Emoji, part 8: when is an emoji not an emoji?

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.


Appropriately, given emoji’s invention in Japan, the first cracks in emoji’s monopoly on cutesy inline graphics came out of that same country.

In 2011, in the wake of a tsunami that devastated the north-east coast of Japan’s main island,1 the country’s telecommunication networks were thrown into disarray. Only the internet, designed from its inception to route data packets around broken network links, continued to function reliably — a fact not lost on NHN Japan, an internet company that chose in June of that year to launch a mobile messaging app based not on fragile SMS text messages but rather fault-tolerant mobile data services. It was called Line and it was a runaway success, hitting 50-million users just a year after launch.2

Though Line’s developers had chosen to use the internet for its robustness, by happy coincidence this also meant that they were not confined to text-only messages. Instead, they could send whatever data they liked. This allowed them to connect users in two notable ways: first, Line users could call one another for free, over the caller and callee’s respective mobile data connections; second, users could embed digital images called “stickers” in Line’s SMS-like text messages. These stickers took the form of larger, more detailed versions of existing emoji, along with a slew of additional manga-like characters, that could be sent back and forth either within or in lieu of textual messages.3,4

Line’s stickers were a hit. The app was and is popular in countries whose complex scripts are difficult to enter on smartphones, such as Japan, Thailand, Korea and Taiwan, in part because stickers can convey complex sentiments with a minimum of effort. Moreover, stickers have also turned out to be a formidable revenue stream. In 2013, just two years after its launch, Line made $17 million from sales of downloadable sticker packs;3 two years after that, sticker sales were up to $271 million. This is not to mention that some of Line’s cartoonish sticker personalities, such as “Brown” the bear and a rabbit named Cony, have become so popular that they now have their own lines of merchandise worth tens of millions of dollars in their own right.5 (Even in China, where Line’s apps are blocked by that country’s “Great Firewall”, knicknacks featuring Cony, Brown and company are sought after.6)

Graphical stickers designed by Line in collaboration with Unicef
Line stickers designed in collaboration with Unicef in 2015. (Image courtesy of LINE Corporation.)

Though Line struggled to make a dent in Western markets, its sticker concept has been more easily exported. Facebook Messenger gained its own sticker feature in 2013;7 Google Hangouts followed in 2014;8 and WhatsApp brought up the rear in 2018.9

The real genius of the sticker concept, though, is not that it is easy to clone, or that stickers are easy to use (after all, emoji are too), or that they can be sold for cold, hard cash. It is this: the Unicode Consortium has no influence over them. True, most stickers are confined to their home app, such as Line, Facebook Messenger, or Snapchat, but that is perfectly fine with the owners of those apps, who retain complete control over the sentiments and symbols their users can express with them. For Line, Facebook, Snap Inc., and more, stickers are the perfect vehicle to build their brand, to indulge in some marketing cross-overs, and to make some money into the bargain.7 They are the BTS10 of the emoji world — slick, popular and very much for sale — and there is a real chance that stickers, or something very like them, will supplant the real thing.


Although “real” stickers are usable only within their host app, there is a different but related species that ranges more broadly: in recent years, so-called ’moji apps have proliferated like weeds. Put simply, ’moji are emoji- or sticker-like images that can be sent as graphical MMS messages, as email attachments, or, indeed, in any medium that supports embedded bitmap images. At the time of writing it is possible to find ’moji collections for WWE, the wrestling promoter; singer Justin Bieber; Disney’s roster of animated characters; videogame protagonist Crash Bandicoot;11,12,13,14 and many others celebrities and organisations of varying staying power. (Until recently, reality TV star Kim Kardashian West boasted her own “Kimoji” app; now, however, it seems to have disappeared, perhaps due to a lawsuit filed against Kardashian West by the software company that developed it.15)

A select few ’moji apps have crossed the line from whimsical to worthy. In 2015, for example, Finland’s tourist board launched an electronic advent calendar loaded with icons depicting patriotic activies such as visiting the sauna and cross-country skiing, along with notable Finnish exports such as the Nokia 3310 cellphone and stoic Formula 1 champion Kimi Räikkönen.16 Those same icons were then published in ’moji apps for Android and iOS devices.17

Finnish 'moji
A selection of Finland’s national ’moji. (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 image courtesy of the Finland Promotion Board.)

