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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

    £40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

    £20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

    Recruitment Genius: Front End Developer / Web Designer

    £20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leader in the e-cigarette ...

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - PHP

    £32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With extensive experience and a...

    Day In a Page

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future