Emojis seem to be in the news every day. In the last month, we had news that the Museum of Modern Art in NYC has purchased the original emojis (see above) created by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999 for the Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo. This was a good 12 years before Apple released its own first emojis for the iPhone!
And just over a week ago the first official Emoji convention was held in San Francisco, called Emojicon, of course.
Here the hot topics ranged from corporate control over emojis (must be officially approved by a Unicode subcommittee, which is a computer standards organization), to the cultural bias of emojis, which have until recently been predominantly white, male, middle-class, heterosexual, and Christian.
Among other things, the Committee approved the first emojis of a hijab-wearing Muslim female.
So, what are these emojis and what is an emoticon?
In general, an emoji is a picture, such as this Smiley Face:
and an emoticon is a representation using keyboard characters: this, for example:
While I was aware of the movement towards expressing cultural diversity in emojis, I was interested to learn that substantial cultural differences already exist in emoticons. To quote Wikipedia, in turn quoting from Paul H. Gil:
Emoticons can generally be divided into three groups: Western or horizontal (mainly from America and Europe), Eastern or vertical (mainly from east Asia), and 2channel style (originally used on 2channel and other Japanese message boards). The most common explanation for these differences is how the different cultures use different parts of the face to express emotions, i.e. eyes often play a bigger role in the East while the whole face is used more in the West.
Also from Wikipedia:
Western style emoticons are mostly written from left to right as though the head is rotated counter-clockwise 90 degrees. Eastern emoticons generally are not rotated.
So, why do these things matter, anyway?
Emojis and emoticons arose out of a perceived need to add information, by suggesting some emotional content, when writing emails or other electronic communication. They are usually intended to show what would be conveyed by body language or other physical cue, all of which are missing when the speaker is invisible or inaudible.
A common and important use of emojis is to soften a comment, which might otherwise come across as critical or negative.
Think of the difference in tone and meaning between
What an evil thought!
What an evil thought!😍😍😍😍
Understanding is improved, and ambiguity is decreased.
Currently, there are more than 2000 official emojis, which obviously cover a huge range of human situations.
Emoji Fans and Fads
We find the usual acceptance and rejection that accompanies any change. Alarmists fear that humans will become less literate, and written language will suffer. Other critics, such as Professor Scott Fahlman who invented the smiley face emoticon, criticize emojis on a more esoteric basis. He has said
I think they are ugly, and they ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters.
But many more persons have fully embraced the emoji, and are having lots of fun with them. There are emoji translations of literary works (Moby Dick, and The Bible, to name but two), and numerous quizzes and games where you guess such things as a movie title based on a sequence of emojis.
Why don’t you watch Ellen Degeneras explain the whole thing on this Youtube video from The Ellen Show?
The progression from ASCII Art to Emoticons to Emojis
Way back before personal computing, some people were inspired to revolt against the monolithic mainframe, and to try to impose some aesthetic and humor upon it. Hence, ASCII art which uses the ASCII codes for common keyboard characters. I remember pages of continuous form paper where every once in a while an image would appear, between jobs, such as this;
I can’t tell you how cool we thought this was!
ASCII art is still around, though it is dying out, as you can imagine. Just recently, however, I came across this emoticon, a direct descendent of ASCII art, on Twitter:
I must say, I do think this is more elegant than an emoji!! And I totally understood the sentiment. Perfect communication!
Further Reading and References
If you are intersted in learning more about the cultural implications of graphic expression, this academic but very accessible article is fascinating: Emoji, Emoji, What for Art Thou?, by Lisa Lebduska, published in Harlot, “an interactive digital magazine dedicated to exploring rhetoric in everyday life.”
Other articles of interest on this topic: