The evolving, unexpected power of the emoji | NOVA

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The proposal for a mammoth emoji—coming to an iPhone near you next month—doesn’t just give a brief natural history of the extinct pachyderm. It also includes a chart comparing the incidence of the word “mammoth” in books to “elephant” and “tyrannosaurus” and imagines congratulatory messages that use a mammoth emoji to say an accomplishment is “huge.” 

The proposal for an onion emoji (added in 2019) begins with the classic “ogres are like onions” monologue from the movie Shrek, suggesting the emoji could be used to describe a complex situation or person. The bagel proposal offers a long cultural history of the breakfast food, predicts spikes in use on Saturdays and Sundays, and suggests it could catch on as a shorthand for carb-loading athletes.

Though it may seem they’ve always been there, emoji started as a grassroots solution to what was in the 1980s and 1990s a relatively new problem: misunderstandings on the internet. In the ensuing decades, these symbols have evolved from simple tone markers to a full-strength industry and language of their own, a phenomenon worthy of business investment and academic research. Hollywood made a whole movie out of emoji (yes, the plural of emoji is…emoji). They turn up on all sorts of merchandise and stand in for slang. Why type out a comment calling a party or a song “straight fire” when you could pull up your emoji keyboard and just tap once?

That the UNICODE consortium, which oversees emoji, has instituted a lengthy application process for new emoji shows that it takes seriously the power of a miniaturized wooly mammoth or eggplant or mug of beer. The organization, which is behind much of the standardization of internet alphabets, insists its new emoji be multilayered, ready to be wielded on TikTok and Twitter, and over text. UNICODE has noticed what linguists see, too—that emoji have evolved from a handful of keystrokes into a powerful tool in our 2020 lexicon.


So-called “emoticons” first emerged as a way to head off misreadings of tone and intention in “cyberspace.” In the late 1980s, a professor at Carnegie Mellon named Scott Fahlman suggested three keystrokes that would change the world: :-). He called the resulting smiling face a “joke marker,” meant to show forum users that a remark was meant in jest.

The smiley and its brethren, made from either Latin or Japanese characters, were wildly successful at mitigating virtual conflict. They exploded in popularity, proliferating in such complicated ways—from shrugging ¯_(ツ)_/¯ to Homer Simpson ~(_8^(I) —that they outgrew their original purpose, becoming difficult to remember or understand. As both a solution and a marketing gimmick, a Japanese telecommunications company began incorporating emoticons into its devices’ texting capabilities, as characters matched to strings of numbers—the way much of text was processed on early cell phones. But these new “emoji” (which come from “e,” meaning picture; “mo,” meaning write; and “ji,” or character, in Japanese) weren’t readable on devices not coded to translate this number system.

Emojipedia Tweet with image of new emoji

Eventually, responsibility for emoji was turned over to the UNICODE consortium, a group of tech giants and nation states originally formed in 1991 as a way of standardizing the encoding of alphabets on the internet. At the time, the way computers dealt with text was complicated and prone to errors. Depending on the program or computer model, letters, symbols, and punctuation were represented with different codes—sometimes even within the same language, leading to incompatibilities and occasional gobbledygook on screen. UNICODE offered a single standard way to encode on the back end to help the world’s computers show its many languages consistently and correctly. It made sense that the same thing could be done for emoji.

Nowadays, UNICODE has exacting specifications for what becomes an emoji, since it will be hard-coded into our telecommunications. The subcommittee meets weekly, looking over new proposals, asking for improvements and clarifications, and then shepherding the new selection through the design process before implementation. 

They help answer questions like: Are people going to confuse the chipmunk with the squirrel? When you say “Hindu temple,” do you mean one that’s more similar to the temples of southern or northern India? Did anyone notice that the type of wheelchair we’re depicting is more like one found in a hospital, versus one daily wheelchair users would recognize as theirs?

