We were at a concert when Maggie saw the woman her husband had cheated on her with. She’d planned her response in advance: a simple introduction, then she’d just stand there and watch the other woman react to her last name with (ideally) horrified guilt. But in the moment, Maggie couldn’t speak. Her face flushed. Her hands shook. We left immediately.
On the walk home she finally spoke, the words coming so fast she almost choked. I rubbed her back. This is when face-to-face communication is crucial—nothing I could have said would have helped, but gestures (hugs, back rubs, concerned face) made it clear I’d heard her and understood. According to the psychiatric journal Activitas Nervosa Superior, “Emotion arises from sensory stimulation and is typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body.” We express our emotions most clearly through physical reactions—Maggie’s flushed cheeks and shaking hands—and receive comfort most effectively this way too. In highly emotional situations, gestures and expressions can usually communicate better than words.
But gestures weren’t available the next day, so I did what any busy, young, too-broke-to-send-flowers New Yorker checking on a friend from work would do: I sent a few emojis. But what was the right combination of tiny pictures to say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this and I know it sucks hard now and I want you to know it won’t suck forever because you’re great”?
Turns out, for Maggie at least, the right emoji sequence to symbolize sympathizing with heartbreak is a series of smiley poops. Two days later we had dinner in person. “I’m feeling better,” she said. “I had a session with my therapist… And your text the other day made me laugh—that helped.”
Tiny cartoon poops helped.
It sounds stupid. Their cuteness makes any serious conversation about emojis difficult, like talking to a baby in a grown-up voice. It feels embarrassing to posit these little cartoons as a vehicle of emotion or even a global language, yet they really are an almost universally understood form of communication. Most studies by social scientists, linguists, and psychologists skew pro-emoji (“A smiling emoticon activates the same brain areas as the image of a person smiling and can therefore be considered as a representation of that emotion” reads one study), but that doesn’t stop them from seeming a little foolish: eensy cartoon images, designed to be typed alongside or in lieu of text, uncool in their enthusiasm and earnestness.
Though the most tweeted emoji is a heart, most other top emojis, lending weight to the emoticon/emotion connection, are faces:
…and the list goes on. Smiley poop is #90 out of 845, not bad as far as poop goes, but definitely not top 10. Even so, it’s been used more than eight million times since July of last year, on Twitter alone, according to the mesmerizing, potentially seizure-inducing real-time emojitracker.com.
Why can’t we stop using emojis? Are they ridiculous, turning us into the equivalent of button-pressing Neanderthals? Or are they brilliant, providing a global medium to express our emotions and creativity? “Emojis mean everything and they mean nothing at the same time,” designer Liza Nelson wrote on her emoji art tumblr, Emoji IRL. LOL. “They’re really quite stupid. And they’re the best thing that ever happened to our generation.”
Emojis are weird. And cute. And teensy. My mom uses them but calls them “those phone pictures.” President Obama referred to them in a speech as “little emoji or whatever those things are.” Like almost everyone I know, I use emojis. But I’m conflicted about them—both enamored of their creative and emotive capacity and embarrassed to attach myself to something so ridiculous. Not everyone feels this way, but I’m not alone in my ambivalence.
From a certain perspective emojis are our bread and circuses, cringingly frivolous. Friends are sometimes compelled to apologize after a long burst of emojis: “Sorry, got carried away.” My boyfriend texts me the Man Walking Away emoji when my own tiny cartoon messages become too long-winded. But my well-honed emoji vocabulary (even more so after writing this) is handy when I want to communicate with my sister, a new mom who rarely has both hands free. There are days when we text only in pictures:
…and so on, lending some credence to the Time magazine’s warning that emojis might lead us to “stop using words altogether.” Et tu, smiling poop?
This “emojis are the end of language” complaint, usually seen in the comments below articles rather than in the articles themselves, is a variation on the more common theme “emojis are dumb and make us dumber,” painting a picture of the entire human race as a horde of blithering idiots unable to communicate without typing pictures. It’s a bit bleak, and doesn’t really put a lot of faith in us as individual people with our own brains and agency, but the flip side is that in this potential future the entire human race is communicating with each other. Could it really be that the great promise of the World Wide Web has been achieved by the likes of unamused face, blowing kiss face, and smiley poop? It’s a disconcertingly simple solution. Emojis are small in size but huge in reach—perhaps nothing so tiny has been so universally known since Walt Disney introduced the world to Mickey Mouse. This strange incongruity might be part of why we can’t seem to stop talking about emojis.
