MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
Is Emoji the New Universal ‘Language’?
Getting married is often regarded as one of life’s most significant events. It can distil our hopes and dreams, and reframe our everyday life; through its ritual and celebration and the serious business of taking vows, we commit to sharing our life with another. A wedding can also mark the liminal passage from a more tranquil existence to the greater challenge of making and, for some, raising a family, and all the responsibilities and pressures that come with that. And, of course, most of us feel nervous ahead of the big day.
In April 2015, tennis star Andy Murray married his long-term girlfriend, Kim Sears. As is often the case with today’s celebrities, he sent a pre-wedding message to his bride, friends and followers. In the context of early twenty-first-century social media technology, this took the form of a tweet on the morning of his wedding day (see Figure 1 in the picture section). In the message Murray expressed his hopes and expectations for the day, as well as hinting at the nerves he no doubt felt. But what really got tongues wagging was the fact that his tweet was made up of nothing but emojis.1
Andy Murray’s tweet conveys, in pictorial form, the day’s events, as Murray expected them to unfold: the early morning preparations, the emotions, the journey to and from the church, the post-wedding partying, the consummation of the marriage and, finally, exhausted sleep. But, despite the headlines that it provoked at the time, Andy Murray’s Emoji tweet is not an isolated phenomenon. In February 2015, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop, an avid Emoji user, conducted the world’s first political interview entirely in Emoji – the interview was conducted via iMessage and published on the Buzzfeed website. In one question, Ms Bishop was asked to provide her emoji characterisations of various world leaders. Intriguingly, she identified the then Australian prime minister Tony Abbott as the running man, while Russian president Vladimir Putin was characterised as the angry red face.2
Even an institution as august as the BBC is not immune. Each Friday, the Newsbeat page on the BBC website – associated with BBC Radio 1 and aimed at younger listeners – publishes the news in Emoji. Radio listeners are invited to guess what the headline means. See whether you can figure out which headline the Emoji ‘sentence’ in Figure 2, in the picture section, relates to.3
Nor is the literary canon exempt: Ken Hale, a visual designer with a passion for Emoji, has translated, among other classics, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book of 27,500 or so words, into a pictorial narrative consisting of around 25,000 emojis.4 Some example Emoji ‘sentences’ provided by the artist are given in Figure 3.
Of course, it’s incredibly hard to read Emoji sentences. It’s for this very reason that the Newsbeat Emoji headline quiz is a competition. Part of the satisfaction of reading the ‘translations’ of the sentences, and the humour that we derive, comes from nodding your head in tacit understanding once you’ve read the words. The translations enable us to make sense of how the emojis might add up to a meaningful Emoji ‘sentence’. But just as with the emojified version of Alice in Wonderland, this all goes to show that Emoji just doesn’t function in the same way as a language. As we will see in more detail later in the book, Emoji lacks a grammar – a system of rules that lets us combine the individual glyphs into more complex units of meaning. And it is precisely for this reason that we require a helping-hand to make sense of the Newsbeat and Alice in Wonderland examples.
Emoji is becoming ubiquitous. The New York Public Radio station WNYC introduced a subway service, using emojis, to advise passengers of the status of particular New York City (NYC) subway lines. As the WNYC website explained, ‘We’re trying to estimate agony on the NYC subway by monitoring time between trains and adding unhappy points for stations typically crowded at rush hour.’5 You can find an example in Figure 5 in the picture section.
In response a leading online magazine has developed an emojified map of London’s underground rail system, affectionately known to Londoners as the Tube. Those familiar with London’s landmarks will instantly recognise stations such as Angel, Bank, Piccadilly Circus and so on (see Figure 6 in the picture section).
But is this all a gimmick, a passing fad? Could Emoji ever truly replace language in our digital communication? Or will it develop into a fully fledged language in its own right? And why is it that the younger generation are the most avid Emoji users? And beyond this, what about literacy and spelling standards – are they inevitable casualties of the rise of Emoji? In the final analysis, what does the uptake of Emoji mean for language, and for the future of human communication in the digital age? These are the very issues that I address in this book. And in the process, we’ll examine what language is, and isn’t, what role it plays in communication, and what the Emoji code reveals about these issues.
