I wrote the following post for The Future of Text, a collection of essays exploring the past, present and future of text in all its many forms. It forms a kind of introduction to, or perhaps a summary of, the contents of my series on emoji. Some of it will be familiar if you’ve been following along, and some of it may not. Either way, enjoy, and please read to the end for more details on The Future of Text, including where to download a copy.
We’ve come a long way, 👶, in this series of posts on emoji, and it’s time to round things up.
We’ve seen how emoji were invented, where they came from, and how they went global. We’ve examined the technical and political infrastructure that underpin the emoji we see on our smartphones and computer screens, and we’ve watched emoji transcend their electronic roots to appear in the news, in the courts, in the movies, and more.
Given all we’ve seen so far in this series, it becomes natural to wonder: what’s next for emoji? And how do we even begin to answer that question?
We saw in part 7 that emoji are neither a language nor a script. But if we might be permitted for a moment to call them script-like, then, of all of the scripts and script-like things that we use to communicate online, emoji were perhaps the first to be native to the digital world. They were born to inject life into Japan’s teen-friendly poke beru, or pagers; later, they were adopted by Apple, Google, and other companies who have made their money online; and, under the care of the Unicode Consortium, they continue to be tended to by a group of nerds of the highest order. (As a software engineer by trade, I say that with the greatest respect.)
As exuberant as emoji can be in the right hands, our palette of emoji remains tightly controlled by the Unicode Consortium. There are, however, other ways to embed colourful graphics in your digital messages, and, in the long run, there is every possiblity that they may elbow emoji out of the way entirely. The future of emoji may not be emoji at all.
With emoji everywhere you might care to look, a nagging question remains unanswered. What are emoji? Are they a language, whatever that means? A pictographic script in the manner of hieroglyphics or Chinese characters? Or are they something else entirely? In this post we examine how emoji are, and aren’t, used, and what that might tell us about the nature of emoji as a whole.