The Problem with Emoji

The emoji language was invented by tech companies and given meaning by its users. But are these companies intentionally limiting the extent to which we can express ourselves online?

The way the emoji language is developing is interesting to watch, because it’s pretty much the reverse of the way traditional languages develop.

The English language, for example, is added to fairly frequently when we find ourselves without a word to sufficiently (or concisely) express something. Take a look at some of the nominees for OED’s Word of 2015, like “lumbersexual” or “Brexit”: these words were coined to describe concepts that already existed (beardy hipsters and Britain exiting the Euro) and they gained traction organically, give or take a little help from the media[1].

Emoji work the other way round. Most emoji usage is limited to those that appear in a phone keypad or internet comment box and, unless you’re Kim Kardashian, it’s pretty difficult to add a new emoji into mainstream parlance. This means we have to assign new meanings to a limited set of symbols that already exist, until we get to a stage where one symbol can mean a lot of different things. These can differ depending on the context an emoji is used in, or the shared conversation history between a sender and their recipients (e.g. see this Buzzfeed article on the many meanings of the “Painting Nails” emoji).

One emoji can mean many things, but in reality emoji seem to have limited use. 62% of people surveyed by Verve say that “emoji are just a bit of fun”; and 46% agree that they “aren’t appropriate for every situation”. Only 8% agreed that they’d use emoji in a professional setting, and even fewer (5%) would use them in a serious conversation[2]. Already, we’ve developed norms which many users seem explicitly aware of, relegating emoji to positively-biased or trivial communications.

We could point to all sorts of reasons for these norms developing as they have, but in this case let’s focus on the design of emoji as a contributing factor. There are two main points here. Firstly, emoji tend to be cute little cartoons. Sure, there’s a knife and a gun and a syringe filled with what looks like blood, but their design means that:

actually looks a lot more serious and threatening (at least according to my unrepresentative sample of WhatsApp contacts) than the same expression with added cartoons:

Secondly — for better or worse — there’s nothing in the emoji alphabet that seems designed to convey actual anger, or despair, or anything especially violent or explicit or upsetting. The cute cartoon language lends itself to trivial, positive communications.

Surely this can’t be an accident. The Unicode emoji symbols in mainstream usage are the product of big commercial brands like Apple and Google. These brands decided the contents of the emoji alphabet and they’re responsible for the ‘cute design’. It makes sense. These brands can’t stop their users sending each other negative sentiments, but they can refrain from facilitating them with emoji. And who knows; maybe a slight reduction in negative expression over time will have a positive impact on how people use and perceive the brands — and ultimately, a positive impact on revenue.

It’s logical that these corporations choose to err on the side of positivity, but we should remember in consequence that the language we’re adopting is far from neutral. It raises the question of how much power and influence big technology companies (with a commercial agenda, if nothing more sinister) are having on the way we communicate, and how much they may actually be directing our conversations invisibly. The same tension between free speech and “nice” speech is being played out across the web — take Twitter changing its “Favourite” icon from a star (neutral) to a heart (positive) in a suspected bid to improve the site’s tone. Or just look at Facebook’s historical refusal to incorporate a “dislike” button.

Emoji are useful because they provide context and clarity to digital communications, where a lack of verbal and non-verbal context clues mean that ambiguities abound (a recent experiment found that emoji are the most effective way of ensuring sarcasm is conveyed). But if words alone aren’t enough, and emoji only help when we’re having less serious conversations or expressing positive emotions, where does that leave us? If we’re going to be dramatic about it, we could say that the restricted emoji alphabet — and the brands responsible for its content — is actually restricting the potential for human expression online.

And I don’t know about you, but

[1] Incidentally, the winner of the Word of the Year accolade was the “Face with tears of joy” emoji.

[2] Based on 456 Verve Voices panel members aware of emoji; Verve 2016