The rise and rise of Emoji
Emoji is an anglicised version of two Japanese words – e, ‘picture’, and moji, ‘character’. And for those who might not be crystal clear on the subject, emojis are the colourful symbols – the winks, smileys, love hearts and so on – embedded as single character images, or glyphs, in our digital keyboards. Since 2011, when they first became widely available on mobile computing devices, they have taken the world by storm. At the ingredients level, an emoji is a glyph encoded in fonts, like other characters, for use in electronic communication. It’s especially prevalent in digital messaging and social media. An emoji, or ‘picture character’, is a visual representation of a feeling, idea, entity, status or event. From a historical perspective, the first emojis were developed in the late 1990s in Japan for use in the world’s first mobile-phone internet system, then under development by Japanese telecommunications company NTT DoCoMo. There were originally 176 emoji characters. This figure mushroomed during the 2000s, driven by competition in the Japanese mobile computing sector. In 2009, the California-based Unicode Consortium, which specifies the international standard for the representation of text across modern digital computing and communication platforms, sanctioned a little over 700 emojis. These were based, primarily, on usage in Japanese mobile computing. The Unicode-approved emojis became available to software developers by 2010. At the time of writing, there are 1,851 emoji Unicode characters available to software developers, including skin-tone modifiers and various other combinations, sequences that produce couple and family emojis; but this figure will continue to rise6 – for the most up-to-date information, the ultimate source of Emoji facts, figures and cross-platform glyphs is emojipedia.org.7 But let’s be clear from the outset: Emoji is not a language in the way that, say, English, French or Japanese are languages; at least not yet. I’ll consider what makes something a language in Chapter 3, and how language-like Emoji is (and isn’t). And I’ll have a lot more to say on whether Emoji is likely to evolve into a language. That said, we need to be equally clear that Emoji represents a powerful system of communication; while not a language, it nevertheless fulfils some of the functions associated with language.
With that caveat in mind, the following fact is especially discombobulating: Emoji is, today, incontrovertibly the world’s first truly universal form of communication. Given that English is often said to be the world’s global language, to make the point clear, a comparison with English is a highly instructive point of departure.
While English doesn’t have the same number of first-language users as other languages – both Mandarin (900 million) and Spanish (427 million) have more native speakers – it has both status and reach that puts it on a different plane to any other. English has 339 million native speakers, with a further 603 million speakers who use it as a second language. This means there are around 942 million more-or-less fluent speakers in the world. And with another 500-plus million users with some degree of fluency, that makes for more than 1.5 billion people alive today with proficiency in English. It’s the primary or official language in 101 countries, from Canada to Cameroon, and Malta to Malawi – far outstripping any other language.8 It has been transplanted a great distance from its point of origin – a small country on a small island – spreading far beyond English shores. This was first achieved by the expansion and might of the British Empire, which at its height was the largest empire in history and the world’s foremost economic power for well over a century. By 1913, around 412 million people, almost a quarter of the world’s population at the time, were directly governed from London;9 and following the Great War of 1914–18, the British Empire controlled territories amounting to 13,700,000 square miles, around a quarter of the world’s total landmass.10 Since the Second World War, with the United States superseding the United Kingdom as the world’s most economically powerful nation, the influence of English has continued apace.
One interesting source of evidence of English’s far-reaching, and at times curious, impact comes from pseudo-English – foreign words that sound somewhat strangely English but aren’t. The Dutch and Germans refer to a mobile (or cell) phone as a ‘handy’, and many are even convinced this is an English term for this device. In Japan, the term is ‘cellar phone’. More bizarrely, in France, a glamorous Parisienne might indulge in an ‘unbrushing’ – a hairstyling event in which one’s hair is, counter-intuitively, styled (rather than unbrushed). In Moscow, the pseudo-Anglicism ‘feyskontrol’ (from face control) refers to the act of refusing entry at high-end nightclubs to those who aren’t quite the type of beautiful people the nightclub desires. The list goes on. Today, the ubiquitous influence of English in a wide array of global communication contexts is staggering: from commerce to diplomacy, from aviation to academic publishing, English serves as the global lingua franca.
But here comes the undiplomatic put-down; in comparison, Emoji dwarfs even the reach of English.
There are several ways in which we can measure the stratospheric rise of Emoji. One is the rapid rate of smartphone adoption – a ‘smart’ phone being defined as a wireless phone with mobile internet capability, just to be crystal clear. Smartphones were among the earliest devices that deployed the electronic keyboards which featured emojis as standard. Today nearly one quarter of the global population owns a smartphone; based on a survey of mobile computing habits in forty-one countries, it is estimated that there are currently over 2 billion smartphones in the world, with the figure set to continue to rise.11 By 2016, 3.2 billion people (approaching half the world’s population) had regular internet access, and 75 per cent of internet users accessed the internet via smartphones.12
Looking at specific countries, China exceeded 500 million smartphones during 2014, and India achieved more than 200 million smartphone users by 2016; in the USA the same figure was achieved by 2017, by which point 65 per cent of the population of the United States owned a smartphone.13 In terms of smartphones alone, by 2015 some 41.5 billion text messages were being sent globally every day; and across social media applications, each day more than 6 billion emojis are exchanged – mind-boggling figures.14 The table opposite shows the smartphone rate of adoption for the twenty-five nations that are the most avid users.
Another measure for assessing the uptake of Emoji comes from its penetration in social media applications. Let’s consider Instagram, the popular photo and video sharing platform. Instagram, founded in 2010, has well over 300 million active monthly users and counting, sharing over 70 million photos and videos every day.16 In fact, by the end of 2014, one fifth of the world’s internet users aged between sixteen and sixty-four had an Instagram account.17 In the first month following the launch of the Emoji keyboard in iOS, the uptake of emojis in text and captions on Instagram photos jumped from zero to 10 per cent. This further accelerated with the incorporation of Emoji in Android platforms. And by March 2015, nearly half of all text on Instagram posts contained emojis. The graph below illustrates the trend.
Yet another line of evidence, pointing to the rise and rise of Emoji, comes from the demise of textual forms of internet slang. For example, abbreviations used in SMS messages and social media applications, such as ‘lol’ (laugh out loud), ‘lolz’ (laugh out loud – with sarcasm), ‘imao’ (in my arrogant opinion – used to confidently assert something), or ‘omg’ (oh my god – used to express negative shock or surprise) are increasingly being replaced by the corresponding emojis.
For instance, in text captions on Instagram, the smiley face has come to replace a range of internet abbreviations that have semantically related meanings. These include: lolol, lmao, lololol, lolz, lmfao, lmaoo, lolololol, lol, ahahah, ahahha, loll, ahaha, ahah, lmfaoo, ahha, lmaooo, lolll, lollll, ahahaha, ahhaha, lml, lmfaooo. Moreover, and unlike the slang terms, many of which are language-specific (as in they are different in English, German, Japanese etc.), Emoji is now a near-universal form of communication, across all language groups of Instagram users. The general pattern of internet slang being replaced by emojis is captured by the table below.
In the UK, research that I conducted demonstrates that around 80 per cent of adult smartphone users – defined as eighteen to sixty-five-year-olds – regularly use emojis in their text messages, with around 40 per cent of Brits having sent text messages, paradoxically, without text, containing emojis alone.20 Beyond this, the live Twitter emojitracker, designed and curated by Brooklyn-based self-dubbed artist and hacker Matthew Rothenberg, reveals the numbers and types of emojis that are trending at any given time. Since the inauguration of emojitracker.com on 4 July 2013, Rothenberg has tracked over 16 billion tweets containing emojis – for the stats nerd, that’s hundreds of tweets containing emojis every second of every day!
Ultimately, whatever the metric, the adoption rate of Emoji is staggering; and this provides grist to the mill that Emoji is a truly global form of communication. It matters not a jot whether your mother tongue is English, Finnish or Korean: the smiley face means the same thing in every language – we are all, or nearly all, ‘speaking’ Emoji now.
Bringing emojis to life
A common question that people ask is whether anyone can simply create their own emojis. The short answer is yes. For instance, Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has created its own set of national emojis that express Finnish identity. These include emojis of people in saunas, of a Nokia phone and of a headbanger (see Figure 4 in the picture section).
But while Finland was the first country in the world to embrace its national identity through emojis, you won’t find these pictograms on your smartphone digital keyboard any time soon. And that’s because the Finnish emojis have not been officially sanctioned by the Unicode Consortium – and Finland has no plans to submit them for consideration.