“We have been anything but serious when creating these emoji [sic],” said Petra Theman, Director for Public Diplomacy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, at the launch. “Hopefully they will open up not only our weirdness but also our strengths of which unarming honesty is one example.”16

It would easy to dismiss this as a public relations stunt were it not that the “woolly socks” and “sauna” ’moji have since been adopted as real emoji. Themann, displaying the same disarming honesty she hoped Finland’s ’moji would convey, was reportedly disappointed that the newly-minted PERSON IN STEAMY ROOM emoji (🧖) is usually clothed in a towel, rather than naked as nature intended.18


The rise of downloadable stickers and ’moji revealed a universal truth that plain old emoji had not: people will buy almost anything. And as companies continue to jump on the sticker bandwagon, emoji too are looking increasingly attractive as a way to turn messages into money.

First, and most obvious, emoji themselves are being hawked as saleable commodities. JoyPixels, a company founded to provide an open source emoji set, now sells “premium” licences for use in commercial projects.19 And in February 2017, a German firm styling itself “emoji company GmbH” successfully bullied Sony Pictures Animation, perpetrators of The Emoji Movie, into paying for the right to use the word “emoji” in the title of their movie. Upon inspection, in fact, emoji company appears to rely on a business model that consists largely of buying up and licensing out emoji-related trademarks around the world.20 Consider this 🐂💩 bingo—winning statement given by emoji company CEO Marco Hüsges:

Based on our various trademarks and IPs we are proactively developing new brand concepts to address different target audiences and to support our global partners with fresh and powerful marketing concepts.21

Fresh and powerful marketing concepts, and the implicit threat of legal action.


Worse yet than the weaponisation of emoji are those instances where is it not emoji that are being sold, but rather it is us, the audience, who are being sold on their behalf. Many advertisers are prepared pay to good money (and, as we’ll see, bad money) to show us the emoji of their choice.

Granted, emoji advertising has not been an easy nut to crack. For one, Unicode’s iron grip on the transmission of text means that only standard emoji can be sent via open media such as email and SMS. Only if an advertiser has access to a closed system such as a social network or a messaging app can they tempt us with emojified Starbucks logos or Coca Cola ribbons. In 2017, for instance, a marketing firm called InMoji (is creativity dead on Madison Avenue?) launched an online advertising network in which corporate clients buy sticker-based ads that can allegedly reach millions of potential consumers on platforms such as Line and Facebook.22 It remains to be seen whether they will succeed: the five-year-old company last raised funding in February 2017, taking it to a slim $9.3m in total, and has operated largely under the radar since then.23

Another company, however, has successfully turned emoji-style advertising into an art form. In 2010, during that year’s soccer World Cup, Twitter introduced what it called “hashflags”. These were emoji-style flags displayed beside hashtags associated with national soccer teams, so that #ENG was accompanied by 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿, #BRA by 🇧🇷, #USA by 🇺🇸, and so on.24* By dint of owning the websites and apps on which its users view their messages, Twitter was able to insert these custom flags into tweets so that they appeared to be real emoji.25 Living in an uncanny valley between stickers and emoji, hashflags were a runaway success.

Next, Twitter began to charge for the privilege of choosing which hashflags appeared next to which hashtags. Coca Cola was the first customer, in 2015,26 and since then a diverse group of clients have joined in: Metallica, the rock band, paid for a stylised “M” to appear beside “#metallica” and “#hardwiredtoselfdestruct” during the release of the eponymous album;27 Cadbury, the chocolate company, placed a Santa Claus icon beside “#cadvent” in the run-up to Christmas 2016;28 #Batman and #Superman saw their respective emblems turned into hashflags during the cinematic release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice;29 and so on.

One particular hashflag customer, though, will live on in infamy. In the midst of 2016’s acrimonous US presidential race, Donald Trump’s campaign signed what it claimed to be a $5m advertising deal with Twitter intended to attack Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival for the presidency. Twitter, however, got cold feet.

To hear it told by Gary Coby, Trump’s director of digital advertising, Twitter helped to design a hashflag, to be associated with the hashtag “#CrookedHillary”, that showed a disembodied hand receiving a bag of money — in reference, Coby said, to Clinton’s alleged enrichment while in public office. Later, Coby asked Twitter to modify the icon so that it showed a stick figure running off with the same bag of cash, but Twitter pushed back against the changes. The social network told Coby that implying that Clinton had committed a crime was potentially libellious, and, as a result, they would not be running either hashflag.

Undeterred, Coby proposed a third hashflag in the form of a moneybag with wings (is creativity dead in Washington DC?) that represented, as he had it, “[government] waste and money flying away from taxpayers”. Again, Twitter approved and then rejected the design, citing new concerns that political hashflags would not meet Federal Election Committee disclosure rules.

The Trump campaign did not take this well. First, Coby cancelled what he said were millions of dollars’ worth of Twitter adverts.30 Then, in a thinly-veiled addition of insult to injury, in December 2016 Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey was left off the guest list for a heavily-publicised meeting at Trump Tower attended by the president-elect and the heads of tech titans such as Amazon, Apple, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Facebook and Tesla.31 Sean Spicer, a Republican party spokesman, told journalists that there was no malice involved — “the conference table was only so big”32 — but observers were left with little doubt that Dorsey’s omission was a punishment for Twitter’s earlier transgressions.

Was Twitter right, after all was said and done, to have worried about the legality of Trump’s Clinton-baiting hashflags? Paul Bedard of the Washington Examiner got the government’s take: “A top F.E.C. official [said] that the agency does not regulate emoji and that such transparency isn’t required on tweets.” Such are the issues in the brave new world of emoji, stickers and hashflags.33


If there is one comfort to be had in all this, it is that stickers, ’moji and hashflags, with all of their corporate baggage and lack of interoperability, are still poor cousins to emoji proper. Want an icon that will look the same in Facebook Messenger and Snapchat, or that will travel as well over SMS as email? Emoji is still the only game in town, and the Unicode Consortium is still its stalwart gatekeeper.

That said, Unicode is in the midst of a minor but ongoing crisis of emoji confidence. Its members wonder whether it might be possible to break the yearly cycle of emoji season; whether they might escape to a halcyon world in which they can stop worrying about whether ‘💩’ needs a sad poo counterpart (current thinking: it does not34) and get back to their roots in text encoding.

Next time round: what lies ahead for emoji?

1.
“Japan Earthquake: Tsunami Hits North-East”, BBC News, March–2011. 
2.
Mari Saito, “Born from Japan Disasters, Line App Sets Sights on U.S., China”, Reuters, August–2012. 
3.
Jon Russell, “Asian Messenger Line Made {\$}58 Million in Q1 2013”, TNW, May–2013. 
4.
Ryan Bushey, “The History of LINE, Japan’s Most Popular Texting App”, Business Insider
5.
Jon Russell, “Chat App Line Makes over {\$}270 Million a Year from Selling Stickers”, TechCrunch, June–2016. 
6.
Josh Horwitz, “One Year After the Government Banned Its Chat App, Line Is Still in China—selling Lattes and Tote Bags”, Quartz, August–2015. 
7.
Caitlin McGarry, “Why Facebook Stickers aren’t As Dumb As They Sound | PCWorld”, PCWorld, July–2013. 
8.
Stephen Shankland, “Google Injects Smarts, Stickers into Hangouts Communication App”, CNET, December–2014. 
9.
Damien Wilde, “WhatsApp Stickers Are Finally Here”, 9to5Google, October–2018. 
10.
Nam Hyun-woo, “Corporate Sponsors Dying to Hire BTS”, The Korea Times, October–2018. 
11.
Inc. AppMoji, “‎WWEmoji”, Apple App Store
12.
Kapps Media LLC, “Justmoji”, Google Play, 2016. 
13.
Poets Road, “CrashMoji™”, Google Play, 2018. 
14.
Inc. Jam City, “Disney Emoji Blitz”, Google Play, 2019. 
15.
Rachel Siegel, “Emoji Wars: Kim Kardashian West Sued for {\$}300 Million over the Use of Popular Kimoji”, The Washington Post, February–2019. 
16.
Jenita Cresswell, “Stuck on the Feeling”, ThisisFINLAND, December–2015. 
17.
Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland, “Finland Emojis”, Google Play, 2017. 
18.
David Leveille, “Finland Expresses Its Unique Nordic Culture in Emojis”, The World, November–2016. 
19.
EmojiOne, “EmojiOne Reinvents Itself, Releases All-New Emoji Designs”, 2017. 
20.
Vicky Huang, “How One Company Is Cashing In on Emoji-Crazed Consumers”, TheStreet
21.
emoji company emoji company GmbH, “Emoji Company Announces Acquisition of Rights”, Medianet, 2017. 
22.
Curtis Silver, “Inmoji Launches Self-Service Platform For Anyone To Advertise Using Emojis”, Forbes
23.
“InMoji”, Crunchbase, 2019. 
24.
MG Siegler, “Tweeeeeeeeeeeeeet! Twitter Has A Way To Show Off Your World Cup Allegiances”, TechCrunch, June–2010. 
25.
Alissa Walker, “Twitter’s Hashflags Are an Abomination, and They Must Be Stopped”, Gizmodo, September–2015. 
26.
Jordan Valinksy, “Coke Is the First Brand to Get a Custom Twitter Emoji”, Digiday, September–2015. 
27.
Joe Divita, “Metallica Get Twitter Emojis, Create Own Metallica Logo”, Loudwire, November–2016. 
28.
Cadbury UK, “Deck Your Tweets With Our Festive New Emoji. Use #Cadvent to See It Pop Up!”, Twitter, 2016. 
29.
Justin Garrity, “How Custom Emojis Crowned Twitter the Hashtag Registrar”, Medium, February–2016. 
30.
Gary Coby, “A CALL WITH JACK: How Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, Restricted Advertising for Trump’s Campaign”, Medium, November–2016. 
31.
Nancy Scola, “Source: Twitter Cut Out of Trump Tech Meeting over Failed Emoji Deal”, Politico, December–2016. 
32.
Andrew Rafferty, “Trump Pledges Aid to Silicon Valley During Tech Meeting”, NBC News, December–2016. 
33.
Paul Bedard, “Twitter Trips Trump, Reneges on {\$}5M Deal, Emoji Denial of Service”, The Washington Examiner, October–2016. 
34.
“Sad Poop Emoji Gets Flushed After Row”, BBC News, December–2017. 
*
Official emoji flags have since arrived in the Unicode standard, but when Twitter first used them in 2010 it had to commission its own custom flag icons. Those official flag emoji, by the way, still do not display correctly on Windows machines. 

Emoji, part 7: the emoji tongue

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.


Bearing in mind that I am very much not a linguist, let’s nevertheless start with the biggest of these questions: are emoji a language? To answer it, we first need to define what a language is. Oxford Dictionaries offers the following:

The method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way.1

Taking this definition step by step, emoji meet the first clause — “The method of human communication” — without breaking a sweat. We’re all humans here and at this point in time, a full twenty years since emoji first came into being, it is not a great stretch to claim that that we use them to communicate amongst ourselves. Equally, it goes without saying that if emoji are to be “either [a] spoken or written” language then they must be a written one. Emoji were born as visual symbols and, aside from their workmanlike Unicode names, they have no direct verbal equivalents. So far, so good.

Finally, though, can we be confident in declaring that emoji constitute “words [used] in a structured and conventional way”? This is less clear cut. If we assume that each individual emoji constitutes a word (by no means a settled assumption), consider how I might explain that I, 😠, am to squirt you, 😨, with a 🔫. Do we write that from left to right (😠🔫😨) as we would with words, or from right to left as the direction of the water pistol would suggest (😨🔫😠)? Equally, can we say for sure that ‘🔫’ is a verb rather than a noun? If a verb, is it in the simple future tense? The simple past? Or, God forbid, the pluperfect? Without some kind of grammar, none of these questions is easily answered.

If we turn from grammar to semantics, we run into yet more problems. Does ‘🔫’ mean “water pistol” in particular rather than “gun” in general? Do you, the reader, even see a water pistol rather than a real gun? Most major emoji vendors have replaced the latter with the former in recent years, so that even the most basic atoms of any putative emoji language are subject to change with warning.2 If emoji are a language, it is one that somehow functions without either a regular grammar or an agreed vocabulary.


Perhaps there is a different way to look at things. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries, who provided our definition of language above, named FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY (😂) — now, as then, the world’s most popular emoji3 — as Word of the Year, beating out such zingers as “ad blocker”, “Brexit”, “lumbersexual”, “on fleek”, and “sharing economy”.4 In the press release that accompanied the announcement, Casper Grathwohl, president of Oxford Dictionaries, commented that:

You can see how traditional alphabet scripts have been struggling to meet the rapid-fire, visually focused demands of 21st Century communication. It’s not surprising that a pictographic script like emoji has stepped in to fill those gaps — it’s flexible, immediate, and infuses tone beautifully.4

If emoji are not a language, are they instead a script — that is, the written expression of a language proper? It is tempting to file them alongside pictographic scripts such as cuneiform, hieroglyphics or modern Chinese characters, but merely existing as a collection of discrete images is not enough for us to call emoji a fully-fledged script. For one thing, each of these other examples started out as a means to record an existing, spoken language (Akkadian, Old Egyptian and Old Chinese respectively5,6,7) whereas emoji were founded as a repertoire of visual icons unmoored from any spoken equivalents. If emoji are a script, as Grathwohl suggests, they certainly did not start out as one.

