Emojis are commonly used in todays computer-based communication. We often find an emoji font face pre-installed on many devices which is necessary for the rendering of the emoji symbol. In the following essay I will try to discuss some key moments that enabled emojis to circulate through our network and society.
Within the operating systems emojis are often treated as a language. Can emoji function as a universal (picture) language? What are the dangers of miscommunication lurking when using emoji?
The essay is illustrated with some of my work (MWo).
Nowadays, web-based communication accounts for a significant proportion of our total communication (at least for most of us). Emails, short messages (SMS, WhatsApp, iMessage, Telegram…), Social Networks… whenever people use a computer connected to a network in order to exchange messages between each other we refer to it as computer-mediated communication (CMC).
Initially, computer-mediated communication was mostly work-related. Often people would not even have a computer at home, but only at the office, and the communication was limited to sending business emails. Once home computers became more popular, it moved away from the working environment and began revolutionizing the private life of everyone.
Today, we carry a computer in our pocket and use it several times a day to discuss business and send private messages. In 1989, 15% (🌎) of all American households had a computer, in 2013 this number had increased to nearly 80% (🌎). Therefore, computer-mediated communication as such has changed, and with the increase of personal computers it evolved from a work-related medium to a more playful medium (cf. Jibril & Abdullah).
A Pew report published in 2010 revealed that the text message was the most frequently used form of communication among teenagers, including face-to-face communication (cf. Lenhart 2012).
The SIP theory (social information processing), developed in 1992 by Joseph Walter, explains how people interact with each other and establish relationships in a non-verbal and computer-dependent, and thus computer-mediated environment. The theory states that people who communicate with each other via computer (for any reason whatsoever) actively build a social relationship between themselves. Furthermore, the theory implies that it takes more time to establish this social relationship than it would take to establish a similar F2F (face-to-face) relationship. The lack of non-verbal signals in computer-mediated communication significantly limits the scope of the exchange, which is why more messages and thus more time are required. A key aspect of this theory is that users of a medium will adapt to it and find ways to overcome the shortcomings that result from using it (cf. Walther & D’Addario 2001).
In order to enhance the strictly text-based form of communication by adding a visual expression, the users invented emoticons (cf. Jibril & Abdullah 2013). These add a visual element to text-based communication. The term emoticon is a portmanteau word (frankenword), which is formed by combining the words emotion and icon.
Sanderson (1993) defines emoticons as a "sequence of ordinary characters you can find on your computer keyboard" (p. 1). Marcel Danesi specifies:
"An emoticon is often used in an e-mail message or newsgroup posting as a comment on the text that accompanies it. Common emoticons include
among others (Danesi 2009, S. 110)."
It is said that Scott Fahlman (Professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University) composed the first emoticon, a smiling face, on his keyboard in 1982. As he himself writes:
"Yes, I am the inventor of the sideways “smiley face” (sometimes called an “emoticon”) that is commonly used in E-mail, chat, and newsgroup posts. Or at least I’m one of the inventors." (Scott E. Fahlman)
It should be noted that emojis and emoticons are not the same. However, some programs have been increasingly transforming the text input of emoticon character combinations into a corresponding graphic symbol (e.g. Word, ICQ, Skype, later Facebook and Twitter…). Which brings us to
"The Oxford Dictionary" chose the emoji "face with tears of joy" as word of the year 2015.
But how did this emoji manage to win out over the rule of the word? How did emoji become this yellow soup, that we mix and share with others on a daily basis?
Shigetaka Kurita is regarded as the inventor of emojis. Back then he was working for DoCoMo in Japan on the world’s first mobile internet platform called i-mode (the goal was to provide internet services for certain mobile phones, such as weather forecasts, news, reservations…). It was the year 1999 (16 years after the first emoticon appeared). In order to, for instance, declare weather forecasts with a symbol of a sun instead of “fine”, Kurita suggested adding emojis to i-mode.
"I passionately proposed to add emoji to i-mode. My proposal was accepted quite easily since there weren’t many planners back then.” (Nakano 2016)
An additional advantage of emojis was that they could make better use of the display size, which at that time was rather limited.
“At the time, the specs on the devices were really poor, so they weren’t able to display images, for example.” (Kurita).
The first set of emojis consisted of 172 symbols, was monochrome, and the symbols were based on a 12 x 12 pixel grid.
Incidentally, this size of 12 x 12 pixels resulted in the fact that DoCoMo’s emojis were not subject to copyright (“they’re only 12 blocks by 12 blocks,” the company was told). This, in turn, meant that the small images could be copied, and led to other companies picking up on them as well, which only increased their rapid distribution, first within Japan, and a few years later throughout the Western world as well.