A new emoji (as opposed to a bespoke emoji created for a specific purpose, such as a tourism or marketing campaign) has to meet various criteria in order to begin its first, tentative steps in the rigorous vetting process that determines which emojis become officially sanctioned and thus subsequently appear on your smartphone digital keyboard. Indeed, the process can be lengthy, taking around eighteen months from an emoji achieving initial official ‘candidate’ status to becoming approved – and many emoji proposals are rejected out of hand, never even making it to the candidate stage. Even then, once an emoji passes muster and is approved, it can take still longer for the newly sanctioned emoji to make it onto our digital keyboards; emojis can take several operating system updates, and sometimes several years, to make it onto a smartphone or tablet computer near you. Accordingly, bespoke emojis, as in the case of the Finnish examples, are often referred to as ‘stickers’, rather than emojis. A sticker is a bespoke emoji-like image that has to be downloaded as part of an app from an online app store in order to be used in text messages or on social media.
On 25 January 2016, a Chinese-American businesswoman, Yiying Lu, from San Francisco, succeeded where Finland had declined to tread. Supported by a crowdfunding campaign, Lu was successful in having a dumpling achieve official emoji candidate status (see Figure 7 in the picture section). The idea was that the dumpling should be allowed to join a growing catalogue of food emojis, including pizza, hamburgers, doughnuts and even a taco, itself supported by a Change.org petition organised by Taco Bell – who else?
The entire emoji vetting process is controlled by a handful of American multinational corporations that make up Unicode. There are strict qualifying criteria for new emojis: for instance, they may not depict persons living or dead, nor deities. This is why there are no Buddha, John Lennon or Madonna emojis. In addition, for a proposed emoji to be accepted as a ‘candidate’ emoji – rather than being rejected out of hand, without further consideration – it must be deemed to have widespread appeal. On this score, the proposal for a dumpling emoji looks to be strong. A dumpling – at its most basic, a dough-wrapped food parcel – is popular around the world, with exemplars ranging from Italian ravioli to Russian pelmeni, to Japanese gyoza. In Argentina there are empanadas, Jewish cuisine has kreplach, in Korea there is madoo and China has potstickers. But when Lu, an aficionado of Chinese dumplings, attempted to text a friend about the dish, she noticed there wasn’t an emoji she could use.
In early 2016, the fact that the dumpling had officially achieved candidate emoji status in California hit the headlines around the world; even the broadcast media got in on the act. I was invited onto BBC Radio to discuss the success of the Dumpling Project, headlining with Lu herself. The crowdfunded Kickstarter campaign had been a self-evident success, achieving over $12,000 and reaching its target within a few hours of going live. But the headlines begged the question: why all the fuss about dumplings? Isn’t this simply frivolity gone mad, an expensive bit of silliness?
On the contrary: Emoji matters. The Dumpling Project stands for far more than a simplistic bid to have the favourite food of a Bay area businesswoman sanctioned as an emoji. It is an instance of internet democracy at work; indeed, the slogan of the project read: ‘Emoji for the people, by the people’.
One significant reason why Emoji matters is the following: love it or loathe it, Emoji is, today, the world’s global form of communication; as we’ve already seen, over 90 per cent of the world’s internet users make use of emojis on social media applications,21 and over 80 per cent of all adults regularly use emojis in smartphone text messages, with figures likely to be far higher for under-eighteens. In short, most of the world’s mobile computing users use Emoji much of the time. And yet, the catalogue of emojis that show up on our smartphones and tablet computers – the vocabulary that connects around 2 billion people – is controlled by a handful of American multinationals. Eight of the eleven full members of the Unicode Consortium are American: Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook and Yahoo. In addition, the committee reps of these tech companies are overwhelmingly white, male, and computer engineers – hardly representative of the diversity exhibited by the global users of emojis (a point to which I will return later in the book). Indeed, as of 2015, the majority of food emojis were associated with North American culture, with some throwbacks to the Japanese origins of Emoji (such as a sushi emoji).