The current media buzz around emojis has come later than usual for tech trends. Barthes wrote, “Mass culture is a machine for showing desire: here is what must interest you, it says.” But emojis infiltrated our lives from the outside: There was never an emoji ad campaign, and not only do iPhones come without a built-in emoji keyboard (while Android users couldn’t even access emojis until the end of last year), it’s not at all obvious how to activate said keyboard; I learned from my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend at his sister’s birthday two years ago, which made me like her instantly despite our dubious connection. Emojis are one of very few products not pushed on us, so the conversation around emoji tends to be less “you should like this” and more “why do we like this?” Because while emojis can be embarrassing, we continue to send them and receive them and laugh over them and read think pieces (yeah, like this one) that attempt to explain our weird addiction to them.
To clarify: “Emoji” is the word for all of the tiny images on the emoji keyboard, first developed in mid-’90s Japan; “emoticon” refers specifically to images of faces, both emoji faces—smile with heart eyes, woman raising hand, etc.—and non-emoji faces. Though there are others who claim to have invented the concept of emoticons used in concert with text, consensus seems to be that Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman was first to type the colon-dash-parenthesis combination—:-)—which, for over a decade after he suggested it in 1982, was the emoticon. The face that launched a thousand chain emails.
Fahlman’s creation took on a life of its own, along with a suddenly spastic use of exclamation marks, as people figured out how to communicate via the oft-problematic medium of email. Angry or inappropriate emails sent before the sender had time to think, passive-aggressive emails, and emotionally ambiguous emails were—still are—common inbox issues. (I’ve spent hours angsting over the meaning of a “Thanks.” What is it about the period that makes it sound so insincere?) But Fahlman wasn’t exactly pleased with the popularity of his invention. In the early ’90s he told the Boston Globe: “I had no idea that I was starting something that would soon pollute all the world’s communication channels.”
Even in their nascent years emoticons were both widely used and embarrassing. People blamed Comic Sans-loving coworkers or giggly Midwestern sisters-in-law for spreading the cutesy trend, but today it seems nearly everyone is using emojis.
Maybe it’s social mirroring, a concept made much of recently after Facebook increased the amount of negative words in certain people’s newsfeeds and found that seeing sad posts from friends made people post sadder things themselves. Emojis probably have a similar effect: Receiving emojis results in using more emojis.
But the mirroring argument is far too circular to be solved. Certainly all my friends aren’t emoji pushers, and maybe a few think I spur on their emoji habits—who knows who started it all? Whoever the first carrier was, we’ve all caught emojis now.
Fahlman complained that “[emojis] ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions,” basically allowing us to be lazy in our communication. This is one of the many arguments leveled against emojis. And it’s true that emoji messages—whether via text, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc.—can be refreshingly brief, which makes them seem easy. Why say “I’m late but on my way” when you can text a tiny running man? Or answer “What’d you do last night?” in paragraph form when dancing lady + cocktail glass + boy’s face + heart tell the whole story? Parents and even grandparents have started using emojis when they need to text because they don’t have to type as much, and they’re not yet comfortable typing on a screen. Excited about the World Cup, my friend’s Dutch grandma sent him a kissy face + seven soccer balls—a release of unbridled enthusiasm common in emojis but typically frowned on in person, the equivalent of jumping up and down screaming soccer! soccer! soccer! while blowing kisses. My mom’s favorite way to say “I’m thinking about you and it makes me happy and I hope you’re happy too” is dolphin + dancing lady + seashell + heart. Even for a message as simple as “yes,” sending the thumbs-up emoji is both less curt and less work.
Less work to type, that is. Interpreting received emojis can be difficult, which is interesting given that one explanation offered for their popularity is the unmatchable ability of pictures to clarify emotions. While studies have largely proved this true when it comes to visual representations of facial expressions (“Weeping and its facial gestures, the turned-down mouth, the drawn brows, the cry, are common to all humans,” writes Esther Cohen in The American Historical Review), it’s a moot point for the hundreds of expressionless emojis. What emotions do the dancing girls dressed as cats convey? Or the boy with triangles all around his head? The two red footprints? The bento box? The dancing ghost? Possible misunderstandings abound. You certainly wouldn’t want to send the purple eggplant and wind up in a sexting pickle when all you wanted to convey was your vegetarianism.
Perhaps it’s the ambiguities of emojis more than anything else that hold our fascination. It’s the puzzle of it all—double meanings, inside jokes—that grabs us, from the very first heart emoji in the mid-’90s (“what does it mean when a girl sends me a heart?” is still among the most-asked emoji-related questions on Google) to the brand-new emojis released this summer. What could you mean by a levitating man in a business suit? What couldn’t you mean?
All these brand-new emojis—approximately 250, including wind-blowing face, derelict house, floppy disk and “sleuth or spy”—were approved and released by the Unicode Consortium. Unicode does exactly what the name suggests: It writes computer code that enables languages to be read and written on any given device. Its coding is present in nearly every word we type or read on computers. This includes emojis, which it took on in 2010, a decision that marked the growing role of the tiny cartoons in global communication.
You might recognize Unicode’s sinister-sounding name from the movement to diversify emojis. For a widely accessible language, emojis are disappointingly homogenous: Besides the classic faces in Simpsons-yellow, all but two of the human faces are Caucasian. When presented with a petition in 2013 to add more diversity to the emoji keyboard, Apple introduced Unicode to the emoji-texting public by declaring: “Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms.”
Unicode took the heat for the lack of emoji diversity, but truth is, the Consortium really only codes for the image outline, while details—color, certain design elements—vary by device. If you send a yellow heart from an iPhone, for example, it shows up as a weirdly hairy pink heart on an Android (beware, cross-device couples!). Apple technically has the ability make the race change independently, and hopefully it will—Unicode’s approval process sounds insane. According to its website, “the sunglasses character was first proposed years before Unicode 7.0 was released.” (For anyone interested in what didn’t make the cut, there’s a tumblr cataloguing emojis that have been rejected by the Consortium, which include a top hat full of porn and a bearded planet earth.)
It’s frustrating that characters of color haven’t always been a part of emojis, and the push for racially diverse characters points to emojis’ growing significance. Even as I was writing this, a friend texted to say she’d just gotten engaged to her girlfriend. I texted back with words first: “Congratulations! That’s amazing!” then went for the emoji keyboard: diamond ring, check, party popper, check, non-white bride… oh. Nope. We use emojis so often that complete representation has become essential.
That friend of mine has been with her partner about a year and, like most couples I know who got together anytime after 2011, their initial flirtation was emoji-heavy: hearts, winking faces, dancing lady, clinking beers, and a few suggestive late-night honeypots. These conversations are especially interesting to me because I missed the window of pre-relationship emoji flirtation. My boyfriend and I started dating in the spring of 2011, the year emojis became available on iPhones, and I was a recovering Luddite, having only just gotten my first smartphone the day of our first date. I was excited to show him my brick-like last-season Android with its thick rubber case (I’d been warned that smartphones, like babies or fabergé eggs, were extremely fragile). “Look,” I said proudly as I set my phone down next to his shiny, sleek iPhone. “I can check my email anywhere.”
Those phones got to know each other well. The time between texts allows for more thoughtful flirtation than calling, so by the end of the summer I’d accrued hours of staring out windows—office windows, bus windows, apartment windows—pondering replies.
I still take a long time to text him back, and when I do, my texts usually contain emojis, or are only emojis, depending on how I feel. The other day, feeling glum about work, I asked him to pick me up a donut. He said sure and asked if everything was okay. I meditated over my emoji keyboard, figuring out what I actually felt in order to communicate using a few characters. I was already feeling better, chuckling to myself, when I sent him: computer + arrow + sad pink-shirt lady + arrow + donut + arrow + roof-raising pink-shirt lady.
It felt good to puzzle out exactly why I was gloomy: nothing dire, just overwork and the tenuous fate of one project. But what really changed my mood was just the act of being silly: The ability to be silly with someone is a measure of comfort. Silliness opens us up for critique, making us more vulnerable, as fragile as I imagined my first smartphone to be.
It seems the process of silly-revealing happens faster for people who’ve had emojis from the very beginning of their relationships, taking early risks by communicating in dancing cat ladies, cartoon bonnets, swirling hearts, and teensy bento boxes. One friend of mine loves this aspect of her new relationship, giggling over her love interest’s clue-like date suggestions: boy + girl + skier + cow? turned out to be an invitation for a weekend in Vermont). Emojis have allowed her to get an early sense that their individual goofy natures match up. But another friend feels many of the girls he’s met through online dating use emojis as a crutch, leaning on winky faces and blowing kiss faces when they can’t think of anything else to say. “But,” he conceded, “winky-face girls seem to not be very inspired in English, either.” In other words, emojis aren’t magic; they won’t change anybody’s nature.
Regardless of whether it’s appreciated, people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds report using emojis in conversation with their partners, even those who don’t use it with anyone else. Because these are the people we can be silly with. These are the people we love.
Some people use emojis sparingly, some with abandon; some are practical while others are creative; even emoji meanings are highly personal—smiley poop comforts my friend, grosses out my mom, makes my sister think of changing diapers. Emojis today are in a similar fluid state as the English language in the 16th century: Anything goes and everything is up for debate. Back then you could spell anything any which way—Smith, Smythe, Smyth. Even Shakespeare varied the spelling of his own name. Punctuation was also a mess; rules for standard use didn’t get locked down until the invention of the printing press.
