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“In Germany they even have phrase-books for the use of lovers, and it will end with lovers sitting together, talking anonymously.”
— Søren Kierkegaard
An emoji is a symbol used to express meaning. Emojis are different from typed words in that while most typing in the 21st century requires the rental of software, hardware, data, and electricity to allow a person access to the textable alphabet, the use of emoji requires the rental — from Apple, Samsung, Facebook, and others — of expression itself. To use Apple’s smiley-face to say “I am happy” is to pay Apple to express happiness for you.
Rented expression is a minor delight because it seems to solve the crisis of depersonalization haunting the digital age. The purpose of all communication is communion between persons, but the isolation of the person, into text on a screen, strips communication of almost all style — that is, it strips words of personal presence. Without the uniqueness of handwriting, the physical fact of the letter; without the flesh and the natural voice; without the gradual revelation of a working mind that comes through long-form communication—it becomes difficult to experience our texts, tweets, comments, and statuses as revelations of an unrepeatable you.
Because the human person longs for communion, the lack of personal style in digital communication is not experienced as a neutral event. It is experienced as an evil — an unjust privation of what ought to be there. We understand this intuitively when we read the following text message:
Unless we have built up a long habit of communication with the messenger, or are otherwise assured of his personal presence, the text will appear not as neutrally devoid of distinguishing characteristics, but as angry, dismissive, impatient, indifferent, or masking some hidden hostility. The lack of personal presence is experienced as movement away from communion — and a movement away from communion is not a neutral event. It is a rejection.
To use Apple’s smiley-face to say “I am happy” is to pay Apple to express happiness for you.
This is the reason why many people text “lol” and “haha” after texts that are not funny, as in:
im here haha
This is same reason why we adorn our messages with images that bear no meaningful relation to their content, as in:
could you let me in 😊
lets talk when u arrive xoxo
These are not expressions of actual felt emotions. People do not feel the need to truly smile when they rent out a smiley-face from Samsung, or weep when they select Apple’s version of a sad face. Texted “hugs and kisses” promise neither past, present, nor future enactments of the symbol. These expressions are bandages used to cover the wound of depersonalized communication — signifiers that say “I am not against you” or, to be literal, “Please read the preceding/following as an invitation to communion despite its lack of personal presence.” The panicked feeling that a text is incomplete without these bandages is simply an intuition that digital communication strips communication of style.
Texted “hugs and kisses” promise neither past, present, nor future enactments of the symbol.
Thus, it is no surprise that the emoji habit is most often picked up by teenagers and relatively insecure adults — they possess a heightened fear of the loss of communion, of loneliness. Their nonsensical use of “communion signifiers” often appears saturated with an air of desperation, as in:
whats up haha
how r u 😛
The emoji, then, is a digital solution to a digital problem. Renting the means of communication from tech companies depersonalizes our words — and so we begin to rent their ready-made expressions in order to re-personalize them. These images allow us to indulge in the illusion that we are “back” in our words and that our friends are “smiling” from their own — and this keeps the whole robotic system from devolving into a constant, nauseating atmosphere of perceived hostility and rejection.
The trouble is, these emojis do not convey our expressions, but rather Apple or Facebook’s expressions. That is, we do not own the expressions in which we traffic — we rent them, and thus, like all rented objects, they retain a primary connection to their owner, on whom we are dependent. Emojis represent the trend toward anonymous communication, in which all communication sounds the same, because all communication simply references and repeats communications designed by the same companies.
Søren Kierkegaard predicted this state of affairs when he surveyed the Press in his own age. “In our own day anonymity has acquired a far more pregnant significance than is perhaps realized,” he argued. “People not only write anonymously, they sign their anonymous works: they even talk anonymously.” The Danish philosopher’s writing is fevered and obscure, but it is filled with a prophetic vision of our present age. He suggested that:
The very soul of a writer should go into his style, and a man puts his whole personality into the style of his conversation….Nowadays one can talk with anyone, and it must be admitted that people’s opinions are exceedingly sensible, yet the conversation leaves one with the impression of having talked to an anonymity.
When we rent, rather than own, the means of communication, we inevitably sound like everyone else who is renting the same set of products. This feeling of “having talked to an anonymity” and, more horribly, of speaking like an anonymity, is difficult to put our finger on, but Kierkegaard guides us toward a simple description of the present age: “There are certain remarks and expressions current which, though true and reasonable up to a point, are lifeless.” That is, there are phrases, ideas, and images that we share which, if we were honest, “no thinker…would claim to have experienced them completely and personally.”
The emoji is an obvious example of this. The human face has infinite diversity of expression. The most massive library of winking and puckering yellow pixels could only scratch the surface of what is felt and expressed in and on the face’s flesh. To choose to “express oneself” by renting a pixelated expression is not to have experienced it “completely and personally.” It is to acquiesce to a category given to you by Apple and used by the general public.
The emoji, then, is a digital solution to a digital problem.
To express an emotion with a gif; to respond with a meme; to dredge up some agreed-upon acronym, hashtag, or trending term in order to answer Facebook’s cheery question, “What’s on your mind?” — these fulfill Kierkegaard’s prophecy of a culture of anonymous communication. Rented communication limits and modifies the meaning of our communication to a rented set of ubiquitous, pre-arranged symbols, making us sound like everyone else. We fulfill what Kierkegaard saw: “There is no longer any one who knows how to talk, and instead” there is “an atmosphere, an abstract sound, which makes human speech superfluous just as machinery makes man superfluous.”
This is not simply a phenomenon of social media. Long-form writing, like the online essay, sounds increasingly anonymous, because publishers are increasingly renting from Google the means of publication and dissemination. For an essay to “show up” on Google’s search engine it must be optimized according to the parameters that a few men within Google have deemed relevant. There is a race to conform words and sentences according to this metric — indeed, the more slavish the conformity, the more likely an author is to reach an audience. Of course, by the time he does reach his audience, his personal style has been mangled beyond recognition: Google’s standards for relevance include such dignified additions to the literary vocation as “quantity of links,” “anchor text distribution,” and “on-page optimization of keyword usage.” Prized essays include “shorter content length” (which involves never completing an argument), “readability” (which involves never using words like “ontology” or “spanikopita”), an excess of subheadings, and a healthy spattering of pictures. This essay has begun to sound as Google would have it sound.
Emojis, gifs, memes, SEO-writing, hashtags, autocorrect, auto-suggest — this growing diversity of devices can be unified in that they all create a dependence on people other than the writer for the capacity to communicate. Like most digital conveniences, they begin as fun. Then their use becomes a habit. Then this habit replaces old, owned habits of communication — like strong vocabularies or the capacity for reasoned argument. At this stage, rented communication becomes necessary: we cannot express ourselves without images, laugh without ironic references and memes, read without SEO-suggested subheadings and picture-breaks, or speak to our friends without relying on corporate expressions to ensure ourselves that we are in communion. Here the lines are blurred, and humanity begins to use their rented devices “in real life” — speaking their memes, vocalizing their hashtags and acronyms, making winky faces and sticking out their tongues to express themselves, living out in their flesh the devices they now depend upon to communicate. Here, we become the mouthpieces of the men who own the world.
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