Hence, one motivation for the Dumpling Project was to ensure better representation. Of course, on its own, a campaign and proposal for a new food emoji cannot do much. But as an appeal to global cultural (and culinary) diversity, and as a clarion call for better representation of this diversity, the dumpling is a powerful emblem. Emoji began as a somewhat bizarre, little-known North Asian phenomenon; but since then, control has come to rest in the hands of American corporate giants. Dumplings, on the other hand, in their various shapes and guises are truly international; this speaks to the global nature of Emoji, as a form of quasi-universal communication fit for the digital age.
Another interesting aspect of the Dumpling Project is that it highlights the Byzantine process of emoji selection. Candidate status requires preparation of a detailed proposal, together with drawings of what the proposed emojis would look like; hence the need for funds from a Kickstarter campaign. The proposal is judged by a technical subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium before consideration by the full committee. This contrasts with the way in which a natural language such as English grows. For instance, anyone can coin a new word. But a newly minted word sinks or swims depending on whether it is useful for us, or otherwise valuable in some way. For instance, the term computer mouse – an invention first patented in 1970 and so-named because it physically resembles a small rodent – now relates to an invention that, for several decades, became a central and indispensable element of home computing. And the consequence is that the uptake of the word was driven, in this case, by real-world necessity rather than, as in the case of Emoji, a committee that rules on what is and is not permissible. It’s worth noting that the plural for a computer mouse is not mice, which proves that computer mouse is a new word coinage, distinct from its rodent visual namesake. Indeed, and as we shall see later in the book, in the case of language academies, their attempts to maintain linguistic standards, keeping language pure amid malign external influences, typically fail; the French continue to blithely use the borrowed English ‘email’ and ‘weekend’, rather than the more verbose French equivalents (courrier électronique; fin de semaine), in spite of the hand-wringing of L’Académie française. Natural language is a living, evolving organism shaped and renewed each day by its users; consequently, language-oversight academies fail, where Unicode, with Emoji, succeeds.
In employing the dumpling as a conceit, Lu’s project successfully engaged with, and educated, the public: both through the Kickstarter campaign, and the associated media publicity. One goal was to make the emoji-using public aware of the controls and tortuous process involved in new emojis seeing the light of day. Another was to demonstrate that, in principle, anyone can propose a new emoji that successfully navigates the time-consuming selection process. While there are caveats of course, as I discuss later on, every single one of us has the right to propose an emoji; and we don’t have to be an erudite academic, elected to an arcane academy, donning odd-looking robes, to do so.
Perhaps more than anything, the Dumpling Project is fun; and in terms of Emoji, a sense of fun is the watchword. While these colourful glyphs add a dollop of personality to our digital messaging, the Dumpling Project makes a powerful and important point. It avoids gender, religion or politics in conveying a simple message about inclusiveness in the world’s most widely used form of communication. And in the process, it provides us with an object lesson in the unifying and non-threatening nature of Emoji. Perhaps the world can, indeed, be united for the better by this new, quasi-universal form of communication.
Sex, communication and emotional intelligence
Setting aside dumplings, there are serious questions here about why and how Emoji has come to be a truly global system of communication. Some see Emoji as little more than an adolescent grunt, taking us back to the dark ages of illiteracy. But as we shall see, this prejudice fundamentally misunderstands the nature of communication. And in so doing it radically underestimates the potentially powerful and beneficial role of Emoji in the digital age as a communication and educational tool.
All too often we think of language as the key player, the kingpin, in our everyday world of meaning.22 But, in actual fact, much of the meaning we convey and glean in our everyday social encounters comes from non-verbal cues. In the spoken medium, gesture, facial expression, body language and speech intonation provide a means of qualifying and adjusting the message conveyed by the words we utter. A wink or smile nuances the language, providing a crucial cue, aiding our understanding of the spoken word. And intonation not only ‘punctuates’ our spoken language – there are no white spaces and full stops in speech that help us identify where words begin and sentences end – it also provides ‘missing’ information not otherwise conveyed by the words. We’ll explore this further in Chapter 4.