The thing is, successful scripts have a habit of broadening their horizons. The Latin alphabet, for example, having started life as the written representation of Latin itself, is now used for hundreds of other languages worldwide.8,9 Some, such as the Romance languages, are derived from Latin and brought the alphabet along with them; others, such as Turkish, have had the Latin alphabet retroactively applied.10,11 Even if emoji did not begin life as a script, it’s possible to argue that it could have become one through its application to spoken language: it isn’t hard to imagine that ‘😊’ could translate to “smile”, for instance, or that ‘🚗’ might mean “car”.

Emoji resembles the Latin alphabet in another way, too, although perhaps a more equivocal one. Just as “bad” in English means something quite different to bad (“bath”) in German, so some emoji mean different things in different places. In Japan, ‘🙏’ means “thank you” and not “prayer hands” (or even “high five”) as it does in many other places;12 the Japanese word for “poo” and “luck” sound similar, and so ‘💩’ has connotations of serendipity that don’t travel well;13 and ‘♨️’ is Japan’s cartographic symbol for hot springs rather than hot food.14 Elsewhere, in many parts of the world the thumbs-up emoji (👍) is a rude gesture, and in some countries but not others the insouciant ‘💅’ has sexual connotations.15 Lastly, in China, the lack of expression around the eyes of many common smileys, such as ‘🙂’, give them a dismissive or mocking air; the more expressive eyes of ‘😁’ and ‘😄’ are less ambiguous.16 In this respect, emoji are as geographically chameleonic as any other widely-used script.

Despite these seeming overlaps, there is one crucial characteristic shared by many scripts (and alphabets in particular) that emoji does not yet possess. In linguistic terms, emoji are not symbolic.

Historically, scripts tend to evolve. Cuneiform became syllabic, repurposing its logograms, or word symbols, as sounds.17 And Egyptian hieroglyphics, initially both logographic and syllabic, morphed into true alphabets, Latin included, through a tortuous procession of descendants.18,19 This isn’t to say that scripts must evolve in order to be considered legitimate, and, in some ways, emoji is already evolving. As we’ve already seen, there’s a steady stream of new emoji, and the meaning of those emoji does change over time. But what true scripts have in common, and what emoji lacks, is that they have either partially or entirely outgrown their ties to physical objects and actions. The letters ‘d’, ‘o’ and ‘g’, for example, have no inherent connection to dogs other than the fact that when we combine them into the word “dog”, we understand that composite symbol as representing the concept of a dog. As such, we say that the Latin alphabet is symbolic, and it is a property that makes for a flexible, expressive means of communication.

Here, finally, is where the idea of emoji as a script runs aground. As far as emoji is concerned, ‘🐩’ is simply a picture of a dog, inherently bound to the idea of dogness or, indeed, the sound of the word “dog” in the reader’s language. We say that emoji are iconic rather than symbolic, with each glyph representing only its pictured object or activity — no more, and no less.20


What, then, are emoji? The truth is that they are exactly what they look like: a grab bag of tenuously-related pictures of people, things and activities. And yet, as reductive as this sounds, it has not stopped emoji from becoming an integral part of modern communication. For one thing, pictures are uniquely self-descriptive. A visual depiction of a person, action or thing is an effective way of communicating that thing. As we saw back in part 1, the Tokyo Olympics of 196421 pioneered the use of icons as language-independent wayfinding symbols. A decade later, the American Institute of Graphic Arts created a similar vocabulary of symbols for use by the US Department of Transport in airports and other transportation hubs.22,23,24 Forty-five years later, and the DOT’s symbols are still in use — indeed, they have been enshrined in their own ISO standard.25* Proof that a well-designed set of symbols need not be elevated to the status of language or script to be worthy of our attention.

DOT symbols designed by the AIGA
Designed by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, these 1974 icons are still in use in the US Department of Transport and beyond. (Image by the author; icons by the AIGA.)

Emoj are very much part of this tradition of icons; they are, in other words, pictures. And if you will permit me a terrible pun, that is one of their greatest strengths: they are pictures in other words. The DOT’s classic airport iconography and the Tokyo Olympics’ graphical signposts live, or lived, in a deliberately wordless context, relying on their iconicity to transcend the languages of their countries of origin. By contrast, emoji positively embrace their place among their alphabetic siblings and are all the richer for it.

Consider this: emoji might have started out as mere pictures of things, but, courtesy of the way they coexist with conventional writing, they lend themselves to more subtle uses. In an article published in 2017 at the excellent (and sweary) blog Strong Language, Philip Sergeant, a lecturer in Applied Linguistics at the Open University, explained how emoji could be creatively used in the service of a little light profanity. Applying himself to the terms “cockwomble” (an insult slung at then-presidential candidate Donald Trump during a 2016 visit to Scotland26) and “wanker”, Sergeant explained how one might translate them into emoji:

For example, 🐓🐹 is a calque: a word that’s borrowed from another language through direct translation. In this case the two component parts of the English word are rendered with the icons that individually represent them (although with a bit of poetic licence being taken in the substitution of the ‘hamster face’ for a womble). 👐⚓️, on the other hand, is a rebus: a linguistic device which uses pictures to represent part or all of a word. Here, the ‘w’ indicated by the conjoined hands is appended to ‘anchor’ to approximate the pronunciation of the English word.27

This is emoji in the role of exotic linguistic construct, an enthusiastic participant in the world of text. You can use ‘👐’ in its usual role to mean “jazz hands” or “hug”, or you can hope that your reader will interpret it as the letter ‘w’. You can use ‘🐓’ to mean “a male chicken”, or you can use it as a substitute for the sound of the word “cock”; likewise, ‘⚓️’ can represent the concept of an anchor, or it can convey merely the sound of the word “anchor”. (Pleasingly, this doubling-up of signs to mean both the thing they represent and the sound they make is exactly what prompted scripts such as cuneiform to evolve from ideographic towards syllabic. It’s tempting to imagine that emoji, too, might one day become a true script through a similar mechanism.)

Nor does the use of emoji stop at word replacement: emoji are increasingly used as visual alternatives for others parts of written language, too. Witness the so-called ratchet clap, in which the CLAPPING HANDS SIGN is used to 👏 really 👏 truly 👏 thunderously 👏 emphasise 👏 words 👏 in 👏 a 👏 sentence 👏.28,29 This is emoji as word space, yanking the eighth-century invention of Celtic monks firmly into the age of the smartphone. And who could forget the graphical (and graphic) double entendres that we encountered back in part 5 of this series — ‘🍆’, ‘🌮’, ‘🍑’, and more?

For my money, this is emoji’s most natural home: inhabiting the same space as our words but not replacing them, and invigorating otherwise bloodless digital messages at they do so.


Having said all this — that emoji cannot be a language, because they lack structure; that they are not a script because they are not symbolic; that they live among words but should not replace them — there are, of course, dissenters. Back in the fifth part of this series we took note of a viral tweet composed by Scottih tennis player Andy Murray to provide a blow-by-blow prognostication of his upcoming nuptials:30

🌞☔😂👔💅💇😂👰😂🚗💒💃👫🙏💍💏👏📝🎹📷🎥🚗🍷🍴🎂🎊🎉👯🎶🎤🍹🍻🍷🍺🍩🍦🍷🍹🍸🍺🌙❤💕😘💤💤💤💤💤💤💤31

Murray’s tweet is closer to a movie storyboard than it is to a sentence, but it does hint that emoji have the potential to be more than merely pictures embedded in text. And there have been other, more ambitious efforts too.

In September 2009, one Fred Benenson launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund an emoji “translation” of Herman Melville’s 1851 opus, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale. Benenson exceeded his goal of $3,500, raising $3,676 from eighty-three backers, and went to print.32 The result, Emoji Dick; or, 🐳 was an impressionistic, crowd-sourced rendering of the source text in emoji. As Benenson explained,

Each of the book’s approximately 10,000 sentences has been translated three times by a Amazon Mechanical Turk worker. These results have been voted upon by another set of workers, and the most popular version of each sentence has been selected for inclusion in this book.33

Arguably, Emoji Dick is more notable for its means of production than for its emoji-ness: for the uninitiated, Amazon Mechanical Turk is a service whereby a computer doles out small, manual jobs to a pool of human workers and the results are sent back to the computer for processing.34 It is the exact opposite of the conventional model of human-computer interaction.

Practically speaking, Benenson’s use of Amazon Mechanical Turk resulted in Moby Dick’s famous opening line — “Call me Ishmael” — being translated as “☎️👨⛵🐳👌”.32 The first two or three emoji I can just about agree with, but the rest have more to do with the sentences that follow in Melville’s novel:

Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation.35

But these, too, were translated to yield, rather less convincingly, “🎰🈁🛥️” and “5️⃣❌👃💹❓💪🌻” respectively.32 Personally, I can’t help but wonder if Benenson’s results would be more convincing if he were to re-run his translation today; emoji literacy among English speakers must be significantly higher now that it was in 2010.

Notwithstanding the quality of the translation, Emoji Dick went on to be the first book acquired by the US Library of Congress to credit Amazon Mechanical Turk as an author.36 And Benenson’s success, if not his means of translation, inspired others to attempt their own emoji versions of classic works. In 2015, for example, a designer named Joe Hale translated both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan into emoji;37,38 a year earlier, on the other hand, a photographer named Kamran Kastle raised just $105 of his goal of $25,000 towards translating the Bible.39 (Kastle may not have fully understood the task at hand, given that he referred to emoji as “emoticons” throughout his Kickstarter pitch.)

Does this mean that emoji really is a language? Obeying Betteridge’s law of headlines, no, they are not. Despite Joe Hale’s optimistic claim that he could “reverse translate” his emojified Alice into an approximation of the original,37 emoji still lack the symbolic nature of an alphabet, the scope of a pictographic script, and the convention and structure of a language.

Perhaps the most accurate statement we can make is that emoji are accessories to conventional scripts, adding literal and metaphorical colour to staid old letters and numbers and occasionally — just occasionally, and in very specific ways — replacing them entirely. Emoji may have colonised our writing, but it is they who have had to learn our language and not the other way around.

1.
“Language”, Oxford Dictionaries
2.
Unknown entry 
3.
Matthew Rotherberg, “FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY”, emojitracker.Com, 2019. 
4.
“Word of the Year 2015”, Oxford Dictionaries, November–2015. 
5.
Jerrold Cooper S, Sumerian and Akkadian, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
6.
Robert Rittner K, Hieroglyphic, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
7.
William Boltz G, Early Chinese Writing, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
8.
Stan Knight, The Roman Alphabet, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
9.
“CLDR Likely Subtags”, Unicode.Org
10.
Edward Tuttle, Romance Languages, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
11.
Edward Tuttle, Turkish, ed. P T Daniels and W Bright, The World’s Writing Systems, 1996. 
12.
Kat Chow, “Simmering Online Debate Shows Emoji Is In The Eye Of The Beholder”, NPR, August–2014. 
13.
Nalina Eggert, “Emoji Translator Wanted - London Firm Seeks Specialist”, BBC News, December–2016. 
14.
Sam Escobar, “Emoji Meanings Decoded - Emojis You’re Using Wrong”, Cosmopolitan, December–2016. 
15.
Marcel Danesi, Emoji Uses, The Semiotics of Emoji : The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet
16.
Echo Huang, “Chinese People Mean Something Very Different When They Send You a Smiley Emoji”, Quarz, March–2017. 
17.
C Walker, “Origin and Development”, in Cuneiform, 1987, 7-21. 
18.
Alan Gardiner H, “The Egyptian Origin of the Semitic Alphabet”, 1916. 
19.
Helmut Satzinger, “Syllabic and Alphabetic Script, or the Egyptian Origin of the Alphabet”, 2002. 
20.
Marcel Danesi, Emoji and Writing Systems, The Semiotics of Emoji : The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet
21.
Shigetaka Kurita, Mamiko Nakano, and Mitsuyo Inaba Lee, “Why and How I Created Emoji”, Ignition
22.
Adam Sternbergh, “Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji”, New York, November–2014. 
23.
Ellen Lupton and Abbott Miller, “Modern Hieroglyphs”, in Design Writing Research, 1999, 41-45. 
24.
Roger Cook et al., “Symbol Signs”, AIGA, 1974. 
25.
“ISO 7001:2007 - Graphical Symbols -- Public Information Symbols”, International Organization for Standardization, 2007. 
26.
Hilary Mitchell, “24 Times Scottish Twitter Roasted The Fuck Out Of Trump”, BuzzFeed, October–2016. 
27.
Philip Sergeant, “The Whimsical World of Emoji Swearing”, Strong Language, March–2017. 
28.
Katy Waldman, “Tweets With Clap Emojis Between the Words Are Annoying.”, Slate, April–2016. 
29.
Alexandria Princess, “Ratchet Clap”, Urban Dictionary, 2019. 
30.
Katie Baillie, “Andy Murray Predicts Entire Wedding Day in Epic Emoji Tweet”, Metro, April–2015. 
31.
Andy Murray, “Tweet”, Twitter, April–2015. 
32.
Unknown entry 
33.
Fred Benenson, “Emoji Dick”
34.
“Amazon Mechanical Turk”
35.
Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Or, the Whale, 1851. 
36.
Erin Allen, “A Whale of an Acquisition”, Library of Congress Blog, February–2013. 
37.
Beckett Mufson, “Author Translates All of ’Alice in Wonderland’ into Emojis”, Vice
38.
Beckett Mufson, “Author Translates All of Peter Pan into Emojis”, Vice
39.
Kamran Kastle, “The Bible Translated into Emoticons”, Kickstarter, 2014. 
*
The AIGA’s expanded set of 50 symbols is now freely available on the web
See The Pilcrow, part 2 or the Shady Characters book for more on spaces between words. 

