Communicating in the Age of the Emoji

The History, Present and Future of the Emoticon and Emoji 

Text messaging can be awkward. At some point after a consistent back-and-forth conversation, both participants eventually run out of words. One of them may ask herself, “How do I proceed from here? How can I leave this exchange in a fun way?” Perhaps the best way to end or steer the conversation in a new direction is simple: a smiling emoji — or, if it’s appropriate, try the most popular emoji, “Hearts,” which has been used almost 500,000,000 times. I mean, what’s a quirkier way to establish that you don’t know what to say next?

Emoticons use typography, emojis use pictures.

How we choose to communicate with emojis is actually a bigger deal than you’d think. Our use of emoticons and emojis is evolving quicker than linguists or lexicographers can keep up with. But before we delve into that, it’s helpful to understand the backgrounds of emoticons and emojis.

A Brief History of Emoticons and Emojis

An emoticon is a typographical representation of a facial expression, like this: :-). Emoticons first emerged in the early 1980’s, after computer scientist Scott Fahlman had the idea that :-) and :-( could help distinguish a joke from something more thoughtful on a Carnegie Mellon University message board. Emojis were created in the late 1990’s by a Japanese communications firm. While emoticons use typography, emojis use pictures.

Emojis are a more dynamic and fun way to express thought, but computers need to have software to support them or they will not appear (remember when emojis turned into blank boxes on Twitter?). Furthermore, each company must develop its own interpretation of what an emoji should look like. The example below highlights how emojis can completely change meanings across different platforms.

Emoji

Since emojis are not visually universal, detecting social cues in text messages and email can be difficult at times. Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen analyzed emoticon use on Twitter and found that emoticons encounter similar problems. Like dialects, emoticon use can depend on geography, age, gender and social class, and Schnoebelen found that there is a large divide between people who use hyphens as noses in emoticions — :-) — versus those who do not — :). He also discovered that those who use the hyphen typically spell out words completely and use fewer abbreviations.

In the same way that we use body language in face-to-face conversations, emojis and emoticons reduce the risk of ambiguity in messages.

Other reports reveal that in general, people are more accepting of when women use emoticons versus men. For example, a study by online dating site Zoosk showed that when men included the :) emoticon in their profile that they received 6 percent fewer incoming messages, while women who did the same received 60 percent more.

Changing the Conversation

Emojis are ubiquitous in our digital world. Two years ago, around 74 percent of people in the U.S. used emojis in text messages. Does this mean that our language could be shifting back to a more pictographic script? Some of the earliest forms of writing appeared as pictographic hieroglyphs and cuneiform inscriptions in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago. The Phoenicians created the first alphabetic writing system in 1,200 B.C., not too long ago. Linguist Ben Zimmer doesn’t believe we are moving backward, but rather filling a void that exclamation points and question marks can’t.

Indeed, many would argue that emojis enrich our digital conversations. In the same way that we use body language in face-to-face conversations, emojis and emoticons reduce the risk of ambiguity in messages. Recent research suggests that our mood changes when we see certain emoticons, and we physically match our emotion of the emoticon. So the next time you catch yourself smiling at your phone, it could be because someone sent you a smiling emoji.

With the advent of the Apple Watch and other wearables, emojis could play an even larger part in the way we communicate.

Despite our shockingly close attachment to these pictographs, linguist John McWhorter claimed that people cannot communicate purely through emojis, because the receiver would have to be given more context: what the sender is talking about, what happened, when, etc.

Brands Using Emojis

Brands have recently noticed how well versed we are in emojis. Ikea, the Swedish furniture company, recently created over 100 custom icons to represent its products — think about classic couches, laundry hampers, and even Swedish meatballs. The promotional video below explains that Ikea’s series of emoticons “take the misunderstandings out of your communication.”

You can download Ikea Emoticons and install them on your device’s keyboard, just like regular emojis.

Coca-Cola took the emoji explosion in a different direction: The company created a bunch of Web addresses using emojis as domain names. It registered every single happy emoji with a “.ws” domain suffix.

This promotion currently runs in Puerto Rico and takes users to the landing page Emoticoke.com, where they can sign up to have a chance to get emoji Web addresses themselves. Alejandro Gomez, president of Coco-Cola Puerto Rico, touched on a key idea to marketers: “The vast majority of our audience now visits our website via a mobile device. And since emojis have become a kind of second language for Coke’s younger consumers, we felt this was a great opportunity to connect on a deeper level with our most important demographic.”

Not to be outdone, Britton Marketing & Design Group decided to get on the emoji craze and take the first step toward designing Britton-branded emojis. The second step is going to be figuring out Unicode and adding the ability to actually use the designs. 

Britton-branded emoji

The Future of Emojis

With the advent of the Apple Watch and other wearables, emojis could play an even larger part in the way we communicate.

Apple Watch and Emoji

Since the watch won’t serve practically as a platform for long-form communication, emojis will serve well to answer quick questions. “How do you feel?” “What do you want for dinner?” and “What do you want to do tonight?” could all be responded to with emojis.

With the way language has evolved over the past couple of years, it might be presumptuous to assume that our use of emojis won’t be affected by our Internet devices and the way they allow us to link globally. If you look around, you’ll notice that our world is already filled with symbols to simplify the physical world; we can only accept that this will become a larger part of our digital world as well.

Bridget O'Reilly
Freelance Contributor
BMDG

Photos: VentureBeat, Shutterstock and the Guardian