Digital communication provides us with an important channel of communication in our increasingly connected social and professional lives. But the rich, communicative context available in face-to-face encounters is largely absent. Digital text alone is impoverished and, on occasion, emotionally arid. Textspeak – the messages and posts we produce using text, and which are transmitted electronically via messaging and social media applications – seemingly possesses the power to strip all forms of nuanced expression from even the best of us. But here Emoji can help: as we will see, it fulfils a similar function in digital communication to gesture, body language and intonation in spoken interaction. Emoji, in SMS text messaging, email and other forms of digital communication, enables us to better express tone and provide emotional cues, and this allows us to better manage the ongoing flow of information, and to interpret what the words are meant to convey.
In fact, the idea that digital text, used alone, sucks away the nuancing has even been given its own name: Poe’s law. Based on comments made originally by Nathan Poe on how to parody fundamentalist views, Poe’s law is now an internet adage, widely cited on web forums and chat rooms; it even has its own Wikipedia page.23 According to British newspaper the Daily Telegraph, Poe’s law states the following: ‘Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.’24 In other words, when poking fun in digital communication, emojis are best used for avoidance of doubt; nothing yells ‘I’m being sarcastic, duh’ like the rolling eyes emoji.
It is no fluke, therefore, that I have found that 72 per cent of British eighteen to twenty-five-year-olds believe that Emoji makes them better at expressing their feelings.25 Far from leading to a drop in standards, Emoji is enabling people – especially the young – to become better communicators in their digital lives; the advent of Emoji can be seen, from this perspective, as empowering, a force for good in twenty-first-century communication.
A case in point can be found in research commissioned by the dating site Match.com in the United States. In the fifth annual Singles in America report, researchers investigated the relationship between Emoji usage and sexual conquests – the first survey of its kind to do so.26 The survey polled over 5,600 singles – all non-Match.com subscribers – whose socio-economic and ethnic profiles were representative of the national population. And the results were striking: the more emojis a singleton uses in their digital communication, the more dates they get to go on; further, the more sex they have. A striking 54 per cent of those who report that they regularly use Emoji had sex, compared with 31 per cent of those that don’t. Even more striking: for women, Emoji usage correlates with reported sexual satisfaction. The finding was that female singletons who use kiss-themed emojis reported having more orgasms than other women.
Clearly, and as any scientist worth their salt will warn us, correlation doesn’t entail causation. You can’t simply start using Emoji in your text messaging and expect to start being invited out on more dates (if only!) and certainly not that you’ll magically have more orgasms. Rather, Emoji usage is indicative of something else. Using Emoji makes it easier for your potential date to gauge your message: Emoji facilitates a better calibration and expression of our emotions in digital communication. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, and Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com’s annual Singles in America survey, commented on these findings: ‘Here we have a new technology that absolutely jeopardizes your ability to express your emotion … there is no more subtle inflection of the voice … and so we have created another way to express emotions and that is the emoji.’27
In essence, it is not Emoji usage per se that gets you more dates; rather, Emoji users are more effective communicators – a point I will repeat throughout the book. Their messages have more personality, and better convey the emotional intent of the text message. In turn, this leads to greater emotional resonance in the recipient.
In general terms, the predominant global usage of Emoji does relate to emotions. In a survey conducted by London-based software developer SwiftKey, over 1 billion items of text-based data were analysed from users spread across sixteen different languages.28 Interestingly, the top three Emoji categories all directly related to emotional expression. Happy faces, which include winks, kisses, smiles and grins, accounted for 45 per cent of all Emoji usage. Sad faces (including angry faces) made up 14 per cent of all usage. Heart emojis – of all colours, including the broken heart emoji – made up 12.5 per cent of usage. Over 70 per cent of emoji usage directly relates to emotional expression of some kind. This finding resonates with my own research that shows Emoji to be a powerful means of expressing emotion, which, users report, enables them to better connect with others in digital communication.
Today, the average adult in the United Kingdom – one example of a modern, digitally well-connected society – spends more than twenty hours per week online, with the under-twenty-four age group spending more than twenty-seven hours per week online.29 Britons are also increasingly online while on the move, using smartphones to stay connected. In this era of 24/7 digital communication, textspeak is beginning to catch up with the repertoire of communicative tools we have in the spoken medium. Emoji is an empowering addition to the hitherto primarily textual format in the digital arena. As the nature and practice of using Emoji continues to develop and evolve, its significance will, it’s safe to say, become less contested. In many ways, this is only the beginning.
Copyright © 2017 by Vyvyan Evans