I’m in a perpetual state of awkwardness, which makes me the perfect expression for all your sheepish, self-conscious moments of wry humor. I’m among the most well-known emoji; I’m Happy Sweat Emoji.
All of the unspoken nuances conveyed by my giant bead of sweat should give it away. I’m originally from Japan. In Japanese, “e” refers to image and “moji” means character. The giant sweat drop above the brow has traditionally appeared in Japanese animation (and now, is also edited into Taiwanese comedy talk shows) to indicate awkwardness, frustration, embarrassment, and sentiments like What the heck? The splashing sweat drop adds a level of cuteness to life’s most inexpressibly awkward situations.
And that’s what emoji do best: they connote cuteness, naughtiness, and other sentiments that words on a screen don’t express as effectively. Emoji fill in the gap when your facial expression and your vocal tone are absent.
When you don’t have the words, or are too lazy 🐼 to choose any words, emoji pick up the slack (A fine distinction: whereas emoji are colorful icons created through computer coding, emoticons – for example, ;-D – are formed by typing in letters and punctuation.).
The Story of Emoji, from the Very, Very Beginning 🗿
Emoji may be a mobile device 📱 phenomenon, but the history of picture-talk is more than just a story of the modern day. The tradition of using pictures to express messages dates back to when we were cave-dwellers. Cave paintings and bone notches discovered by archeologists have been dated as far back as the upper Paleolithic era, a period associated with the oldest human bone fragments.
Skip forward to 3500 BC, when writing systems were born. The first people to write were the Sumerians and the Egyptians. Like most useful inventions, writing was born out of need. As civilization developed, people needed to keep track of their animals and crops, especially in relation to taxes, trade, and religion.
At the beginning, Sumerians used variously shaped clay tokens to represent sheep or bushels of wheat. These clay tokens were shaped like little cones and discs, looking almost like Candy Corn and throat lozenges. Later, this token system was simplified into carving the token shapes onto slabs of clay, which was an improvement; it was much more efficient than carrying around 100 clay cow tokens! These carved shapes continued to evolve, becoming cuneiform, a system of representative markings etched onto clay using a reed or a stick.
Egyptian hieroglyphs emerged around the same time as Sumerian cuneiform. More complex than cuneiform, hieroglyphs represented not only objects or ideas, but phonetic sounds, as well. Languages using symbols to represent ideas and sounds are called logographic systems (where signs represent words or parts of words) and logophonetic systems (where one set of signs represents words and another set represents sounds). There are dozens of known logographic and logophonetic languages from ancient times; the most well-known include Aztec, Mayan, and Chinese languages.
The Rise of Emoji in Modern Japan 🎎
Who would’ve guessed that thousands of years after hieroglyphics, picture-messages would come back in vogue? Enter pagers, email, and mobile phones! The pre-millennial beginnings of mobile communication created the need to talk in short phrases on tiny screens – the perfect conditions for the rise of internet-era lingo, such as abbreviations, bad grammar, and emoji.
Let’s review the year 1999. Tear-away track pants were in. Britney released her hit single, “Baby One More Time”. Technical societies the world over fretted about the Y2K bug. Meanwhile, in Japan, telecom carrier NTT-DoCoMo prepared to launch the world’s first mobile internet platform, calling it i-mode.
At the heart of the i-mode project was Shigetaka Kurita, an employee of NTT-DoCoMo. The new i-mode phones would have tiny monochrome LCD screens that accommodated 48 characters (a Tweet is 140 characters). This truncated message space presented a new challenge for mobile communication, but Kurita already had an idea for the solution.
Inspired by the heart icons that users were already sending via pagers, Kurita proposed that the heart icon, along with a fuller set of emoji, be introduced for i-mode phones. The idea seemed brilliant. Kurita’s company gave the green light for creating emoji. The deadline to project launch? One month. 😐
During the countdown to launch date, Kurita spent the first 10 days observing people in his city, watching how they expressed themselves, and noting buildings and other things he thought would be more efficiently communicated as symbols rather than typing out entire words.
Working at Tokyo-pace, Kurita and a team of designers created the world’s first set of 180 emoji, incorporating items from Japanese manga (graphic novels) and existing pictograms (No Smoking, Men, Women), and met the launch deadline.
Emoji were an immediate hit. Other Japanese telecom carriers were quick to adopt emoji. But the adoption of emoji by other carriers created a new problem: the emoji from one platform didn’t translate well into the other platforms. You could send your friend a thumbs up, but she might receive it as a thumbs down. Major social hazard.
The dangers of pictographic miscommunication were finally resolved in 2007, when Google adopted emoji for Gmail, and harmonized emoji coding among carriers. Today, the Unicode Consortium acts as a sort of emoji coding police, ensuring emoji code conformity across platforms, so that carriers worldwide can speak the same emoji language. In 2013, the Oxford Online Dictionary officially designated emoji as a word, along with twerk and selfie.
Emoji Are Safe for Work 💼
Today, emoji are enjoying a golden moment. Just last week, the Oxford Dictionary made the emoji 😂 (the artist formerly known as “Face with Tears of Joy”) its Word of the Year. It was the first time in Oxford’s 130-year history that a pictogram was given the Word of the Year title.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic pronounced emoji SFW (well, except for the 🍆 explanation to come) and revealed that 76% of adults use emoji in their work-related digital communication. As it turns out, emoji are extremely useful.
Will Schwalbe, email etiquette guru and co-author of Send: Why People Email So Badly and How to Do It Better, explains the important role of emoji. According to Schwalbe, e-communication is “…toneless…(and) in the absence of tone, people read negative tone into it.” That’s where emoji can help.
In the toneless landscape of black letters on a screen, a judicious smattering of happy icons adds flavor and feeling. Lauren Collister, socio-linguist at University of Pittsburgh says that emoji act as discourse particles; instead of adding semantic (word) meaning, emoji add intention. That is, emoji express smaller bits of information, but they indicate how the information should be interpreted.
Emoji are especially helpful in softening e-communication that can potentially be read as harsh, awkward, or offensive. That may be why the most popular emoji is the happy face 🙂 , as in “Smile! Let’s not be too serious.” Emoji can also save time and effort. Takehiro Ariga, a Japanese magazine editor, told NPR that the Japanese avoid direct communication. Arriga says, “So saving my emotion by using an emoji or picture is a better way to express myself in a more gentle, softer way.”
Of course, Japanese are not the only ones. How many times have we slapped on a smiley face emoji as an all-encompassing sign of agreement, complacence, or whatever-the-reader-wants-to-interpret-it-as? How often do we blast off a chain of random emoji in a reply instead of crafting an empathetic response? Indeed, the use of emoji saves time and brain power.
Emoji Endorsed by Neuroscience 🔬
Using emoji and emoticons is not a bad idea, and even science agrees. In a Flinders University (Australia) study, Dr. Owen Churches found that our brains react to emoticons as if they were human countenances. Using brain scans, Churches saw that emoticons stimulated the same areas of our brains as human facial expressions.
Scientists in Japan concluded that we read emoticons as both verbal and nonverbal information. When we see sentences containing emoticons, both the right and left inferior frontal gyrus of the brain are activated, meaning that we interpret emoticons as conveyors of emotion. Check this: 😉 Feel happier?
Still other research found that emoticons improved group communication and work satisfaction. In a study conducted at New Mexico State University, participants were divided into teams and assigned a difficult task to complete via remote-communication. One team had access to emoticons while another did not. The results showed that those with access to emoticons chose to use them, and that those using emoticons experienced higher overall satisfaction with their teamwork experience.
