Are Emoji Ruining (or Improving) Digital Communication?

Are Emoji Ruining (or Improving) Digital Communication?

Emoji: Those cute, expressive, sometimes weird symbols on your phone that have been popular in Japan for a decade and a half. Where did they come from, and what do they mean for the future of digital communication?

Since 2009, iPhone users worldwide have had access to emoji to enhance their text communications. Since then, emoji have become available on almost every text-based digital communications platform from Android phones to Facebook, becoming nearly as ubiquitous as the punctuation-based emoticons we all know and love… or loathe.

Last month, the Unicode Consortium released Unicode 7.0, adding a total of 2,834 new characters to the international standard for digital text-based communications, including 250 more emoji. As soon as device manufacturers incorporate these characters into their systems, we’ll be able to decorate our text messages with, among other things, an upraised middle finger, a Vulcan peace symbol… and a levitating businessman? How do these images get selected?

In a recent interview for Fast Company’s Co.Design site, Mark Davis, president of the Unicode Consortium, explained, “[Y]ou need to basically prove that the Unicode standard has a hole in it without that character, because people are already using it to communicate every single day.”

Emoticons_Puck_1881_with_TextCertainly this criteron holds true for the “smiley” emoticon (and now emoji): an entire generation has now grown up with it as part of their lexicon. Although it was “formally” proposed as means to enhance textual communication in 1982, the “smiley” has a much longer history than the Internet. A complex version of it first appeared in an 1881 issue of Puck magazine. Earlier “smileys” have been identified in publications form as far back as a 1648, but there is some debate over whether or not these were intentional.

So, that Levitating Businessman?

man_in_business_suit_levitatingAs for the new emoji additions, the middle finger and “live long and prosper” symbols are fairly self- explanatory, but we had to do little digging in the Unicode 7.0 documents to find out why we need a levitating business man. It turns out the character specified by the Unicode Consortium as MAN IN BUSINESS SUIT LEVITATING is intended to communicate the concept of “jump”. This makes some sense when you consider that there are already characters for “run” and “swim”— and yet there is still no character for “walk” in the specification.

This brings up an important point about the Unicode standard’s place in the world: with room for over 1.1 million characters in the current encoding scheme (though only about 10% of these have been specified so far), creating a “Unicode font” containing every character would be quite an operation— and would take up quite a bit of room on your phone. Instead, the Unicode Consortium provides a description and a simple “reference image” for each character (think of this as the difference between a simple letter “A” and many variations on the letter “A” that our font libraries provide) and leaves it to developers to choose the subset of characters (and design their own graphic interpretations) that will best help their customers to communicate.

Getting the Message

Apple made news in 2012 when it added gay and lesbian couples to the Emoji set in iOS6, though “two men holding hands” and “two women holding hands” have been a part of the Unicode 6.0 standard since 2010. Once these characters were included in the iPhone’s emoji selection, it became much more important for other companies to include these characters, to ensure their customers could get the message. This year, in a response to an inquiry from MTV Act, Apple expanded on its commitment to diversity in emoji: “Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.”

Brevity, Now with Emotion

This push for broader representation hints at a widespread need communicate using more than the written word. While some abhor emoticons and emoji, arguing that they are reducing our everyday ability to choose words that communicate the nuances of our feelings, in a medium defined by a 140-character limit in an age in which most of us are inundated with too many messages every day, brevity has become more than wit— it’s become essential. Yet when a message is too short, it might appear terse to the recipient. Consider: “I’m busy. Talk with you later.” versus “I wish I could talk with you right now, but I’m the middle of something. Talk later?” versus “Busy. TTYL! :-)”

But for some, the emoji trend doesn’t work. In “How Using Emoji Makes Us Less Emotional, Alice Robb at least partially blames emoji for increasing the ambiguity of her text message interactions with friends. She complains that she is unsure whether a recent “I miss you” exchange with a friend was really “heartfelt” or if it was “ironic”. I’m sympathetic to this complaint, but I would argue that Ms. Robb and her friend perhaps just haven’t yet established a good text-based rapport. For that matter, I was going to comment on Ms. Robb’s jab at the millennial generation in the same article, but then I realized that I wasn’t sure if she was serious about it, since she appears to be a part of the millennial generation herself. Maybe if she had added a winkie or a frowny I would have better understood her sentiment.

Emoji’s Ties with Language

My experience with emoji has been quite the opposite. When we lived 2,000 miles apart, my sister and I barely communicated outside of holiday visits and the occasional email. Once we both had iPhones, we started communicating almost daily, sending each other updates about our workdays and weekends. As of last year, we live within 10 miles of each other again, yet we still communicate primarily by text— a phone call practically means there must be an emergency — and emoji are a big part of that communication. We even have emoji nicknames for people who are regular subjects of conversation.

Last week, my sister texted me news of a birth in the family: “melody_emoji(Melody) born today,” assigning the emoji-sign for the newest addition to the family within hours of her birth.

japanese_furiganaThis is not unlike the way name-signs and other new words are transmitted in American Sign Language: a signer can introduce a new sign by first finger-spelling it. In Japanese, a new Kanji (a character symbolizing a concept) can be introduced to someone by spelling it out using one of the two Kana syllabaries (like an alphabet, but most characters represent a combination of a consonant and a vowel sound). Now, since one has to switch keyboards to get to the emoji on an iPhone and then one has to find each emoji by swiping through multiple pages unless it’s one of the most recently used ones, it is arguably faster to type out “Melody” — but it isn’t nearly as fun.

So are emoji improving our digital communications or ruining them? Neither. They’re just another addition to the ever-expanding set of tools that we have to communicate digitally with one another. If we really need to be clear about our feelings and intentions, we can still always pick up the phone— or, to be even clearer, make a video call. But if we’re dashing off a quick text or tweet, the right emoji for the right audience can enhance our expressive abilities in a bandwidth-limited medium in a time-crunched world.

Happy World Emoji Day!

Why do you find you choose to communicate with emoji? Do you feel it’s taking away from the conversation or adding to it? Tell us in the comments. 

About Jay Laird

Jay Laird is a faculty member in the Digital Media program. His research interests include methods for using game design to develop critical thinking and collaborative skills, methods for teaching programming logic and structures to artists, and the design of entertainment to encourage positive social change. Northeastern University is a top-tier research university that offers high-demand graduate programs aligned with the needs of industries around the globe. With a combination of online, hybrid, and on-campus degree programs in Boston, Seattle, and Charlotte, Northeastern gives you the best of classroom and online experience while providing you the freedom and flexibility to learn on your schedule.

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