Just as we eventually agreed on the rules of English, so might we eventually agree on a single, global understanding of emojis. In an interview for The Verge, original emoji designer Shigetaka Kurita admits this is a dream of his: “It would be great if we could compare, and have that lead to people starting to use things in the same way.” Though nearly everyone in the world has access to emojis we all have a slightly different understanding of the characters and phrases. It’s a fantastic, utopic dream, and not a new one: Liebniz algebra, Esperanto, and Blissymbolics are just a few of many failed global language experiments over the centuries. Emojis are an accidental member of this fraternity, and there’s no telling now whether it’s here to stay or has reached its peak.
One potential test of emoji’s staying power is Emojli, a forthcoming instant-messaging app on which users communicate solely with emojis. Though the app is still under construction, I imagine it as a wordless cross between texting and Twitter. “This is not our day job,” said founders Matt Gray and Tom Scott over email, “it isn’t a source of income, we’re doing it because we thought it was a funny idea”—particularly the aspect of emoji usernames. Both admitted to using old-school smileys (:D and :P) over emojis out of habit—Scott Fahlman would approve.
Emojli’s lack of words precludes spam, chain-letter style forwards, trolling, and hashtags. You won’t be able to combine words and emojis in a message, which would make certain things more challenging. Easy messages to communicate in words, such as “We’re to the front right of the concert stage behind the really tall guy in the Rangers jersey,” are made ambiguous in emojis, just as messages easy to convey in emojis—the emotions behind hearts and smiley poop—are hard to put into words. Perhaps the communication on Emojli will be more emotion-heavy, or more artistic. Only time will tell. Still, it’s a fresh start, and might help normalize a common language for the huge and weird frontierland of the Internet.
If text messages are the emojis’ natural home, the Internet is where it goes to party. In this otherworld, emoji memes, music videos, GIFs, and digital artworks abound. The latest trend in online emoji wackiness is merging emojis with real life. Over the last couple months, artist Able Parris integrated emojis into real photographs, stock video providers Dissolve made a documentary treating emojis like a new species come to live among us, and a company called Emoji Stickers has emerged as an online seller of—what else?—emoji stickers to put onto anything and everything, freeing emojis from their digital cage. The precursor to all this is the aforementioned Emoji IRL.LOL: a 2013 tumblr project in which artist Liza Nelson photographs real people and objects posed and painted as emojis.
Recent emoji madness isn’t limited to real-life emojis projects. We’ve also seen the introduction of iDiversicon—the emoji characters app that allows users to copy and paste Hispanic, Indian, and African-American characters, to name a few, into a text message—plus a slew of less vital emoji apps, including one with all the Seinfeld characters and one that turns your selfies into emojis.
We chafe so hard against the limits of emojis. One way to push is to demand more variety: Game of Thrones emojis are on their way, and people have petitioned hard for hot dogs, Canadian flags, and middle fingers (the last of which is included in the latest Unicode batch of emojis). But endless variety would remove one of the pleasures of emojis: shared understanding. The limited number of emojis means everyone gets the joke when you say, “Hey, that guy looks just like the red-shirted walking man!” It sounds like a small thing, but really, it’s rare to have a joke that almost everyone in any given DMV will get.
In turn, this common understanding of the few available characters—pink-shirted girl, red-shirted boy, bald baby with one curl, dancing cat ladies—is what makes the real-life emoji art of Able Parris and Dissolve resonate. It’s another, arguably more creative way to push against the limits of emojis: Take what we have and put it where it doesn’t belong. An emoji sun rising over a real town. An emoji face over the red-shirted torso of a real man. Emoji cars stalled in traffic on a real freeway.
Emojis are a pleasurable puzzle: What’s the right combination of emojis to say, “I’m proud of what you’re doing far away but also I miss you” or “That thing you did made me mad but I’ve sort of halfway forgiven you and we’ll be close again in like a month” or “This office party is incredibly uncomfortable for many, many reasons and I need you to please come and save me”? A series of smiley poops said to my friend Maggie what I’d need paragraphs to say in words.
Emojis are also entertaining: One friend and I play “guess that song” with emoji lyrics, à la filmmaker Jesse Hill’s all-emojis version of “Drunk in Love.” They can even be creatively inspiring: Books, movies, and TV shows have all been translated or recapped in emojis; on emojinalysis.tumblr.com you can have your fortune told based on your most-used emojis; an emoji art show was held at Chelsea’s Eyebeam Gallery at the end of last year, citing emoji’s emerging use as a “visual vernacular,” and the Emojli founders are excited to see “what our users might come up with when limited to just emoji.”
And of course emojis are inherently silly, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Silliness is not necessarily an indication of shallowness. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: A capacity for real silliness is usually born out of pain. We’re attracted to silliness because we need it. We need it because life isn’t easy.
Your mom is sick.
Your grandfather died.
You got laid off.
Your company folded.
Your rent went up.
Your husband left.
He didn’t call.
She didn’t call.
They never call.
All these things happen every day, to billions of people all over the world. And if a stupid cartoon of smiling poop makes you feel better, well, that’s: