A decade of emoji: How aubergines and crying faces connected us all online

Between 1998 and 1999, while the rest of the tech world was preoccupied with the Millennium bug, a 27-year-old engineer at Japanese phone company, NTT Docomo, was working on a project that would define the next era of digital communication. Although he didn’t know it yet.

From his office in the Gifu prefecture, Shigetaka Kurita, was trying to create a way for customers to communicate through icons. For years his employer had been successful at selling pagers to Japan’s teenagers, and its decision to add a heart symbol to one device had proved popular. But as competitors quickly created similar features Kurita knew Docomo required more.

The result was a set of 176 icons in 12×12 pixels, which Kurita named emoji, a combination of two Japanese words: “e” for picture and “moji” for character. Drawing from manga and Chinese characters, as well as international bathroom signs, he covered everything from weather, to traffic, and modes of transport. Today Kurita’s symbols are such an integral part of popular culture they are exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Symbols in writing existed long before Kurita’s brainwave: the first Europeans were known for writing on cave walls in the Paleolithic Age, like the Chauvet horse in France or the Altamira bison in Spain. In an 1881 issue of Puck magazine, journalists drew four basic faces calling it “typographical art”. And in the 1980s, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, Scott E. Fahlman, suggested that users of the school’s message board use 🙂 symbols to denote if they were joking or not (although he did have to teach them to read it sideways first).

Fahlman’s emoticons will be familiar to anyone who used email, SMS or chatrooms pre-2009 when a universal emoji alphabet was still unheard of. Behind the scenes, since 2007, Google had been leading the charge in attempting to get the Unicode Consortium (a nonprofit that maintains text standards across computers) to recognise emoji. In 2009, Apple also submitted a proposal. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Unicode finally realised they could no longer say no.

“Until that time when emojis went global, all our abbreviated digital messaging was missing some functions of communication,” Vyv Evans, a former professor of linguistics at Bangor University. Estimates of how widely emoji are used vary: research from TalkTalk in 2015 estimated 80 per cent of Brits use them regularly, a figure which presumably has risen in the last five years. The word “emoji” was chosen as the Oxford Dictionary word of the year in 2015, showing how quickly it had become a household concept.

Despite widespread usage, contemporary commentary often pitted emoji as adolescent, a sub-par form of conversation. A 2018 study, conducted by YouTube, concluded emojis were “ruining the English language” because young people rely on them in lieu of actual words. But has a decade of emoji changed our communication for the worse?

Professor Evans believes far from widespread emoji usage being to the detriment of our language, it is advantageous. He explains that human communication is “multi-modal”, which means that when we talk face-to-face we rely on three main channels to convey our message: these are language (the words we use), paralinguistic cues (tone of voice) and kinesics (facial expression, body language and body gesture).

“If you want to say ‘I love you’ to someone you can change the meaning of those words just by the tone of your voice [your paralinguistic cue] – it can be a sincere declaration or an ironic blast to put them down,” he says. “Likewise we use kinesics – if you were ordering a pastry and just said ‘I’d like a croissant’ but pointed at a specific one, that is a non-verbal cue”.

Professor Evans says these modes provide nuance to our words and are particularly important for conveying empathy – “this is the basis of effective communication” – and for establishing “emotional resonance”, which is how we make friends, enemies, or any type of relationship. But when we communicate digitally two of these avenues are taken away.

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