How emoji changed the world

Richard Godwin

We've all found ourselves in situations where emojis have provided a more apt response than words. You’re trying to end an awkward midnight text exchange: monkey-no-speak, peace sign, bed? The Prime Minister is giving a Facebook live interview: angry red face, angry red face, angry red face?

Or perhaps you’re working in the White House and your boss Donald Trump has just decided to fire FBI director James Comey and only bothered to brief press secretary Sean Spicer, one hour beforehand, and now all the phones are buzzing like crazy. As the Washington Post reported on May 10: “When asked Tuesday night for an update on the unfolding situation, one top White House aide simply texted a reporter two fireworks emojis.”

Whatever, it should come as no surprise that the White House backchannels to the press by means of cutesy glyphs. Emoji – from the Japanese for picture (e) plus character (moji) — have seeped into every area of digital life. There are 3.2 billion internet users worldwide and according to one source, 92 per cent of them regularly use emojis. The forthcoming Emoji Movie stars T J Miller as the (non-existent) “meh” emoji who must learn the timely lesson that it’s OK to have more than one reaction. The smiley cushion is a staple of tourist tat stalls from Kuala Lumpur to Blackpool.

It has all happened so rapidly too. While emoticons such as :-) date back to the advent of email in 1982, and emojis have been standard on Japanese “feature phones” since the late-1990s, it wasn’t until 2011 that Apple introduced its emoji keyboard. You can now make use of 1,088 distinct emojis.

The annual release of new emojis by Unicode, the California-based non-profit consortium that standardises text across the internet, is greeted as a major event. Among recent additions are a vomiting face, a breastfeeding woman, a hedgehog, broccoli (which can double as cann abis), and the English, Welsh and Scottish flags.

Linguistics professor Vyvyan Evans, author of The Emoji Code, is a leading authority on digital communication. He sees emoji as an evolutionary response to rapid mobile communications, much as punctuation helped ease the transition from oral to written traditions.

Evans feels it is inaccurate to call emoji a language — it has no grammar or syntax, so attempting to translate regular sentences into emoji feels a bit like playing charades. It is a paralanguage, approximating the roles that gesture, expression and tone of voice play in spoken communication. “When we’re talking to someone, 60-70 per cent of ‘social meaning’ comes from non-verbal cues,” says Evans. “We can produce over 10,000 facial expressions, for example. What emoji do is bring emails, texts and so on back into line with speech.”

This was pretty much the logic of their inventor, Shigetaka Kurita, who drew up the first 272 emoji while working at the Japanese telecommunications company NTT Docomo in 1999. And you can see the evidence of this function on, which counts emoji use on Twitter in real-time, like a sort of stock exchange for sentiment. Almost all of the most popular emoji are emotional. Tears of joy — the Oxford English Dictionary’s Word of the Year for 2015 — has racked up 1,705,847,010 uses. Heart, heart eyes, floods of tears, kiss and slight dejection also score high.

Still, if emotion is what makes emoji useful, what makes them fun is their near-infinite array of interpretations. We all know, I hope, that if your partner sends you an aubergine followed by a peach followed by a question mark, it’s fairly likely they’re not asking what you’d like for supper. Apple — the Mary Whitehouse of the Unicode panel — recently redesigned the peach emoji so that it looked less like a bum. Instagram briefly banned the aubergine from its search terms to avert dick pix. But users are more than capable of reverse-engineering their own meanings for chrysanthemum, woman making OK sign, grapes, etc. The water closet emoji has recently emerged as Instagram slang for woman crush, for example.

Trump himself doesn’t seem to have located emojis — small mercy — but his advisers are well-versed in their use as internet cant. The clique surrounding the far-Right isolationist Steve Bannon refers to former Goldman Sachs banker Gary Cohn with the globe emoji as way of mocking his globalist sympathies.

Meanwhile the snowflake emoji has been reclaimed by liberals , and often features in Twitter profiles along with the rainbow flag (LGBT-friendly), the raised fist (Resist!), and the paperclip (the closest emoji to the safety pin worn in solidarity with minority groups.) There’s a set of unofficial Jeremy Corbyn emojis for the election.

Of course, who does and doesn’t get to be represented in emoji form is in itself political. Unicode 5.0 features a hijab emoji — petitioned for by a Saudi schoolgirl — while Apple began introducing skin shades with its iOS 8.3 update. But as the range expands, so the omissions become more glaring. Where are the ginger emojis? Where are the curly-hair emojis?

British users know this cultural pain: for years we have had to make do with black coffee or green tea to represent tea. And this week, the Plan International UK launched a campaign to introduce a period emoji so as to help banish stigma around menstruation.

Still, according to Jeremy Burge of Emojipedia, the most common requests are for branded emojis. “There’s already a coffee cup but a lot of people ask for a Starbucks emoji,” he tells me. “Football team logosare also in demand but go against Unicode selection factors.”

We are tribal animals after all. And the number of companies offering customisable emoji suggest that the days of centralised emoji planning will not last for ever. All of which places great responsibility on Unicode. “It’s a non-governmental organisation, but it is dominated by older white male engineers from Silicon Valley who ultimately answer to shareholders,” says Evans. “And they’re making decisions about how the world communicates, which is quite odd if you think about it.”

There are 11 full voting members of Unicode, who each pay $18,000 a year: Silicon Valley giants Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and Yahoo; German software company SAP; Chinese telecoms company Huawei; and the Government of Oman.

Evans sees censorship as a developing issue. Apple recently changed its gun emoji to a water pistol, and led the revolt against the rifle emoji.

But a more insidious threat lurks deep in our cortexes. The Sapin-Whorf hypothesis (hotly debated in linguistics circles) posits that the grammatical patterns of your native language alter how you think. “There’s now brain scan evidence to support this hypothesis,” says Evans. “So I’d argue that there is a potential danger with emoji. If Unicode can change and influence these systems of communication, ultimately for the interests of the shareholders of its member companies, there are potentially pernicious downstream consequences.”

One potential way is by limiting our emotional range. This is the theme of the Emoji Movie, as it turns out. Humans are imitative. We take our social cues from those around us. We’re also lazy. It’s so much easier to sympathise with a smiley face than think through a response. It’s so much easier mock with a tears of joy than it is to reason. A sort of cutesy flippancy comes to stand in for our full emotional range. We become nodes in a system, our 10,000 potential facial expressions reduced to a drop-down menu of bits of code chosen by a group of unaccountable tech billionaires. It’s hard to know how to feel about that except

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