Play Nice!

what Ludwig Wittgenstein may have to say about emojis and icons

When I lived in Chicago, I loved running on the path by the lake shore. It’s one of those cliché things you do when you live in a big city, but I loved it anyways. Like all good picturesque movie scenes that involve parks, there are tables where on a good day you’ll find people playing chess. If you’ve ever played, you know that it’s one of those games that you actually have to practice in order to understand. Unlike other simpler games like tic-tac-toe, there’s a large amount of strategy surrounding each piece and its corresponding movements. In the world of the chessboard, a bishop can only travel diagonally, and a rook can only move laterally or back and forth. The curious part of this arrangement happens when you observe each piece. Their motion isn’t actually dictated by a cosmic set of transcendent rules that endow each piece with an inalienable attraction to predetermined paths on the board. The flow of the game is more or less a set of pre-agreed upon rules, like a treaty between two parties.

This is the same metaphor that Ludwig Wittgenstein uses in The Philosophical Investigations to describe our use of language. The words that we use are elemental pieces that fit into what Wittgenstein terms “the language game.” The pieces of a chess game do not possess inherent qualifiers that hint at their function, but rather mutually agreed upon roles. In the same way, the words that we use signify meaning based on rules formed by our shared experiences instead of word’s self evident traits. As a consequence, the rules of Wittgenstein’s language game and his understanding communication at large are fostered through relationship.

Wittgenstein also uses the example of a construction site to further explain his concept. Imagine a worker and his assistant building a wall. At first the worker may request more materials by saying, “could you please go get more bricks?” Over time, for the sake of speed and convenience, the worker may slip into shortening his request to a single word. Brick! Since the two construction workers have prior experience building the wall together, the assistant will understand that “brick” refers not simply to identifying the material, but also a request to retrieve more.

One specific area of interest in contemporary communication is emojis. In 2015, Instagram reported that almost half of the comments left on photos were only made with emojis.These simple pictograms, originally created to denote the emotional tone of a conversation, can be analyzed with the same philosophical framework that Wittgenstein applied to words. Much like his example of a builder using single words to communicate more complex tasks, there can often be an enigmatic air to how people use emojis. When a person uses an emoji, especially in the context of a friendship, the icon can signify a range of meanings based off of the relationship’s history and inside jokes.

On a broader scale, pictograms and icons function on a ubiquitous level across social media platforms. Take the example of clicking the “thumbs up” button to like a post on Facebook. Certainly in many instances, there’s a range of meaning behind such a simple gesture. The same action may point to solidarity with a political post, sympathy for a community tragedy, or enthusiasm for an exciting announcement. Recently, Twitter received a large amount of criticism for changing their “favorite” icon from a star to a “like” icon, symbolized by a heart. Much of the consensus surrounding using a star focused on bookmarking significant tweets. Twitter, however, explained their change as a shift from a constricting superlative to a simpler verb that is more open to interpretation. Part of the resistance in my opinion, was that Twitter decided to change the rules of their interface’s language game. The user base had mutually agreed upon what the star stood for, and suddenly the company changed the chess piece in mid-play.

As people move forward with communicating nuanced messages through simple visual means Wittgenstein’s ideas may grow in significance. When designers employ icons as a part of an interface or system, they may need to take a position of openness for how users will define them through everyday use. The language game points to the fluctuating nature of language, visual language included, and games are usually more fun when you play nice with other people.