Happy emoji to you

We can’t leave the year without a look at the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of 2015. A word that reflects the mood and ethos of 2015. A word that embodies the immediacy and density of modern communication. A powerful word that transmits a wide range of meanings within context, context within meaning, and adds emotions and subtlety to a conversation. Here it is, the Word of 2015:

Perhaps you’re sputtering that that’s not a word.

But, who says?

The official definitions tend to go along these lines:

“A single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others (or sometimes alone) to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed.”

Or,

“A single distinct conceptual unit of language, comprising inflected and variant forms.”

Nowhere does it specify that a word can only consist of letters. A word is an element, a conceptual unit, including variant forms. And that could be an image.

Originally developed in the late 1990s by Japanese telecom firm NTT DoCoMo as a way to entice teens onto the platform, they spread like a viral meme, capturing teens’ love of communication, abbreviations and cliqueness. Teens throughout time have developed their own vocabulary to facilitate recognition, to label and to exclude stuffy grownups. Adapted language becomes a way to show that you’re cool or “in”. Emojis satisfied both the communication and the “belonging” needs unlike any other language evolution had done before, and leveraged this by being born in the sphere of messaging and networks.

That makes them a deeply fascinating evolution of language that has far exceeded its initial intention. Emojis have spilled over from the realm of teenhood into the mainstream, without losing the passionate adoption of their initial base. They have become an integral part of the messaging experience, for all ages, while still forming part of teen culture. And the messaging experience is integral to emoji’s rise in popularity. Messaging has become an important part of our communication, and rather than focus on how it limits the amount of verbal interaction going on, we need to take into account how it expands the scope of connection by making it more convenient and immediate. In August of this year, the Pew Research Center published a report that shows that almost a third of online adults (= over 18) use a messaging platform such as WhatsApp, Kwik or iMessage. Amongst young adults (18–29) the percentage is almost half. Surveying amongst my friends (and we’re not exactly, cough, young adults), I’d say 100%.

And the concept is so easy to grasp. We intuitively get that a smiley face means happiness or friendliness, a frown means that you’re pissed off, a martini glass means that you’re in the mood for a celebration. The beauty is in the nuances and implications. This is what makes emojis a language tool rather than just a decoration. That smiley face may seem simple, but its interpretation is entirely dependent on context. For example:

= I’m happy
= I want you to like me
= I don’t care
= (innocent face) I didn’t really mean what I just said
= (covering it up) I’m mad as hell but not letting it show

Try this with the word “great”. It could mean a wide range of things. The context is important, but perhaps even more so is the tone. Try saying the word in a range of different pitches — high, low, fast, slow — and see how the meaning changes. Now imagine all these nuances in the context of a conversation.

And that’s what those that accuse emojis of dragging us back to the pictograph days are missing. That emojis are so much more than icons, that they are so much more than pictographic representations of a state of mind. They depend on context, they add tone and they transmit complex nuances in a surprisingly simple format. They convey emotion in a more condensed, efficient and graphic form than words can. To get an idea of how pervasive they have become, both in our culture and in our psyche, imagine if they were wiped out, disappeared, unavailable. If you message at all, you will feel a stab of dismay. Take emojis away, and our texting conversations become flatter.

While messaging is their obvious home, the intimacy and connection of this new language is spilling over into more mainstream uses. A Pew Research Center study in 2008 found that 25% of students had used emoticons in their school work (and remember the smiley faces that teachers drew on your homework if they liked it?).

Emojis are used in art:

by Vedran Misic, via Behance.net

In literature:

(emoji nativity scene via emojipoems.tumblr.com, season appropriate!)

In fashion:

by Walk of Shame

Even home furnishings:

via wheretoget.it

Brands are joining the party: Domino’s Pizza and JC Penney entered into a hilarious marketing-oriented dialogue after Domino’s started tweeting the pizza emoji back in May.

via Adweek

Brands can even design their own emoji. These are from Burger King.

Countries, too. These are from Finland:

As with all language, the emoji field is constantly being updated and enriched. IoS 9.1 incorporated new and much needed emojis such as the nerd, the unicorn and (my favourite) the popping champagne bottle.

This will lead to more messages being even more sprinkled with amusing images, adding emphasis and content with a single tap.

Which is why calling emojis a new “language” is missing the point. Despite hilarious attempts to limit communication to images, emojis only really shine when used in conjunction with our alphabet language. They are counterpoint, texture and embellishment. They help to organize thoughts, to add information and even to categorize. They are not “another” language. They are a new form of punctuation. Just as our commas, dashes and quotes help to organize sentences, just as our question marks and exclamation points help to add emotion, emojis reduce the need for words. They make our phrases more understandable, or they pack them with even more information, and in so doing, they make our language richer.

Incorporating emojis into our daily use will not displace words. We collectively produce many more (oh, so many more) words than at any other time in our history. Words have not gone away. And it is important that, with the increase in communication, we find tools that help us deal with the overwhelming opportunities and the imperative to connect. We need tools that help to deflect in some way the pressure that our increased power of communication creates. Emojis don’t replace, they extend. And in simplifying communication, they help us to bridge gaps between generations and cultures. Isn’t that what language is for?

(A similar version of this post was published on alt-ctrl-esc.com.)

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Noelle Acheson’s story.