“When reviewing proposals, one thing I keep an eye out for is, what are they leaving out?” says Jennifer Daniel, the chair of UNICODE’s emoji subcommittee, an all-volunteer (mostly anonymous) group of engineers, designers, and linguists who oversee the organization’s exhaustive process for choosing new emoji. This year’s crop, for example, includes a new rope emoji. “It’s innocent; the proposal was banal,” she says, “but when you think about it and you see that knot next to a tree, you have a suicide. You have a lynching. And it’s already pretty easy to be angry online.” Daniel and her colleagues helped adjust the new emoji’s color and alignment. “You can put that new design next to the tree, and it doesn’t have the same orientation,” she says. “Having that kind of empathy is critical to the subcommittee.”

A new emoji should be demonstrably different from existing emoji, to avoid confusion and repetition; it should have staying power; and it should be “paradigmatic.” As the UNICODE application form puts it, the emoji “beer mug” represents not just a mug with exactly the shape you see on the screen, filled with beer of exactly that color, but rather beer in general.” That’s in part because of the way UNICODE works: Each platform designs its own, slightly different, image to go with the hard-coded number assigned to a character. So the idea must be conveyed regardless of details.

And, perhaps most importantly, a new candidate emoji should have layers that give it the potential to be used in metaphor or symbolism. For example, “SHARK is not necessarily only the animal, but also used for a huckster, in jumping the shark, loan shark, etc.,” the UNICODE site notes.

“Great weather”  

These layers are important because of what emoji do for language some 30 years on. In the most basic cases, they can set a tone, stand in for social niceties that open and close messages, or fill silences that might otherwise feel awkward, says linguistic anthropologist Marcel Danesi. But they serve more complicated social purposes, too.

The key, says cognitive psychologist Monica Riordan, is that text—the basis of so much of our communications these days—is a “deprived medium,” one where we don’t have access to other signals like body language, vocal tone, or facial expressions. So, she asks, “how do we make it richer so we can convey meaning in ways that others can understand?”

Riordan argues that one of our most important uses for emoji is lessening ambiguity. In a conversation where one person remarks on “great weather,” for example, the other person might not know if they’re enjoying sunny skies or breathing wildfire smoke. But adding the swearing emoji at the end clears that up, she says. “It tells me your intended meaning, allowing you to speak in ways that are non-literal.”

Still, she adds, we shouldn’t assume that the emoji we use are just extensions of our own facial expressions. Our expressions are spontaneous, but we choose emoji deliberately— sometimes to convey emotions that don’t match what we really feel.

3 new emoji faces and 2 hearts

The 217 emoji coming to devices in 2021 include Face in Clouds, Face Exhaling, Face with Spiral Eyes, Mending Heart, and Heart on Fire. Image Credit: Emojipedia

Riordan argues that emoji do what social scientists call “emotion work,” the hidden labor we do to maintain our relationships. If her mother sends her a text message that annoys her, she says, “I don’t want her to know how annoyed I really am, so I might send her a thumbs up. That drives forward relationship maintenance.” If they were to have the same interaction in person, Riordan might not be able to hide her feelings, she says, but emoji make that easier. Sending a thumbs up instead of a more explicit response leaves her mother to draw her own conclusions about Riordan’s meaning. “She’s going to assume I’m agreeing with her, even though I’m not and I never said I was.”

That ambiguity is “very, very useful for people,” says linguist Novi Djenar, who has studied emoji use among young people in Indonesia. In the discussion forums Djenar studied, commenters used the ambiguity of emoji to avoid sounding too patronizing or vulnerable. And they even used emoji to navigate complex discussion threads on the forum, mirroring the icons used in messages they agreed with and switching to new emoji to show a change of opinion. Using the same symbols, Djenar says, “you get this really nice ‘cling cling,’ this little bell that says, ‘We’re together in this.’”

And computational linguist Samira Shaikh has studied the ways emoji can strengthen expressions of solidarity on Twitter and other social media sites, especially during traumatic events like Hurricane Irma and the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. Shaikh and her team found that emoji helped reinforce messages of solidarity, creating themes (folded hands, hearts, flags) that tended to spread through the conversation about that event. “The pictures and vivid colors draw your attention if you’re scrolling past. Once your attention is drawn, you’re more likely to read through the whole message”—and to share or reply, Shaikh says.

