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Why We Need The Rosetta Stone For Gen Z — Emoji And Meme Literacy

The cliché goes: a picture is worth a thousand words.

Which begs the question: what’s the value of an emoji? Sticker? GIF? Meme? Video? Playlist?

It’s easy to chalk Gen Z’s preference for online communication up to the fact that it was assimilated in their formative years. Growing up with Nintendo DS’s, Club Penguin, Wii’s, iPod Touches and Minecraft ushered in robust, digital savviness. But it’s more than comfort.

To understand Gen Z or Young Adults, it’s tantamount to recognize how economic, political, terroristic and pandemic ache is a part of their DNA. Unlike other generations, the last dark decades weren’t just experienced, but fully integrated — defining how millions now feel, sense and communicate.

While Young Adults prioritize IRL (in-real-life, or away-from-keyboard) interaction to build relationships and 85% prefer in-person learning to remote, 3-in-5 find it is easier to express themselves online than offline.

Breaking it down, ‘ease’ = comfort of tool, but also capability of precise communication.

The desire to live away from the keyboard can co-exist with the crave for the “superpowers” or expansive expressiveness that technology provides. Both can prevail.

To understand Gen Z is to understand language — a key differentiator according to Andrew Roth and Tulsi Patel, of Gen Z Designs, a consultancy.

The oblivious think they get it. Smiley = Happiness. But, “a smiley face is not just a smiley face. In fact, we’ve never met anyone who unironically uses 🙂”, says Roth and Patel. Things are not as they seem.

“The use of emojis can also give away one’s age, personality, or voice. For example, the 😂 emoji is actually not a common way to show laughter. Gen Z tends to use 💀 (I’m dead) or 😭 (omg crying) to express that they found something humorous.”

Read this piece on your iPhone or laptop and you’ll get two depictions of the same emojis… requiring even deeper intelligence.

If we define language fluency as one’s proficiency to read, write and speak, then there’s a new need for the Rosetta Stone of the digital age.

Anyone in the know feels emoji distinction is so obvious, but the majority isn’t in the know. The majority is illiterate.

Do you actually know what this emoji means?

Do you actually know where this meme’s character is from?

do you actually know why this sentence was pUrPoSeFulLy lowercased?

If emoji’s weren’t so powerful, then the blood in the syringe wouldn’t have been recently altered to translucent, de-escalating and rebranding needles in a time of necessary COVID-19 vaccinations.

Over the next decade language fluency will blur into media literacy.

When it comes to keeping up in our digital culture and economy, we’re quick to throw hardware at the problem — faster broadband, laptops for school, etc. But participation demands more than access, we need mass understanding

Not to be alarmist, but when 51% of Gen Z say they are more creative than previous generations, TikToks aren’t the only aftermath. Language will be remixed and renovated. And keeping all on the same page is necessary.

A priority focus should be memes.

On social media, Young Adults are more likely to share a meme than a selfie or photo of their food. Why?

  1. The meme contains more emotional information than text
  2. The meme is embedded with cultural data, serving as a secondary message
  3. What’s communicated is safely outsourced to a character (ie. “I’m not saying it, they are”)
  4. There is power in numbers (ie. “I’m not saying it, we are”)

Memes speak rich, collective truths. And in a time-crunched world, visual representations are quicker to summon and consume. They won’t be disappearing.

In speaking to Don Caldwell, Editor-in-Chief of Know Your Meme,

“Meme literacy has become increasingly important over the years, and it even feels like it is accelerating.”

As the world’s library of memes, Know Your Meme democratizes education and therefore culture and language.

“Know Your Meme takes this very seriously, as we provide a resource for people to gain a sufficient understanding of memes in order to participate in this type of communication,” says Caldwell. “I also think future historians will gain a much deeper insight into the culture of different time periods by having resources like Know Your Meme.”

The core societal value of Know Your Meme is that it’s updated daily, providing a real-time, accurate explanation of the zeitgeist. It’s more than just understanding — it’s keeping up. After all, “Gen Z language evolves rapidly,” says Roth and Patel. This evolution will be swift.

“[Gen Z doesn’t] necessarily need to learn how to type cool or ‘be in the know’ about emoji meanings because our generation is already submerged in the culture that generates those meanings. When you learn a new language, you may need to put in work and effort. But for Gen Z this is our native tongue.”

For Gen Z, everything is content and all content communicates.

Sharing a headline is a message. A photo is a vibe. A video is a mood. For a generation which holds such complex, nuanced sentiment, these nonverbal but colorful mediums are required to get across what’s felt.

And to participate in the future — whether you’re a direct or indirect recipient — it’s vital to decipher what it all means.

Matt Klein is a cultural theorist and strategist analyzing the psychosocial implications of our technology to consult on business decisions.




Skeptically examining communication, technology and culture.

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Matt Klein

Matt Klein

Cultural Theorist + CyberPsychologist + Strategist. Trends Lead at Reddit. Newsletter analyzing the overlooked: Zine.KleinKleinKlein.com

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