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Technology Trends: Emojis Are Not Going Away
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Technology Trends: Emojis Are Not Going Away - Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Emojis Are Not Going Away

Executive Leadership Articles

Technology Trends: Emojis Are Not Going Away

When Oxford Dictionaries named the “Face With Tears of Joy” emoji its 2015 word of the year, there was ridicule from some corners of the English-speaking world, dismay from others, and nods of agreement from still others. Pictographic emoji images, made popular first on mobile phones through text messaging, have begun to creep into other realms of expression, but the hat-tip as a word of the year is first an acknowledgement of the enormous role text-messaging plays in our daily interaction: for better or worse, a growing share of our word use is likely to be on a mobile platform, and “Face With Tears of Joy” is the most-used of the graphic icons in this growing set. Love them or hate them, they are not going away anytime soon.

Emojis are small graphics used primarily to color conversations in text messages. They may be a cartoonish representation of the old emoticons spread in the early days of the internet, such as smiling or frowning faces; or they may be images of daily life, such as furniture, vehicles, or food; or they may be symbols with no assigned meaning, left to the communicator to use as he or she defines, such as triangles, dots, or boxes. They began as proprietary, keyboard-activated options on cell phones in Japan, but as their use and popularity spread, a set of useful emojis was adopted by the Unicode Consortium, the body that standardizes character encoding so that text written on one device by one piece of software can be read and represented accurately on a different device with a different piece of software. The original set of Unicode emojis has been expanded multiple times, and the body of characters continues to grow. A recently approved expansion includes a rhinoceros, a carrot, and an octagonal sign.

The explosion in emoji popularity has led to many strange uses, including a crowdsourced emoji translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, plush emoji toys, and an in-development movie about emojis. New branded “emoji” sets are released every day, often with some celebrity tie-in, although strictly speaking, these images are GIF images, not translated Unicode characters, which means they aren’t textual and can’t be copied and pasted as text; thus, they are more like the “stickers” sold as in-app purchases with messaging apps. Still, they capitalize in a very big way on the emoji craze. At the time of this writing, six of the top 50 paid apps in the iTunes App Store are non-Unicode “emoji” sets.

Beyond the novelty and fun, the use of emojis in regular, daily communication has become something of a language itself, if not according to the linguistic definition of that word, then at least in micro-cultural senses. Sometimes, the use is verbal, where an emoji represents a word, such as a heart used to mean the word “love.” Other times, it’s more ethereal, such as an eggplant (for its phallic shape) used to communicate some concept of attraction or arousal. And here is where that word-of-the-year designation begins to make sense. Organizations select words of the year, colors of the year, and people of the year to make statements about their popularity, but also to represent some concept of a culture’s zeitgeist, a symbol of the pulse and direction of conversation and ideas. In this way, the “Face With Tears of Joy” emoji seems an apt selection as an observation of the progress of language in this mobile, digital age.

Whether the proliferation of emoji in daily expression is something to be lamented, lauded, or endured is up for debate (another reason for its status as word of the year), but while some see it as a degradation of language--and therefore a degradation of thought--it also points to a world of connectivity that reaches beyond barriers of geography and dialect, the new ability to communicate over long distances instantly, and sometimes without the use of culture-specific vocabulary or grammar.

The emoji’s ability to serve as a bridge across politics is ironic when considering the implied politics in the Unicode Consortium’s selection (and implied rejection) of new emojis for inclusion with new sets. This governing body, hoping to enable consistent, standard access to these communication tools, must decide which nations’ flags will be included, which holidays to represent, and which food items to add: the earliest sets included multiple Japanese dishes, including sushi, rice, and riceballs, but tacos were only recent approved for inclusion. Intentional or not, the consortium influences communication along cultural lines, and the uproar following each set’s release is evidence of the importance of this new tool to large portions of the population.

They are words of the year. They inspire uproar. They are included as toys in Happy Meals. They represent either a regression or progression in interpersonal communication. They are emojis, and they’re going to be around for a while.


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