It was 2007, when Apple released the first iPhone. The global smartphone market was booming and Apple seemed to understand: in order to crack the Japanese market, you needed emojis. Willem van Lancker designed several hundred emoji characters for the Japanese iPhone (iPhone 3GS, 2009). With the firmware 2.2 Japanese users finally gained access to the first Apple emoji keyboard. Technically savvy users in the Western world also found a way to display the usually hidden emoji keyboard, by downloading a Japanese app. As of iOS 5 in 2011, the Apple emoji keyboard was finally available for every iOS user. Hallelujah.
I will not go into too much detail, however, the implementation of emojis into Unicode had a considerable impact on their dissemination. Unicode (started in the 1980s) represents a worldwide standardized system for the coding of text characters. As such, every character receives a certain “number”, which is then translated by the computer. In short: Unicode is the reason that messages, which are for instance sent from an iPhone to an Android device, are displayed correctly and vice versa.
As of October 2010, emojis are included into Unicode. This makes it possible for us to send emojis back and forth, without the recipient receiving a black rectangle with a question mark (�). The inclusion of emojis into the Unicode standard is therefore a key event, which was necessary to make an exchange of emojis possible in the first place.
For every emoji the Unicode consortium provides a code and a brief description. For instance, the Unicode for the emoji 😂 is U+1F602, the short description is "FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY". The actual graphics are not included. That's about the same as with all other Unicode text characters: For instance, the Unicode for the letter A is U+0041, the short description is "LATIN CAPITAL LETTER A". However, it is not specified how the letter A has to look exactly. The rendering and the particular presentation of the letter depends on the font.
Thus, when an emoji is sent, the Unicode code will be interpreted by the receiving device and converted into the corresponding graphic.
As nearly every smartphone manufacturer uses their own emoji typeset, emojis with a similar Unicode look different on devices from different manufacturers. Just like the “A” in Times New Roman looks different from the “A” in Helvetica.
Unlike letters, the interpretation of emojis can vary greatly (even with emojis of the same emoji font). In contrast to letters, emojis do not represent a “sound” but have to be interpreted by the recipient. Therefore, emojis entail significant potential for miscommunication. On the one hand due to the different depiction of the emoji images for different manufacturers, on the other hand because of their possible interpretation by the recipient (cf. Miller, Thebault-Spieker, Johnson, Terveen, Hecht 2016).
On the Unicode-Website , you can find a table consisting of all emojis included into Unicode and the corresponding images of several well-known manufacturers. In the case of emoji U+1F601, "GRINNING FACE WITH SMILING EYES", it is clear that using this emoji might easily lead to miscommunication: While the depiction of this emoji could be interpreted slightly negatively for Apple and Twitter, the depictions by Google, Samsung, and Windows are clearly very positive.
The calendar icon on Apple products always shows July 17, the day on which apple launched their software iCal at MacWorld in 2002 (Dewey 2014). This day was also declared #WorldEmojiDay in 2014: (🌎).
A further general risk of miscommunication can be discovered with another example of platform-specific depiction: 💩 The “PILE OF POO” emoji. If viewed on Apple devices it seems to beam with joy, on Microsoft it is faceless, on Samsung it merely has eyes, and on Google devices it was circled by flies until Android 5.0. The origin of this emoji can be found in Japan, where it means something along the lines of luck (the Japanese word for poo [unko] begins with the same “oon”-sound as a word that means “luck”. The Japanese clearly enjoy this pun and it is not uncommon to give away a golden pile of poo as a nice gesture [cf. Healy 2015]).
Emojis can, therefore, have very different meanings in different cultures. They are simultaneously pictograms and ideograms. In the Western World, for instance, the eggplant emoji 🍆 is often used for penis, the peach emoji 🍑 for vagina.
To activate the emoji keyboard on the iPhone, you have to select it in settings > general > keyboard > keyboards. Emoji can be found between Danish and English. To then use them in a chat, simply click on the “world” icon and select emoji as language.
Can emoji function as universal (visual) language? Funded by crowdfunding, the book Moby Dick has been completely translated into emojis. The result is Emoji Dick. On emojipoems.tumblr.com emojis are used to write poems. For this purpose Emoji Works' emoji keyboard, which simplifies the typing of emojis, could be rather helpful.
Are these modern hieroglyphs the beginning of a new language? The co-founder and president of Unicode Mark Davis concedes that emojis could one day evolve into something more. He would not call it a "language" at the moment but it could develop into one, like Chinese did (cf. Bromwich 2015).
When we use emoji in a text it is often to supplement or enhance the writing. Similar to gestures in a face-to-face-conversation. Rarely our natural language is ever limited to speech alone. Because of this language is called "mulit-modal". But emoji are not only used as embellishments by their users. Often they are strung together into a sequence which can convey meaning. But to function as a language, emoji would need a key component: grammar (cf. Cohn 2015).
Also speaking emoji is kind of difficult. But Siri does not make a bad job (german):