In defence of the emoji: How they are helping us to communicate better than ever

It's easy to dismiss emojis as vacuous – but are they doing something that words alone can't?

Kashmira Gander
Tuesday 03 October 2017 22:35 BST

As the widely panned Emoji Movie awaits its DVD release in time for Christmas, it seems like we’ve reached peak emoji. We can finally say sayonara to smiley yellow faces and anthropomorphic poops that signal the slow demise of civilisation itself.

But it’s too easy to dismiss emojis as the death of language, and the first sign that humans are destined to become a sludge of mindless drones addicted to their smartphones and unable to express themselves without the aid of a few dozen yellow faces. Let’s be real: emojis aren’t the precursor to the four horseman of the apocalypse.

In fact, experts agree that these clusters of pixels can be an incredibly powerful tool for expressing ourselves more profoundly than we can with words alone. Emojis – the yellow characters rather than the faces made using semicolons and brackets – were invented in 1998 and were standardised and added to Apple’s iOS and Mac in 2010. By 2015, the Oxford English Dictionaries named the smiley face weeping tears of laughter the word of the year: the first time that a symbol had been placed on the list let alone topped it.

Of course, plenty of think pieces moaning that young people will no longer be able to read or write in a handful of years followed – as happened when texting first became “a thing”. But as the gatekeepers of the language, perhaps the guys at Oxford have a point?

At their most highbrow, emojis – or emoji to give them the correct plural term – can be seen as metalanguage signals and emotional framing – or, put more simply, as a means to discuss language and convey our feelings. Essentially, when we message online we are communicating in a way that we usually would when in face-to-face interactions, hence why the crying laughter face has so much meaning.

“Tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures – these are all vital elements of face-to-face communication, but they’re stripped away in writing. Emoji offer a way of compensating for this,” argues Dr Daria J Kuss, course leader of MSc Cyberpsychology at Nottingham Trent University.

“They’re a quick and concise way of adding a layer of emotional character to casual, text-based conversation. And it’s this that has propelled their global popularity. There are currently about 2,000 emoji. The most frequently used are the facial expressions, along with symbols such as the heart,” she adds. They also temper the bluntness of our words similarly to shrug or a wink.

As emojis are an extension of speech at a time when we inseparable from our smartphones, the colourful characters are also used to express our identities and as a form of creative play, adds Dr Philip Seargeant, senior lecturer in applied linguistics at the Open University.

“Just as people develop a particular style of speech which becomes part of their personality, so they tend to favour particular emojis,” he explains. Just scroll through your “frequently used” emojis on your phone and compare them to a friend’s. Someone who uses the crying faces and the guy sweating with panic may well have a different outlook on life to a person who often uses the flamenco dancer, cocktail glass and the suggestive aubergine. That’s why Unicode Consortium, who decide which emojis are added to phones, felt the pressure to include different skin tone emojis so keenly and added more diverse characters in 2015.

And as emojis gain a universal meaning – and we iron out the cultural differences like the thumbs-up indicating swearing in countries like Italy and Iran – they are becoming like their own language. The instantly recognisable facial expressions, objects and gestures, transcend cultural difference in a way that Dr Ludwig L Zamenhof, a Polish physician, could only dream of when he invented the international language Esperanto in the 1880s. And they far outdo the now laughable SarcMarc, a punctuation point which cost $1.99 to download which was intended to be used to signify sarcasm in a sentence: a job that the rolling eyes emoji does so much more organically.

Dr Kuss, who recently studied the impact of smartphone notifications on people, said that overall their findings indicate that we feel positive when engaged directly with others using social media. Evidence suggests that emojis can even make workers more productive by making it easier for bosses to dole out praise.

“One possible interpretation of this finding is that people are more willing to share their positive emotional states, while those experiencing negative emotions are reluctant to broadcast how they feel or share information in general – this includes the use of emojis,” she says.

“In education contexts, their visual appeal and intuitiveness as a communication system has made them especially useful with learning for younger, or more vulnerable, children,” adds Dr Sergeant.

The reason that emojis are so successful in all these respects is that, however much we might like to fear them, they’re not really doing anything new at all.

“The fact that they’ve evolved from similar basic practises as all other forms of writing means that examining how they work can be an excellent prism for understanding human communication in general,” says Dr Sergeant. “And they’re especially insightful for understanding the increased role that’s played by technology in our life – and how this is pushing us to come up with solutions which are both utterly modern but at the same time hark back to the very earliest forms of literate culture.”

So it’s daft to worry that a dancing lady in a red dress is going to wipe out the value of a beautiful piece of prose or a touching poem. Shakespeare will still be Shakespeare, regardless of whether you’re punctuating your hatred for your untidy flatmates on WhatsApp using a grinning poo.

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