Society Supercharged by Emoji 🎆
But emoji are so darn cute; who needs scientific endorsements to use them? Already, emoji are all over our social landscape. It’s been reported that 74% of adults use emoji. Official figures for use among the younger crowd are unknown, but as one teenager tells Business Insider, “We usually just talk using emojis.” You could say emoji are an extension of our keyboards, or as Maclean’s Magazine puts it, emoji are “grammatical second nature”.
Yet some are clearly taking emoji to the next level. The NBA’s Mike Scott has famously tattooed emoji all over his body. In his own estimate, emoji make up 80-85% of the ink on his body; his right biceps is already a dizzying array of little yellow faces. Katy Perry produced an emoji lyric version of her music video for “Roar”. In case you’re wondering, “roar” is represented by a cat, followed by a loudspeaker, followed by an explosion (a rare case where the emoji translation is longer than the text).
On the special day of tennis player Andy Murray’s wedding, he summarized the event in a three-lines long, pure emoji Tweet, including lots of details such as tears of joy (three times), his bride getting her hair and nails done, dancing, kissing, video shoot, photo shoot, dining, wine, desserts, more drinks, and over half a dozen sleep zzz’s to finish it all off.
If you’re waiting for the all-emoji book, it’s been done. In 2009, Fred Benenson hired a team to translate Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick into an all-emoji version, using crowd-sourced funding raised through Kickstarter. The finished work was aptly titled Emoji Dick, and can be purchased online (the full color, hardcover version costs $200). Considering it an emblem of our society, the U.S. Library of Congress has reserved a copy.
But it’s not all laurels and fame. Emoji can get you in trouble, as well. In January 2015, a teenager posted several menacing posts on Facebook, including one with an emoji police officer with three emoji guns aimed at it. Three days later, New York City police arrested the Brooklyn teen on charges that included making a terroristic threat (the emoji post), as well as possession of both weapons and marijuana.
On another level of trouble, emoji are now pushing the frontiers of sexual harassment. The suggestive eggplant, apart from sneaking into all sorts of cheeky texts and posts, enjoyed its own highly liberal hashtag movement, #EggplantFriday, in which people posted images of their own anatomical eggplants. It got so out of hand that Twitter banned Eggplant Fridays, and excluded eggplant emoji from its search function. Oh, well. I guess we just have to settle for peach and banana Fridays. If the innuendo is unclear, just refer to The Definitive Emoji-Sexting Glossary. 😳
Mischief aside, we are increasingly finding emoji occupying the echelons of business and marketing. In a brilliant move, Domino’s Pizza invited their customers to order pizza by simply texting in the pizza emoji. This marketing scheme won the Titanium Grand Prix, an award for breakthrough marketing ideas, at Cannes this year.
Domino’s is far from being the only brand branching out to explore emoji territory. Nike, Burger King, Ikea, and Foot Locker have all joined the fray, creating their own emoji. Through Foot Locker’s app, you can access a closet-full of designer sneaker emoji, including brand name soccer cleats and high tops. On Burger King’s emoji keyboard, you’ll find a family of chicken emoji, all representing different states and emotions of the Burger King Chicken Fries. The Ikea emoji collection includes iconic Ikea pieces, including the Ikea wrench and complete Ikea-style living room and bathroom emoji.
To Emoji Future and Beyond 🚀
Where will the emoji trend go from here? With innovations taking place on a daily basis in Emoji-Land, it seems that classic emoji like me will soon be fossilized into past versions of iOS (Speaking of which, the latest version of iOS supports 1,620 emojis, including the originals, country flags, ethnically diverse emoji, as well as configurations of every modern concept of family.). Or maybe I’ll evolve into other, more complex versions of myself. Perhaps with motion and sound – so that I can be sweating and mumbling an embarrassed “heh…” This is perfect for the inevitable belated 🎂 text.
As for emoji becoming the language of the future, that’s probably not so likely. There’s a limit to how much meaning you can pictorially convey. Although one strength of emoji is that it can be understood across language and culture. At least, for the most part. My only hope is that you all will continue to have awkward and embarrassing moments! That way, I will always have a place on your screen.
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