Cactuses and unicorns

When she’s feeling playful, Daniel, who works on emoji-related issues at Google on top of her volunteer role at UNICODE, often turns to the tornado and poop emoji to refer to her kids. When she’s in a bad mood, the cactus is her go-to choice. “The internet has an insatiable appetite for taking things and giving them whole new meanings,” she says. “I can put it as my status message and everyone understands.”

Danesi distinguishes the potential of the cactus and other similar “non-face” emoji from emoji that involve facial expressions as “icon versus symbol.” Face emoji form a kind of universal lexicon, he argues, with an emotional meaning almost anyone can understand. Non-face emoji, however, are “inherently negotiable, either situation-specific or culture-specific,” allowing a speaker to create an “idiolect,” a word or set of words whose use is decided by the user, he says. 

A good example would be Daniel’s cactus emoji—or, in Riordan’s case, unicorns. Riordan exchanges unicorn emoji with a friend with whom she once baked a spectacularly failed unicorn birthday cake. “It was a massive disaster, fun but terrible,” Riordan remembers. “As a result of that, sometimes my friend and I will text each other the unicorn emoji to talk about something with good intentions that blew up in our faces.”

But she also points to larger, culture-wide negotiations over emoji meaning, like the connection of the dark-skin-tone fist emoji with the Black Lives Matter movement as a call to action, or the assignment of the eggplant and peach emoji to certain body parts. “The meaning of emoji reflects what’s happening at a greater societal level,” she says. In the case of the Black fist, the emoji itself has no inherent meaning. It’s the social and cultural context that add meaning or purpose. 

And in the case of the eggplant and peach, Riordan says, “We have a society in which it is not considered acceptable to have actual emoji of a penis, breasts, or a butt, so we’re forced to adopt other symbols for these things. In a sense, the use of the eggplant emoji is a reflection of the taboos of our society.”

This movement of culture and meaning goes both ways. In keeping with recent updates allowing users to choose their emoji’s skintones, the 2020 UNICODE emoji set features several new gender-neutral and nonbinary emoji, including a “Mx. Claus” for Christmas and a person with a mustache wearing a bridal veil. And then there’s the man and gender-neutral person feeding a baby—where, until recently, the only option was a woman. That was Daniel’s doing. She’s behind many of the most-anticipated emoji of 2020, including “ninja,” “people hugging,” and “smiling face with tear,” but this one was especially close to her heart. “You don’t need a boob to feed a baby or to take care of a baby, and so this felt like a reasonable resolution,” she says.

Djenar argues that the creation of that emoji both reflects and creates an evolving reality of gender roles in our society. “This is a very intimate interaction; what we observe has been happening socially spurs people to create more emoji,” she says. And those available emoji in turn open the way for what’s possible—like a father taking on parenting responsibilities.

The ramifications of our new emoji language may be even greater than that. Danesi argues that our use of visual writing is having radical effects on our literacy and cognition. Until recently, our collective way of thinking has been inextricably linked with the printed word, he says—our arguments, meditations, discussions laid out sequentially, reflecting what’s sometimes called the alphabet principle. “Our mind, our eyes, got used to seeing knowledge literally laid out this way in front of us.”

Today, that way of thinking and processing is still there, Danesi says, “but it’s not enough for us anymore.” Instead, we insert imagery, graphs, symbols. He sees this not as a loss of cognition but an expansion of it. “It doesn’t mean our attention span has gone down in any way whatsoever. But there are different emphases in the way we lay out knowledge, the way we create. Emoji are just a small symptom of this paradigm shift.”

Danesi’s old teacher, Marshall McLuhan, once theorized when we changed from an oral culture to a writing culture, that led to a change in cognition and consciousness. To Danesi, emoji represent a similar step. “It’s not just a cute new way to embellish your writing,” he says. “We’re retrieving an old pictograph society”—one that can use an image of a flame to imply a whole constellation of changing language: that’s hot, that’s lit, that’s straight fire.

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