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

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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.

Sport
Radamel Falcao
footballManchester United agree loan deal for Monaco striker Falcao
Voices
A man shoots at targets depicting a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a shooting range in the center of the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
voicesIt's cowardice to pretend this is anything other than an invasion
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Sport
Louis van Gaal, Radamel Falcao, Arturo Vidal, Mats Hummels and Javier Hernandez
footballFalcao, Hernandez, Welbeck and every deal live as it happens
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey fans rejoice, series five returns later this month
TV
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    IT Systems Manager

    £40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Huxley Associates

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Huxley Associates are currentl...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Computer Futures

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

    Recruitment Consultant - Bristol - Computer Futures - £18-25k

    £18000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Computer Futures are currently...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor