The Tale of the Humble Emoji

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The Tale of the Humble Emoji

An emoji can be worth a thousand words – here's how they got that way.

If I had to ask you what you think are the most important facets of language and communication, what would you say? Words? Tone? Grammar? All of these can be crucial when it comes to expressing our true meaning, but lately these fundamentals are increasingly being overshadowed by another strong –and globally prevalent  – contender: the emoji. These ubiquitous little symbols have become so common all over the world that it’s arguable that they’ve changed the way we communicate completely, yet not many of us know the story of the emojis we use on a daily basis, or what they reveal about us.

There are now over 3000 emojis, and that number continues to grow. They range from things as arbitrary as the dodo bird to relevant and topical ones, like the soon-to-be released transgender flag. But how did we get to a point where these small images are so important to the communication of a species that lasted so long before them🤔 ?

the history of emojis

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

First, lets go back in time 🕰

The story of emojis starts much earlier than you’d think. Way back in 1881, a publication called Puck magazine published four faces – made from punctuation marks – that symbolized joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment. This “typographical art”, however, didn’t really catch on until a hundred years later, when people realised that they could add previously lacking dimensions and tone to otherwise flat pieces of text.

Emojis as we know them today were officially created in 1998 by by Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer at a Japanese phone company. The original set of icons contained 176 characters – mostly of every day items like cars and umbrellas – and were very literally named “e ( 絵-picture) moji (文字-characters)”.

Over the last few years, these symbols have become similar to their own language in being a standardised, pre-curated form of visual communication. Unlike most languages though, they’re used just about universally and understood far more easily than any spoken language ( and don’t take months or years of study to master, which is helpful!).

We’ve come such a long way since those original characters that we have emojis for just about anything. The images we still lack are replaced by previously innocent fruits and vegetables (…🍆.). There’s even an entire dictionary online dedicated to deciphering the meaning behind all the symbols we now have access to.

What does our emoji use reveal about us?

Rebecca Heilweil, writing for Vox, says that the emoji’s appeal lies in their universality and dexterity. “They allow us to augment otherwise flat online messages by adding a dimension to our online speech that we may not be able to express with just text. And they’ve quickly become a fundamental part of how we communicate online”.

They do more than just aid communication between friends, though. Heilweil says that our online emoji use is a valuable tool for companies who want to learn more about us. They can even be used to target advertising directly to consumers! 🤯  “While we might be using emoji just to rant to our followers about a favourite soccer player missing a goal,” she writes, “by using emoji we’re also handing companies neatly packaged, juicy information about our emotions and interests.”

Our online emoji use contains valuable information about our thoughts and feelings that may be more easily understood by computers than our actual words. Companies and brands can then use algorithms to easily detect whether our posts have positive or negative tones. They’re also a great tool when it comes to targeted advertising.

“This type of targeting allows advertisers to direct advertisements to people who have recently shared or engaged with a specific emoji, like a soccer ball or a car, much in the same way they might do so using keywords or demographic information, like a user’s location or gender,” writes Heilweil. “One example of this is a 2018 campaign for the Toyota Camry that involved dozens of versions of an ad, each served to specific users based on which emoji they recently used on Twitter”.

In fact, she writes that brands are even frequently getting involved in the invention and inclusion of new standardised emojis. We now have an upcoming pickup truck emoji thanks to Ford , a taco emoji 🌮, on account of efforts by Taco Bell, and a whole handful of companies that have suggested others which have yet to be as successful (like Durex’s campaign for a condom emoji and Kit Kat’s proposal for a chocolate bar emoji).

Will emojis replace language?

Let’s not start getting silly now. While in their early days, there was discussion about whether, eventually, these symbols would replace actual words, this still seems highly unlikely.

Despite the emoji keyboard being the most widely used keyboard in the world in the world, emojis lack tense, which makes communicating timelines tricky. In addition, it’s impossible to communicate new ideas using symbols which all represent existing ones. Not to mention, despite the emoji options being standardised, they can look different on different devices. facial expressions may vary between Android and Apple devices, which may cause miscommunication. This all on top of the fact that any image may potentially be interpreted differently depending on the individual reader – and we all know that person who throws in arbitrary and unrelated emojis mid-conversation, just for the heck of it 🐣 .

emoji avatar

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Though one can rest assured that they won’t replace written or spoken language any time soon, we’re constantly expanding the way we use pictures to communicate. Just look at the way we can now create emoji avatars of our own faces with Bitmoji, Memoji, and even moving animojis!

We surely can’t go back to – or even imagine – the world without them.They’ve managed to blend into our textual communication no matter what language we speak. So much so, that they’re now essential to our communication even if they aren’t exactly an entire language on their own. Heilweil concludes that “as long as this universal language of sorts exists, brands and companies will want to capitalise on it. But that’s surely in part because emoji have proven so useful at helping us express ourselves and have therefore made themselves invaluable”.

Communicating over text keeps getting more inclusive and exciting, and the updates are coming at an increasingly speedy rate. Really, nobody has any excuse to send boring text messages anymore. Just don’t be that guy 🐣 🐣 🐣.

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