Emoticons: our new social, sign language.

Posted by Flux on 

11 September 2014


Emoticons have been used over 4 billion times since 2013.

I’ll just let that sink in, especially for those who believe “the youth of today” are losing the ability to read and write properly. For the uninitiated, emoticons are “a representation of a facial expression, like a smile or frown, formed by various combinations of keyboard characters and used in electronic communication to convey the writer’s feelings or intended tone”. However, the art (quite literally) of emoticons has evolved rapidly into emoji: a small digital image or icon that has replaced the keyboard character combinations of emoticons.

The term emoji is actually of Japanese origion: (e) meaning picture, and (moji) meaning character, and most people will have seen or used the most popular ones: heart symbols, smiley faces, or the very popular crying happy face.

Non-users of emoji (note: the divide between users and non users is not necessarily generational) will argue that this new form of digital expression is just another nail in the coffin for the proper use of language and the written word, but scientists, academics and sociologists are viewing them in a different light. Their counter argument is that emoji are, in fact, an important tool and evolutionary process to restore context and emotion in a digital world where person-to-person contact has diminished in favour of instant messaging. And if you’re in doubt about just how much we rely on instant messaging, the text-analytics firm, Idibon, estimate that the total number of words in all text messages sent every three months, exceeds the word count of all the books ever published. Hard to imagine, but even if inaccurate, the scale of how we communicate now, using instant messaging, is massive.

But as with all digital platforms, emoji is evolving rapidly, supporting the theory that this is an important 21st century means of communication.

The political correctness of emoji has already been challenged. Earlier this year Oju Africa, a division of African mobile company Mi-Fone, launched the first Black Emoticons. The company felt that the current selection of emoji did not cater for black social media users, so created their own collection of 15 darker hued emojis. Surprisingly, one of the first campaigners for “politically correct” emoji was pop star Miley Cyrus, who first tweeted about the need for an “emoji ethnicity in update” in 2012.

Following hot on the heels of Oju Africa’s emoji offering was the launch of a new social media platform called, Emojili. This platform promises a social network with “no words, no spam, just emoji”, taking emoji to a new level. The platform only allows you to communicate using emoji. The network has yet to go live but quickly passed the 50,000 registrations mark when it was launched. When registering, you have to submit a username, unsurprisingly, only using emoji.

But communicating or translating words into an emoji-only format is already being explored in the art world. Artist Wesley Stace is converting classic record albums into emoji, and the results are hilarious. One of the most memorable, emoji translations he has done has been the iconic Nirvana album, Nevermind, which is a photo of a baby swimming underwater approaching a dollar bill on a fishing hook. The emoji translation is a bunch of wave emoji grouped around a baby head emoji and a dollar sign. When you see the emoji interpretation, it is instantly recognisable. Stace uses his twitter account, to show and spread his emoji artworks. “I’m thrilled to finally find a form of visual art I can do,” says Stace, and adds, with his tongue firmly in his cheek, “It might be time to move on though. I’ve done this for almost three hours.”

Many would say that this visual, short cut language is only be suitable for those with short attention spans, but the world of emoji caters for everyone, even those who don’t know how to use them, but would like to. If you are emoji-challenged there is now a service called, Emojimo, which translates regular text sentences into emoji-slang parlance. This should enable grandparents (or perhaps even parents) to communicate with the younger members of their family. But should you receive an even more confusing reply from your first foray into emoji messaging, help is at hand.

Emoji Tacker is a new website that tracks, in real time, the popularity of the most used emoji on twitter. It is here that the rapid adoption of emoji – across the world – can be witnessed first hand. The site even comes with an epilepsy warning because the rapidly changing visuals are so fast that the visual effect could trigger an epilepsy attack.

Like it or not, emoji communication is not only here to stay, and only starting to evolve. If you’re a critic, you’d better get with the programme. In cyberspace no one can hear you scream, but fortunately there’s already an emoji that can communicate that frustration.

By: Dion Chang

About Dion

Image credit: hashlush

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