“Collections and Collaborations” posters now available!

Typographic poster by Tom Etherington and Keith Houston featuring show-through text printed in reverse
Poster by Tom Etherington and Keith Houston. Buy one here! (Image courtesy of the St Bride Foundation.)

As I mentioned last time, last month I took part in an event at the St Bride Foundation in London called “Collections and Collaborations” at which Tom Etherington and I, along with six other pairs of collaborators, launched the poster on which we’d been working for the past few months.

You can see a digital reproduction of our poster here, but I suggest — nay, I urge — that you lay out the £15.00 for a printed copy. Not only will St Bride benefit from your generosity, but you’ll get to see Tom’s clever visual sleight of hand for yourself. That grey text isn’t grey at all: rather, it’s printed in black on the back of very fine paper called “Sixties”, available from Fenner Paper, so that it shows through to accompany the coloured text on the front. It looks great in person!

All seven posters, ours included, are now available for sale in limited editions of 60, and all proceeds go to St Bride. Take a look and order your favourites now!

“Collections and Collaborations” at the St Bride Foundation, London, on 14th May, 2019

On Tuesday the 14th of May I’ll be taking part in an event at the St Bride Foundation in London called “Collections and Collaborations”. It’s a showcase for a set of posters inspired by St Bride and its collections, and I was lucky enough to be paired with the talented Tom Etherington, a book designer at Penguin, to help produce one of those posters.

Here’s the official take:

In November 2018, we approached fourteen artists, designers, writers, illustrators and musicians to ask if they would collaborate in pairs to create a poster designed to celebrate and highlight the rich and varied collections held within the St Bride Library and the building itself.

This evening is being held to celebrate the culmination of their work and the items from the collections that inspired them. The event includes a drinks reception, private view and series of short lectures from some of the collaborators about the process behind their work.

There are seven posters in total, and each one has been printed in a limited edition of 60. They’ll be on sale during the event for £15 each, three for £40 or the complete set for £100. All profits go to the St Bride Library. Tickets for the event are a very reasonable £3–5.

See you there!

Emoji, part 6c: to infinity…and beyond‽

As we saw last time, Emoji 4.0 cemented the Unicode Consortium’s practice of annual emoji updates. In doing so it created the phenomenon of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick apart the new emoji that will soon arrive on smartphones and computers and then go back to their usual business. Emoji season has come to be defined by the major theme of the accompanying emoji update: 2015’s Emoji 1.0 added skin tone support, while 2016’s Emoji 4.0 brought a more equitable treatment of male and female emoji. Now, in May 2017, Emoji 5.0 added the concept of gender-neutral emoji.1

For all its attendant fanfare, Emoji 5.0 added only three new emoji in the service of gender inclusivity: CHILD (🧒), PERSON (🧑), and OLDER PERSON (🧓). Each one was intended to provide a gender-neutral alternative to its gendered counterparts: BOY (👦) or GIRL (👧), MAN (👨) or WOMAN (👩), and OLD MAN (👴) or OLD WOMAN (👵). But, as is often the way with emoji specifically, and with Unicode in general, things were a little more complicated than they seemed.

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