More than words: Are 'emoji' dumbing us down or enriching our communications?

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To millions, text messages aren't complete without an animated ghost or angry face. Are these symbols a language for the illiterate, asks Rhodri Marsden?

A few years ago, during a mildly flirtatious text message exchange, I was sent a picture of a ghost followed by a picture of a balloon.

"Ghost balloon," she noted, as an afterthought. I was stunned by these tiny images that magically appeared among the familiar forms of the Roman alphabet. "Tell me how to do the ghost balloon?" I pleaded, pathetically. She told me to enable a character set called 'emoji' on my phone, which I did, and I sent her back a picture of a ghost, and a picture of a balloon. "Ghost balloon," she replied. "What does ghost balloon mean?" I asked. Her reply was curt and emphatic. "Nothing."

Unnecessary pictures that add precious little meaning to written communication. That's probably what the vast majority of people over the age of 25 think of emoji, but this set of glyphs that have been littering text messages in Japan for well over a decade are now sweeping the Western world. Just as some of us embraced emoticons such as :-( and :-0 while others raged at our inability to express ourselves properly using words and punctuation, so we're embracing emoji, too, from the angry face to the tomato to the hospital to the flexing bicep to the ghost, and indeed the balloon.

Last month, as if to legitimise emoji as a form of expression, the US Library of Congress accepted a 'translation' into emoji of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. (Entitled, as you might expect, Emoji Dick.) Said translation is frivolous, pointless and silly – and so, to a certain extent, is emoji. But does it really have a reductive effect on the way we communicate? Or does it add a richness that conventional language simply can't convey?f

The emoji story begins at the end of the 1990s, when Shigetaka Kurita, then an employee with Japanese mobile network DoCoMo, began working on an idea that he thought might lure teenagers to the network. He and his team created 176 characters, 12 pixels square, that took inspiration from manga art and the Kanji characters used in the Japanese writing system, and made them available for use in SMS messages. These cherries, suns, watches, birds and broken hearts were instantly popular, and the two competing Japanese networks rushed to produce their own full-colour versions.

Only in Japan, perhaps, would emoji ('e' meaning picture, 'moji' meaning character) catch on quite so fast. "[In conversation] we tend to imply things instead of explicitly expressing them," says Japanese author Motoko Tamamuro, "so reading the situation and sensing the mood are very important. We take extra care to consider other people's feelings when writing correspondence, and that's why emoji became so useful in email and text – to introduce more feeling into a brevitised form of communication."

But with no emoji standard agreed between the networks, a different kind of misunderstanding began to brew; the pictures would only be guaranteed to display properly if the sender and recipient were using the same mobile network. It wasn't until 2006 that the three networks came to some kind of consensus – and around the same time, Google and Apple prompted the international expansion of emoji by urging Unicode to join the party.

As the industry standard for handling computer text, Unicode's aim is to guarantee that symbols display properly across devices worldwide.

In October 2010, a hand-picked selection of 722 emoji characters were finally cemented into Unicode across sets such as 'Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs', 'Emoticons' and 'Transport and Map Symbols'.

As far as computers were concerned, this effectively put emoji on a par with the Roman alphabet. A pig now has the code of U+1F437; any device that recognises Unicode 6.0 and has an emoji font installed – eg, modern iPhones and Android phones – will display a pig, if someone is kind enough to send you one.

As well as the pig you'll find hand gestures, clothing, meteorological symbols, trains, planes and automobiles – a set of symbols that was thrashed out at great length by committees from Unicode and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). But as a whole, emoji are still unmistakably Japanese; there isn't one for cheese, but you will find one for bento box; there's no Easter egg, but there is a Kadomatsu, the Japanese pine decoration associated with New Year. You won't find much racial diversity among the human characters, either – much to the chagrin of American singer Miley Cyrus, who called for an "Emoji Ethnicity Update" on Twitter, while cultural commentators thought: "Actually, she has a point".

But if you're not satisfied with the emoji at your disposal, a huge industry exists to embellish and enhance your messages with whatever pictures you like. Line, the dominant message app in Japan with over 100 million users, allows in-app purchases of extra emoji – purchases that reportedly rake in well over $3m each month. Meanwhile, other apps such as Path, Lango, MessageMe and Cubie have moved into the realm of 'stickers': sets of images, a little larger than emoji, that people can buy and send to each other in order to convey emotions that some would say words simply can't express.

"I've been fascinated with the amount of meaning you can convey with such simple characters," says American data engineer Fred Benenson, who initiated the crowd-sourced translation of Moby Dick and is a self-confessed emoji aficionado. "Telling stories, movie recaps, expressing complex emotion – it's partially about the frivolity, but it's also about engaging a part of your brain which uses symbolic and visual thinking, something that I love to do. I also think it has the potential to bridge language barriers."

The utopian idea of a pictorial language that can be understood by everyone has been taken a step further by iConji, a system that features over 1,200 symbols and allows construction of simple sentences. But that inevitably involves the establishment of a lowest common denominator, of simplifying language to get the message across.

Emoji, for all its detractors, is about embellishment and added context; it's about in-jokes, playfulness, of emphasising praise or cushioning the impact of criticism, of provoking thought and exercising the imagination. 'Ghost balloon' may have had no intrinsic meaning, but it created an instant association with the person who sent it to me – and, in fact, it did come to mean something, specifically: "I am wrestling with the etiquette of 21st-century communication". And I don't know about you, but that's something I need to express pretty much every day. Ghost balloon.

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