When asked to be interviewed for this blog, a team of emoji designers for a major emoji platform requested to see the text of the article before publication, for fear of violating their company’s contract. This isn’t rare; media representatives and other employees potentially facing reprisal do this all the time (and our answer is no, but fair to ask in the latter case). But I was stupidly taken aback that we might have to consult a contract before discussing emoji. In the digital eons since Apple’s 2011 global unveiling of the emoji keyboard, I’d naively accepted that emoji belonged to everyone, segmental symbols as old as the cuneiform writing system. No media representative on Earth can stop you from discussing the letter A. But no: As with every other online creative medium, terms and conditions apply.
That put a check in the “yes” column to my original question, which was: Will emoji die? It’s as inconceivable as a world without iPhones, but the digital overlords giveth, and, more often than not, taketh away.
A bunch of dumb questions followed. Are emoji copyrightable? (Debated.) By whom? (Apple, etc). Are they art? (Yes.) The incorporation of emoji into our keyboards is arbitrated by a nonprofit assembly called the Unicode Consortium, located in Mountain View, California, which I won’t get into here (but you can read about here) and I imagine to be housed in a cement complex casting a long shadow over a California valley. The council’s voting members include Google and Facebook. (The Consortium did not return multiple requests for comment.)
The point is that emoji must meet certain standards upheld by corporate voting members before they’re approved for travel on the digital highway, and the Consortium’s prioritization of cartoony emoji has been the subject of much turmoil in recent years. (Can’t the Consortium take an emoji break to, for example, encode Medieval characters for scholarly use?) So we’re left with a safe set of schmaltzy emotions mostly approved and designed by the elite, a limited range of ideas purposed for a consumer audience that become even more amplified versions of themselves with each rollout.
You can take it up with the Consortium if you don’t like this little creep:
He—and he is definitively a “he”—whittles the plain elegance of this– :) –efficient, fungible, and contextually dependent enough to convey a range of emotion from “super excited” to “moderately pleased,” to “flirtatious,” to the sinister grimace of a home intruder.
But where “:)” has fallen, the emoji has subsumed it as a public utility, at least securing its short-term survival. Customary emoji use is good manners; uncapitalized “sure,” sans emoji, is a shitty thing to write in any situation. Even a hat on a hat like the horn after the exclamation point after “so excited! 🎉” demonstrates that you didn’t just fire off “so excited!” You did the courtesy of opening the emoji keyboard and scrolled through about 200 emoji to pick it out. Good for you.
Sometimes they’re delightful, like a garnish on your soup:
Or puzzling, like an antelope grazing on a highway median:
Or a tiny hug:
“So tl;dr i guess he’s breaking up with me…”
“Aw sorry 😥”
But a horrible sign-off:
“So tl;dr i guess he’s breaking up with me…”
“Aw sorry. 😥
Gotta go, making dinner 👋”
Or historically lame:
Mostly, they’re liars.
And we need them.
Tech companies don’t typically implement shit we don’t use–just look at the (blessedly) dead SarcMark, a character meant to indicate that the preceding phrase was intended to be sarcastic, in case you didn’t get it. A smiley though, is a solution to a problem we still haven’t fixed: It is very difficult to articulate emotion in an instantaneous 10-point typed memo. I don’t talk like I write, and I don’t text like I talk, mostly.
“[E]mojis are an excellent way of returning this emotional framing to the conversation,” linguist Dr. Philip Seargeant, author of The Emoji Revolution, observed to Gizmodo. This is why the most consistently used are the first few facial expressions on the standard emoji keyboard, he said, but they’re punctuations, not a replacement for language, despite the glorious opus Emoji Dick. “[T]he emoji lexicon is relatively incredibly small, and there are huge parts of human experience (especially around abstract concepts) that it doesn’t cover.”
The limitations are pretty clear if you think of texting, the act of beaming your thoughts to a friend a thousand miles away, as telepathy; an emoji add-on still falls short of the tittle of a whisper or the drama of a low intonation. The best Paul Atreides impression I can pull off here is still: “THE SPICE ✨✳️✨”.
Theorists more imaginative than I have predicted forms of communication we can’t yet foresee, among them being a post-texting world. But in some form, says Museum of Modern Art curator Paola Antonelli, the emoji stays.
“In the future, when we will leave smartphones behind, emojis will migrate and expand to new platforms,” Antonelli told Gizmodo. “Maybe we will wear a beauty mark on our cheeks. Maybe we will start enacting them when we speak, and morph our whole faces to match famous emojis.”
I feel a layered and complex emotion about a future in which a loved one’s face morphs into 😀 mid-conversation. Christ, just envision your partner’s eyes dilating and mouth stretching into a gaping pointy crescent in answer to: “I want to spend the rest of my life with you...”
But there isn’t an emoji for transient psychological nausea, and if there were, I’d cap this blogpost at that. Emoji, may they catch up to the stomach-churning horror of the 2010's. The Consortium accepts proposals.