Emoji are here whether we like them or not

fears with tears and joy

Today I feel very thumbs-up pleasantly-blushing-smiley-face glowing-star. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, you’re probably not used to using emoji.

The last few years have seen emoji take off in a big way, thanks in part to the iPhone, and they've become a surprisingly big influence in the world of tech and communication. With the announcement of an emoji movie in the works (yes, really), a lot of us are questioning whether those irritating little graphics are that important. My answer? Yes, yes they are. And I think we should embrace them.

What are emoji?

Put simply, emoji are those little faces and pictures that you see in texts, iMessages, social media, and so on. The ones we're used to seeing these days are Unicode Standard, meaning they can be sent and recognised across devices as if they're a regular character (like a letter, a number, or punctuation). Most apps have their own designs for each one, but today they're at least all recognisable as the same thing, whether a smiley face, a peace sign, or a cat.

They've been a big part of communication in places like Japan for some time - hardly surprising since the language has a basis in graphic symbols anyway. About a decade ago, international companies - including Google and Apple - found themselves under pressure to include emoji in their software… and that's when it started to spread across the world.

Of course, we're no strangers to using smileys and suchlike over here in the West. The first recorded smiley goes back to 1648, and we've been using them en masse ever since we started texting and instant messaging. Texts had strict character limits, and in both SMS and online we wanted to express ourselves succinctly and, most importantly, quickly. A brief :) achieves that better than typing 'I am happy' does. Instant messaging mimics a spoken conversation, so the ability to immediately react to what someone says is vital. As a result of that - and unlimited texting plans and WhatsApp that make even our texting more conversational - emoji are taking over.

The new emoji added to the consortium each year give big clues about how we use them, in fact. The last update saw a greater variety of skin tones for various faces and gestures, as well as a new taco emoji and a unicorn. And this year, those being considered include a facepalm, a partner for the dancing lady, bacon, and crossed fingers. Emoji are social. They're fun. They express the kind of things we'd want to express face-to-face.

So what's the big deal?

The big deal is that they're helping to change the way we communicate - and that they're altering the cultural landscape we live in, one tiny yellow face at a time.

Cross emoji

Some linguists consider emoji to be the fastest growing language in the UK, spreading at a quicker rate than pretty much any language in history. A survey by TalkTalk Mobile earlier this year even found that 72% of 18 to 15-year-olds say they find it easier to express their feelings through emoji than through text. That's not wholly surprising - if you feel screaming emoji, it's far easier to just select the screaming emoji than to describe the face in Edvard Munch's famous painting and then explain that it's a metaphor for what you're feeling internally.

Of course, there are the predictable cries against it, and those who say emoji are dragging progression backwards - but these critics misunderstand the point of emoji, if you ask me. We're not using them to write epics, or draft the next War and Peace. They're instead used in casual written conversation, in the kind of communication where we'd normally use things like facial expressions and gestures. iMessage and Tolstoy operate on entirely different tones of register.

(And even if we did use emoji to write high literature, so what? I'd like to see someone brave and creative enough to give it a go.)

The author of that article also seems to think that all graphic-based alphabets are backwards, while Shakespeare is the height of great communication - as if places like Japan aren't among the world's technological and cultural leaders, and as if Shakey didn't make up loads of words and write endless fart jokes. All languages can be used for writing high literature, for communicating scientific discovery, and for scatological humour. That goes for Japanese, English, Ancient Greek, emoji - you name it.

If you're still sceptical about how big the impact of emoji is, consider that Russia is thinking about banning the ones with people of the same gender holding hands or kissing. The use of those tiny little graphics is powerful enough to count as 'gay propaganda' according to Putin and his cronies.

Are emoji here to stay?

Well, language is fluid and constantly changing and moving, so… no. We'll move on to newer forms of communication soon enough, and the critics will complain once again that it's different from Shakespeare and therefore a Bad Thing.

But for the time being, emoji are here, and so long as we're still using tech like smartphones and computers, they're a staple of our casual written communication. Okay, so that doesn't necessarily mean we need a Hollywood blockbuster movie about them. What it does mean is that our online and mobile conversations will carry on using these little characters for a while - because as technology advances, so does our use of its languages.

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