The importance of Emojis — in the digital era, and beyond

Futurists Club Team
6 min readSep 10, 2020

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A story by Luca Fischer

👋🏽, you have probably used at least one this morning. You have definitely seen one today. And you will be encountered with them in the foreseeable: emoji. The emoji culture has exploded into the global mainstream for half a decade. What is the importance of the colorful vector graphics, and adapting this fast-growing language in the age of digitalization and the season of social distancing?

A short history of Emoji

Emojis found their origin in Japan, invented in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita in commission for Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo. E-mail was already a thing, but the technology of their time offered a maximum of only 250 characters per message. The emoticons simply existed to say more for less character space.

Twenty years later, emojis have kept their small proportions size-wise, but their meaning and value has exponentially increased in the last decade as they made their foray into the Western World. Today, 92% of the online population uses emojis daily. Emoji is the fastest growing language in the history of (wo)men, thanks to their almost universally recognizable nature.

Signs of the time

The two-dimensional pictorial representations of everyday life aren’t just there to spice up a textual conversation. The evolution of the language is filled with engagement, backlash and signs of the Zeitgeist.

In 2016, the original emoji set was added to the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, sanctifying its place in design history and pop culture. Kurita: “The emoji acquisition identified a language as not only functional, but beautifully considered and relevant to the design of life. What is design anyway? Relationships, communication, function, expression — emojis tick every box.”

A year earlier, iOS introduced racially diverse Emojis, with the primary goal to make all users of the visual language feel included and represented. Not too long after that, the collection received backlash for only representing professions in the male-form. Finally, in 2019, LGBTQ advocates praised iOS for adding a gender neutral option, contributing to equal representation of gender and sex.

One month ago, the new batch of Emojis have been presented to us, and should be available on your keyboard soon. They include the infamous Italian hand gesture and the extinct Dodo. Both aren’t exactly to be called signs of the time, but the transgender symbol and transgender flag are, making the language of Emoji a little more inclusive, standing tall next to the already existing rainbow flag to represent the LGBTQi+ community.

Not just a way to spice up a text message

COVID-19, social distancing and a national lockdown haven’t been prosperous for our sanity, but they have for emoji. According to Google, Android emoji usage has increased by more than 60% between January and March. As we switched our physical offices and happy hours for Zoom meetings and phone calls, the way we communicate had to evolve with it. Emojis were an answer to express thoughts and feelings to an audience we could no longer see in person. Even in a time where physical conversations are harder to come by, expressing how we feel is part of our nature.

Studies show that 55% of human communication is expressed through body language, and over one third is conveyed by the speaker’s tone of voice. Traditional language is a medium to convey ideas, but is too nuanced to express our feelings. Lacking a better alternative, we use the emoji language to enhance our messages.

Emojis have the ability to pick up where words are falling short. Sometimes the 💪🏼 or 🥳 is enough to land a message, and often a better alternative than a difficult, wordy synonym. Often, it even transcends language: in 2015, Oxford Dictionaries’ Word Of The Year was not a word at all. It was the “tears of joy”, a.k.a. “crying from laughing”, a.k.a. “😂”. To this date, that emoji has not moved from its number one ranking, according to the Unicode database.

Emoji empowers our feelings

With the emoji language in the mainstream, the question whether there is value in the inclusion of pictorial symbols as part — or instead! — of written language, is an interesting one to ask. A difficult one to answer, though.

Maud Donga, a teacher at a Dutch university for applied sciences, gave it a try. She wrote her master thesis on the value of emoji in (primary) education. As they encounter with the alphabet, Donga advocates for integration of emoji language next to words to create a shift from education based on knowledge, to education entangled with emotion. Her studies show that emojis can help to express feelings, thoughts and behavior, and it should start at an early age, especially in the Stress Society we live in. As she is a teacher herself, she experiences the pressure of achievement up-close. Students hop from midterm to assessment, creating less space for how said student feels, and why.

The adoption curve of Emoji

While Gen-Z is familiar with the true meaning of the eggplant and peach Emoji, some mentality groups don’t. Emojis are heavily subject to interpretation, creating a hurdle in the adoption of emoji language. Studies show that 72% of the younger generation find it easier to express their feelings and emotions with symbols instead of words. While Gen-Z is familiar with the true meaning of the eggplant and peach emoji, there is a generation left behind in the adoption process. Almost one third of people over 40 avoid using emojis in their text messages on social media platforms like Facebook, because they are scared to use them in the wrong way.

The adoption curve of this language is not only an obstacle observed through age. Even though emojis are used worldwide in marketing campaigns, commercials — even communication with your boss, there are still industries where the vectors don’t hold their value, such as the courthouse. In this article, you can read some case studies about the growing use of text messages filled with emojis used as evidence. In justice, emojis are quite disruptive, and many judges aren’t ready for them.

The Future of Emoji

Donga hopes that, in the near future, emoji language will be absorbed into primary education. According to her, there is not one specific Emoji or symbol that society needs right now. It is rather the adoption of the concept of visual language as a whole by society and all its cultures and mentality groups. Like all languages, they evolve, we’ll get ramifications of slang, and that is the beauty and power of it. And if they won’t replace traditional language, they sure will enhance it.

The Unicode 13 batch will have to last us until 2022 because of COVID-19. If I could add one emoji to our smart devices, it would be a symbol of hope and unity, as it’s been one year, nay, decade, of contemporary challenges — and we can’t face them without some hope.

To end this article and engage with you: what is your one Emoji to describe 2020 (so far)? Comment it down below. Mine would be the clown, as this year has been coming across as a joke, and no one truly likes clowns anyway.

This is a story of the Futurists Club

By Science of the Time

Written by: Luca Fischer

Luca Fischer

Luca (22) recently graduated from Trend Research and Concept Creation in Lifestyle, where she wrote her thesis about intimacy among mentally impaired youth, and how technology can improve their quality of life by adding it to this basic human instinct. Her conceptual ideas and speculative future gaze is substantiated with a philosophical and ethical framework: “When looking at multiple futures, it’s not just about confirming a direction, but also about the provoking question — what it will mean for a culture, sector or lifestyle — and how ethically correct that future is going to be.” Currently, she works as a freelance allround creator and lives in Tilburg. A few of her former projects include a function as visual direction for start-up lifestyle brand PureSan, and a function as editor-in-chief of a local lifestyle magazine.

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