I have been asked by students and colleagues to write, very belatedly perhaps, about emoji. While searching for something novel and meaningful to say about the phenomenon, and looking for a stance to adopt in the (sometimes tedious) ‘is/are emoji a language?’ debate, I thought I would share some first thoughts and a list of references (a personal selection from the mass of material recently published), to provide a shortcut for anyone else studying the subject…
AN EMOJI TIMELINE
1964 – the smiley face 😊 symbol invented by Harvey Ross Ball
1982 – (11.44am, September 19) Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University in the USA posts the first emoticon: : – )
1989 – Internet acronyms (such as LOL, LMAO, WTF), having appeared on message-boards and in chatrooms since the mid-80s, spread rapidly across the anglosphere via text-messaging and email
1991 – the Unicode Consortium is founded to develop universal standards for Internet text-processing
1998 – Shigetaka Kurita invents emoji (= ‘picture’ + ‘character’) with 176 examples
2010 – Unicode adopt emoji, add hundreds more 😈
2015 – Unicode 8.0 releases new emoji range with skin tones,
2017 – Facebook processes 6bn messages containing emoji
2018 – 2823 emoji have been approved so far
HOW DO EMOJI FUNCTION?
They insert punctuating ‘mood-breaks’ into conventional sentences😠 in a sort of ‘bimodal codeswitching’
They are to written communication what nonverbal cues – paralinguistic ‘phatic-communion’ (70% of emotion in real-life interactions is communicated nonverbally)– are to spoken communication, occupying the ‘space between word and gesture’, enabling ‘visual small-talk’
They are ‘tone-markers’, introducing irony, sarcasm and emotion/’emotivity’ to otherwise impoverished digital texts😍
They are ‘gestural’, functioning similarly to two categories of physical gesture: ’emblematic’ which, like a thumbs-up or middle finger, are symbolic and culturally specific, and ‘illustrative’ which imitate real objects or movements
They (like graffiti, memes, GIFs), exploit an inherent human need for ‘visuality’, along with a more recent requirement for empathy, cultural allusion, humour and positive play😎 to create a new hybrid or multimodal digital literacy
DO EMOJI HAVE ANY LASTING SIGNIFICANCE?
Can a hybrid transnational code help to change consciousness?
Do emoji reinforce (hyper)individualism and the establishing of hyperlocal communities of practice/microniches/meganiches?
Or could emoji move us further towards a collective global intelligence, a ‘virtual communal brain’?
Are emoji ‘hegemonic’ in that they reinforce the priorities and power-relationships of consumer capitalism (they have after all already been appropriated by/commodified for marketing, advertising and manufacturing)?
Or are they ‘antihegemonic’/subversive in that they disrupt😈 traditional discourse, empower individuals and new collectivities?
One of the best histories and overviews of the subject was provided by WIRED magazine earlier this year:
Dictionary.com now have a guide to possible meanings and uses of the most important emoji (click on each):
…I’m intrigued by the ‘instabilities’ in emoji meaning and the fact that ’emoji dialects’ have been discerned:
…and by such insights as these, from a feminist perspective, from Debbie Cameron:
…here’s a curiosity, on ‘professional emoji whisperer’ Rachael Tatman:
…from 2018, the first article so far, in the Telegraph, to focus on the committee that chooses new emoji:
…brands are using emoji on Twitter:
From February 2019, an unusually negative view on how emoji have mutated, by Ian Bogost:
This important title by Philip Seargeant appeared in July 2019:
Philip, with whom I have worked, is part of the team which has designed a course in emoji which is offered – free – by the Open University:
…any new thoughts on emoji interpretation, or additional links would be gratefully received! Here are the remaining links from the past year:
…in 2018, at long last, we gingers were validated:
…and here’s more on the 12.0 release upcoming in 2019:
The latest, on emoji as gesture, from internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch:
A footnote. US language specialist Ben Zimmer‘s son claims that this, the suspension railway, is the least used emoji:
And in Spanish and Italian, this is the emoji version of the coronavirus: