. Paige Tutt, a black English female writer, acknowledged Apple’s good intent but thought it was a turn for the worse: she felt compelled to use the “appropriate” brown-skinned nail-painting emoji that was just one of the many emoji characters that were just white emoji wearing masks. She suggested that Apple remove the racialized emoji altogether.

Some people argue that it’s bad that we have so many food emoji characters and so few about women. An assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, who labels the phenomenon “ridiculous” that there are more emojis for food than for women, asks: “How was there space for both a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp, and yet women were restricted to a smattering of tired, beauty-centric roles?” This sharp comment facilitates readers to recognize some unsolved issues among emojis. It is downplaying the status of gender-unrelated emojis represented by “a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp.”

This specific critique seems to ignore that food is a cultural marker, and a variety of emoji food is actually its own form of diversity. Can’t we have food and more women at the same time?

But in this quote, the broader principle that emoji needs to be more diverse is well taken. For example, Google initiated a movement that added thirteen emojis to represent women in professional roles in business and healthcare.

Adding emojis isn’t so easy.

The popularity of emoji has caused pressure from vendors and international markets to add additional designs into the Unicode standard to meet the demands of different cultures.

As a matter of fact, to have an emoji character be added to the keyboard, it has to go through the process of being proposed to, voted on and approved by the Unicode Consortium, which is a lengthy process coordinated by the Consortium. Why do we need such consortium to coordinate the process? Think about the following scenario:

Now on the iOS emoji keyboard, there are woman & woman & love, male & male & love, family with two sons, family with two girls, and family with a boy and a girl, etc. What about families with three sons? Having a (customized) emoji might give their user experience a more directly accessible sense of identification, but it takes forever to search and find certain emojis. How can we balance efficiency and degree of customization on the keyboard?

Where is emoji going next?

How are companies working together on this? How are software solving that problem? How is the role of emoji changing? Is it made more standardized or divided? What are your questions about emoji and how might you approach answering them?

Photo by  Francois Gha  on  Unsplash