If you’ve seen me online at all, you’ve probably guessed that I’m a fan of emojis. You are correct. I use them often, maybe too much, and some times in twos, threes or more. I’m sure some people roll their eyes at this.
If they do, I wonder if they’re missing something.
Emojis are very important. I would argue they’re one of the biggest innovations in the history of written language. And before you roll your eyes again, hear me out.
The way we use writing has changed so much in the last 25 years. Before the internet, writing between people (as opposed to writing in books and such) was used predominantly to convey information. Letters were sent to discuss matters at length, while telegrams were used to ask for or give quick news or updates. And though all forms of written communication develop their own unique quirks (telegrams evolved to the point where they were missing some letters to cram more information into the short space), none went as far as trying to concisely communicate the tone, or emotion, that was supposed to accompany the words.
Because we didn’t ‘chat’ through these mediums. We didn’t need them to echo the way real conversations work between people, where words only play a small part of the interaction. Emotions, tone, facial expression all come into it, but these can’t be voiced through words alone. In the past, we compensated for this through building a tone across the entire piece of writing – one of overall anger, assertiveness, friendliness etc. We still do this in email, where emojis have yet to catch on. We communicate a cheerful, light nature by using copious exclamation marks – but it still doesn’t approximate a real conversation.
The evolution of online social spaces, where people can socialise casually and immediately in a virtual setting, was a whole new way of communicating – one that mimicked the way we communicate casually in real life. As such, we needed a way to convey all the complexities of emotion that you find in in-person socialisation.
The first use of emojis was in 1982, on a very basic form of the internet, and they sought to address this problem. Users on a Carnegie Mellon Unviersity message board had noticed that you couldn’t tell whether a person was joking or not from text alone. To stop miscommunication, faculty member Scott Fahlman suggested adding 🙂 to light-hearted posts and 😦 to serious posts.
The emojis we think of today, however, have their roots in a Japanese system designed in the late 90s. They wanted a concise way of communicating information without having to type out whole messages on the phone. The result was a very simple selection of 12×12 pixel images which were based around everyday objects and signposts, usable on a mobile phone.
It seems that these two different uses for emoji – enhanced social communication and concisely delivering information – evolved separately: ’emotional’ emojis have their roots in the message boards and chat rooms of desktop computers, while ‘information’ emoji were developed to allow more efficient use of text messages.
They merged following the appearance of smartphones in 2007. Suddenly, people could access their internet spaces through the same device as their text messages. The ‘instant’ nature of online conversation became more of a thing. People needed a way to type out complex messages that conveyed social meaning in a relatively short amount of time, making it easier to maintain a real-time conversation through text. Emojis offered the solution. After all, there’s a huge difference between a message that says ‘I get you.’ and ‘I get you. ❤ ‘ or, ‘So are we going out tonight? 😡 ‘ and ‘So are we going out tonight? 😀 ‘
The first emoji board (that menu you use to select a particular emoji from a wide group) was added to Apple phones in 2011, and Android followed suit two years later. This opened up the world of emojis to a whole new group of people: you no longer needed to know which characters to enter to generate an emoji, you could search for and pick them from a list.
Do I think emojis are a language unto themselves? I’m not sure. They don’t have grammar or spelling, though they do seem to come with some conventions around how they’re used, and you could communicate concepts through emojis alone, though a whole conversation would be difficult. I think they’re more of an accompaniment to conversation, a tool we’ve developed to allow us to have more emotionally complicated conversations, conversations which more closely mimic in-person interaction, without actually having to come face-to-face.