Emojis: adding depth, not dumbing down

Emojis are often blamed for destroying our ability to use language, but people have communicated using symbols for centuries. Are they simplifying the way we communicate, or actually adding nuance?

Peppering our social media channels with yellow faces, hearts and much more besides, emojis have been accused of dumbing down written communication. When the team behind Oxford Dictionaries named the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji as word of the year 2015, it received a wave of criticism. Emojis’ popularity was described by one critic as “a huge step back for humanity”.

But it is the fastest-growing system of communication, evolving rapidly, and set to vanish no time soon, as UK adults spend an average of 24 hours a week online. Worldwide, we send more than 6 billion emojis every day. In fact, research suggests that these symbols – from bulging biceps to clinking champagne glasses – actually help add tone, clarity and empathy to our communication. They are understandable across linguistic barriers, and emojis are even being explored to help people with autism and language-processing disorders.

“When speaking face to face, we use language but, in fact, between 60 and 70 per cent of social meaning comes from non-verbal cues: timbre, pitch range, eye contact, whether you’re laughing, or your voice is breaking with emotion, that sort of thing,” says Vyv Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University and author of The Emoji Code.

“Humans can use 43 facial muscles to produce more than 10,000 distinct facial expressions –
these are also clues to our emotional state. But before 2011, there was no ready means to signal these elements in meaning in a digital context. This is where emoji comes in – it provides ‘tone of voice’ to our text-based messages.”

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The original set of emojis was launched in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, part of a Japanese team working on an early smartphone. They were black and white, and designed within just 12 by 12 pixels. Kurita was inspired by forecasts that used symbols to explain the weather; by Chinese street signs; and by the manga tradition, which deploys symbols to express emotions: light bulbs to signify inspiration; a bead of sweat on somebody’s brow to indicate nervousness. The word emoji comes from Japanese e meaning picture, and moji – character.

Today, emojis are standardised across the internet by Unicode, a California-based consortium with 11 permanent members including Apple, Google and Microsoft. There are now around 1,800 emojis, from noodles to poodles, and of the 6 billion sent each day, about 70 per cent relate to emotional expression.

“We’ve been relatively impoverished in terms of making the most of internet-based technology for communicating,” says Evans. “This can lead to what I call the angry jerk phenomenon: getting an email from someone you know to be otherwise calm and sane, in which they come across as a red-faced shouty twerp. Text itself can suck the empathy out of the message.

“To get a fully rounded message, to establish the empathy that shapes effective communication – the ability to put oneself in the other person’s shoes – you need multimodal communication, more than language.”

To get a fully rounded message, to establish the empathy that shapes effective communication, you need more than language

Research led by Dr Linda Kaye, senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University, backs this up. Her team found that certain regions of the brain light up when people look at emojis, implying they function as non-verbal, so adding emotional tone.

“For example, people report they can portray positive mood more easily when using emojis and also can reduce any ambiguity in a message,” says Kaye. “This is particularly relevant for portraying more complex transmissions such as sarcasm which, in face-to-face communication, has a certain tone in the way it is spoken.”

Other scientists have discovered that when we look at a smiley face online, the same parts of the brain are activated as when we look at a real human face.

“Emojis can also aid perceptions of the sender,” says Kaye. “We have found that when people use happy emojis on Facebook, for example, other people perceive them to be agreeable, conscientious and more open-minded at first impression.”

People who criticise emojis, Evans argues, fundamentally misunderstand the role of language. Art critic Jonathan Jones, for example, called emojis “brainless little icons”, adding: “Speak Emoji if you want. I’ll stick with the language of Shakespeare.”

But emojis aren’t being used to replace the language of Shakespeare, reminds Evans. “In fact, if you’re to understand the motiveless malignity of someone like Iago in Othello, you need intonation to convey the in-jokes, the dramatic irony, all these para-linguistic features which are, in fact, what emojis enable us to do in short form electronic communication.”

Last week it was announced that UCL professor Sophie Scott will give the 2017 Royal Institution Christmas lectures on the evolution of language, including how emojis can enhance human interaction by putting “emotional, non-verbal information back in”.

More than words

Anybody can submit an emoji to Unicode for consideration. They must not relate to individuals living or dead, or deities, so no John Lennon, Elvis or Buddha emojis. Ideas must be pictographic, rather than ideographic, so abstract notions such as feminism or solidarity are ill-suited to emoji form. And since 2016, diversification in terms of gender and ethnic background has also been required. If there is a male scientist, for example, there must also be a female scientist, and skin tone modifiers aim to ensure everyone is represented.

So far, so good. But one aspect is concerning people: the censorship of emojis. Last year, Apple was accused of this after replacing a handgun emoji with a water pistol symbol; it was a decision based on growing despair in the US and elsewhere over gun crime. And after a rifle emoji was approved to represent the biathlon event as part of a series of Olympic emojis, Apple decided against actually populating the emoji. (Emojis are approved by Unicode, but then realised by each software developer.)

Things got heated over on Instagram, too – a platform on which over half of all text captions now feature emojis – when certain emojis were co-opted to represent aspects of male and female genitalia. In 2015, Instagram banned the aubergine, a stand-in for – ah-hum – the male anatomy. But the platform has since relented after being accused of prudishness.

“You could make a claim that this is a form of censorship, not Orwellian, but moving in that
sort of direction,” says Evans. “And so it raises questions: are we on a slippery slope? Software developers who don’t want their brand damaged are declining to represent certain emojis, or change how they’re represented, which affects how we’re able to use them to communicate.”

The original set of emojis were black and white, and designed within just 12 by 12 pixels

But great stories of how emojis came into being also abound. In 2016, a Chinese- American, San Francisco-based businesswoman successfully proposed a Chinese dumpling emoji after deciding that her favourite snack deserved to be represented. Earlier this year, a 15-year-old Arabic girl, originally from Saudi Arabia but living in Berlin, proposed a hijab emoji, which has been accepted as a candidate emoji – the process for approval usually takes about 18 months. “You need some compelling visual designs and you need to demonstrate frequency: that there would be a sufficient user base,” notes Evans, “but anybody can nominate an emoji”.

Symbols’ meaning can evolve over time. The dancing female twins wearing bunny ears was one of the original Japanese emojis and derives from a 1950s campaign associated with Playboy Enterprises. It was adopted in Japanese culture as a symbol of the apparently idealised view of a female sex symbol – a subservient woman. But it has been reinterpreted in western culture as representing women going out and having a good time, joyfulness, emancipation and freedom.

“Another good one is the female with the hand in the air, as if she’s holding a tray,” says Evans. “In Japanese culture, this is a receptionist symbol, of someone who is available to help. But now people often use it to mean someone who’s sassy or cheeky. It has been completely turned on its head.”

I love the intricate detail and range of colour. With emojis, a writer can become more like a painter

Dr Kaye is excited about how emojis could be applied to people struggling with social interaction. Her team is already researching their relevance to people with autism. The new Samsung app Wemogee uses emojis to help people with aphasia, a language-processing disorder that makes it difficult to read, write or talk. Many people with aphasia already draw or use picture boards in order to communicate, and Wemogee is designed to be a faster and more versatile alternative.

And though emojis are often used in lighthearted ways, could they also be useful in extremely serious situations that are difficult to discuss? A Swedish children’s rights organisation that runs helplines for young people in need has developed an app to help children communicate about abuse. The Abused Emoji set includes a child with a black eye or a bandage, and difficult situations such as a child between two parents and a glass of wine or beer. Experts have expressed wary enthusiasm, while noting concern about potential ambiguity and the limitations of such apps.

Emoji enthusiast and designer Joe Hale has translated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland into emojis, turning a 27,500-word novel into a poster of more than 25,000 of the symbols. He thinks emojis bring a human warmth into technological communications, which can otherwise feel cold or alienating.

“I love the intricate detail and range of colour. With emojis, a writer can become more like a painter. My favourite is the radiant sun with a face. In relation to my work, I’ve found I can relate more immediately to language and signs that engage the visual rather than verbal part of my mind. Words feel very tired to me. If you can communicate an idea using solely emojis, you’ve made words disappear. It’s like a shortcut – a magic trick.”


This article is featured in issue 90 of Positive News magazine. Become a subscriber member to receive Positive News magazine delivered to your door, plus you’ll get access to exclusive member benefits.