Emojis: The Unsung Hero of Communication

The pictograms from ancient times, return as saviors of modern chat

March 4, 2024

In the vast tapestry of human history, much of our communication has been crafted through millennia of face-to-face interactions. The nuanced dance of language, honed through practice, allows us to convey even complex ideas with the use of a single word. Communication may be rooted in the interpretation of the phonetic sounds of speech, the full manner of communication is much richer in its subtleties.  Only 7% of communication is verbal, or what we actually say; with the rest being 38% vocal, or how we say it, and 55% nonverbal, or how we look while we’re saying it. It's clear that our brains have been developed for face-to-face interaction. Yet, in the 21st century, this intricate ballet of communication is threatened. With the rise of technology, face-to-face interactions diminish, replaced by the cold efficiency of text. As technology allows for faster interactions, more work and productivity fill the empty gaps in time. This shift, driven by the relentless march of progress, leaves us operating on just 7% of our communicative potential, creating a fertile ground for misunderstanding

Enter the emoji.  👋 👋 👋  

Ancient Beginnings

These pictorial glyphs, simple yet profound, seek to restore the 93% of nonverbal communication lost in the realm of text. Their journey from the earliest cave drawings to today's digital icons tells a story of humanity's unending quest to connect, to be understood, and to express the inexpressible.

Our journey begins in the smoke-dusted walls of prehistoric caves, where early humans left their mark with pigments and fat. These petroglyphs, crude yet evocative, captured the essence of life in an era before words. As nomadic tribes settled in Mesopotamia, their need for communication grew. The Sumerians, with their sophisticated intellect, birthed Cuneiform—a writing system that transformed pictorial symbols into abstract sounds. This leap in communication paved the way for the written word as we know it.

Parallel to the Sumerians, the Egyptians perfected their own form of pictorial writing: hieroglyphics. Deciphered through the Rosetta Stone, these symbols were both alphabetic and syllabic, creating a rich tapestry of meaning. The Egyptians' meticulous selection of glyphs for their compositions reflects a deep understanding of the power of visual language, a precursor to modern symbolism.

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fig 1 — I wonder what ancient Egyptians might think of our pictorial glyphs?

Bending Type Towards Expression

Over the centuries, writing evolved from stone tablets to papyrus scrolls, and eventually to the digital screens we use today. The internet, hailed as the pinnacle of communication, began to show the flaws of text-only communication in its usage in email and message boards. Intonation is a rich source for comprehensive meaning in a normal conversation, leading to the adoption of methods like expressive punctuation ?!?! and affective lengthening (sooooo…) to assist with interpretation. On September 16, 1982 Neil Swartz, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University was searching for a way to assist communication on the Physics Department message board. Certain messages were posted with humorous intent, although this tone was not always clear to everyone in the thread. A fellow professor, Scott Fahlman proposed the use of :-) to denote joke posts and :-( for serious posts.Fahlman is credited with being the inventor of the emoticon, although there are traces of them being used in humorous writings in the 19th Century (and possibly/accidentally in one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches).

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Emoticons quickly spread through other university message boards and eventually to ARPANET — a Department of Defense funded network that preceded today’s internet —and then to the masses.  At their peak usage, emoticons were found in over 9.7% of American English tweets.  

Emoticons preserve the expressions of face to face conversations by stylistically imitating facial structures and patterns and allowing for intonation to be assumed due to relative placement of the emoticon in the sentence syntax.  When the floodgates open, emoticons become a source of free expression with various new methods of designing emoticons spreading user to user.  In America, we are used to tilting our heads to the side to read emoticons which normally face top/left bottom/right. In East Asia the emoticons are a more head on view such as (^_^) smiling (^_~) winking (-_-) not amused and d-_-b listening to music; However, the sideways faces are generally more popular worldwide.  From March 2009 to November 2009 InfoChimps, a big data-data research firm,  recorded emoticon use in 1.6 billion tweets by 40 million users.[6] Their findings revealed over 1,479 different emoticons being used, these are the top ten

1 :) 
2 :D 
3 :( 
4 ;) 
5 :-) 
6 =) 
7 :P 
8 :-) 
9 (: 
10 XD

Clearly thousands of emoticons can develop just from the choice to include a nose, not to mention all the other possible facial configurations one could creatively compose with typographic glyphs.  Interestingly enough, users who retain the nose typically send longer tweets, and users who omit tend to be younger and use more taboo or slang words hinting to an emoticon dialect that is specific to age.  In the late 2000’s emoticon use reaches creative heights with users on social media constructing more and more elaborate emoticons.  The website emojicons.com was developed to catalog the longer and more elaborate emoticons for quick copy and paste usage as follows.  

1. Flipping Tables         (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
2. Shrug                         ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
3. Middle Finger Up         t(-.-t)
4. Facepalm                 ( - ‸ ლ)
5. Rock On                 \m/...@_@...\m/       \m/...(>.<)…\m/

At this junction emoticons come to a point where the complexity of the glyph is so specific that it often requires a tagline to decipher the message, which is counter to the use of the glyph at all, not to mention the time spent composing or finding them to use.  Like the petroglyphs of ancient times, which varied by individual usage and location, there needed to be a simplification of forms into a more succinct pictorial language that could be easily used and understood universally.

The next step in our technological communication odyssey occurs in the late nineties in Japan. Shigetaka Kurita designs the first set of emojis while working for the pager company NTT DoCoMo, in order to make the product more appealing to teenagers.  Named from the Japanese word meaning “picture character”, they were simplistic glyphs designed with pencil and paper using a 12 x 12 pixel grid, and were inspired by Japanese Manga and Kanji. The first set of 176 glyphs were used by DoCoMo to deliver the weather to customers and direct people to shops and restaurants.  Partnerships with the tickets sales company Pia and the Zagat restaurant review still carry a heavy imprint in the emoji range with glyphs like 🔜  which signaled the start of a show.  

Emojis to the Rescue

In 2007 Apple released the iPhone which instantly changed the mobile phone landscape, and in 2011, to attract the Japanese market, an emoji keyboard was added to iOS 5 and hidden from the users in the United States.  It wasn’t long before curious users found the secret emoji keyboard which launched the glyphs to global popularity. These sleek new pictorial symbols caught on rapidly in tech-savvy communities, with a certain smiling poop emoji 💩  gathering special interest.  In Japan this emoji as a sign of good luck, also known as “Kin no Ukno” which is a pun on the Japanese word for poop “Unko” starts with the same “Oon” sound as the word meaning luck.  This typical type of storytelling pun is supposed to put the “happiness of a child” on a person’s face, and while not much of the western emoji users knew this, it surely had that same effect in American text messages. This slight difference in usage illustrates a split in how emoji can be applied. The Japanese manner of using 💩  to mean good luck, uses the symbol as an ideogram representing an abstract concept “luck” whereas the Americans tend to use the symbol as a pictogram for its face value as a hilarious happy picture of waste (or chocolate pudding if you rather).  This begins to allow emoji to be used as a sort of secret code language that only those in the know can decipher.  Two popular examples of this are the eggplant/aubergine 🍆  and the peach 🍑  (which was recently redesigned in the new iOS to look less like the idea it’s used to represent).  After reaching global popularity, a greater demand for more diverse emoji lead the Unicode Consortium to expand the set to contain an additional 250 characters in Unicode 7.0, and a total of 1281 character symbols in Unicode 8.0, released in August of 2015.

The key to what makes emoji so popular as to have users demanding their expansion, is in the range of emotional sentiment that emoji allow each user to express. In general emoji are not designed to convey meanness, they’re cartoons after all! They easily can send messages of joy, happiness, laughter, and love; but it’s hard to imagine an emoji next to the phrase “I hate you 🤬” and even if one did appear there, it would hardly help in making the message read negatively. In fact, in this context the message would almost certainly be read with irony.  Emoji’s default implication is not irony though, but rather genuine and self-aware sincerity.  They are used to fill in the blanks of language, by sitting in for text that a person may not be emotionally prepared to share, or that they might lack the language to describe. Teasing, sarcasm, and chagrin are nuances to speaking, which are difficult to communicate in text. For instance, if a person was asked in a text to do a chore they really didn’t want to do, they could simply reply with a 😒  (unamused face) and the message would clearly be that they weren’t happy about being asked to do said chore, but would reluctantly comply.  Formerly this person might text back UGGHHHH!!! which might strike a more negative tone with the sender, but the emoji saves this transaction from escalating into something more serious.  

A research team for The Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, compiled an emoji sentiment lexicon based on the analysis of a 70,000 tweet dataset containing the 751 emoji icons with more than five occurrences in the found set.  83 Native speakers were used to comb through tweets in 13 European languages and assign positive, neutral, and negative sentiments to the tweets, while documenting which emoji appear in each tweet and the position of the emoji in the syntax of the tweet.  What the results show is that most emoji had an average sentiment score of 0 or greater, those with a lower score tended to be only sad faces whereas those with higher scores (nearly up to 1) are a range of smiley faces, hearts, gifts, party symbols etc. Other studies confirm that there are certain unspoken rules to emoji usage. They tend to be used at the end of sentences, almost in place of punctuation and when used in this position are often repeated up to three times. They are read in linear time and action, the stance or emotion first and then the action helping to determine the text before them 😎  💅 .  Just like hieroglyphics. Younger emoji users might even make a game of seeing who can interpret long lines of emoji best— let’s try.  👀  💙  📝  ✋  😋  🍔  🍰  😴

As technology continues to evolve, so too does our means of expression. New features like animated texts and personalized effects enhance our ability to convey emotion through screens. Yet, despite these advancements, our pursuit remains the same as our ancient ancestors: to connect, to understand, and to be understood. We are still in the early stages of this digital communication journey, striving to type at the speed of talk and capture the full spectrum of human interaction. Emojis represent a step forward in our quest to reclaim the richness of human communication in a digital age. They serve as a bridge between the ancient and the modern, reminding us that even in a world driven by technology, our fundamental desire to connect remains unchanged. As we continue to navigate this evolving landscape, we must strive to harness the power of visual language, ensuring that our digital interactions retain the depth and warmth of face-to-face communication.