A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 10: state of the nation

This is the most recent in a series of twelve posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.


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.

We’ve dug into emoji’s problems with diversity, how the Unicode Consortium have tried to address them via annual updates, and the positive but incomplete steps taken as a result. We asked if emoji are a language, a script, or something else, and we’ve looked both at the proprietary “stickers” that threaten emoji and Unicode’s own attempts to break emoji out of their walled garden.

What, then, is the state of the emoji nation? In the final post in this series, we look at emoji’s journey so far and their prospects for the future.


First, the good news. In many ways, emoji have done exceedingly well, making themselves at home in Japanese, English, and many other languages as a kind of punctuation-on-steroids or emotional stage direction. By way of comparison, consider this familiar mark (‽), the “interrobang”, invented in 1962 by a Madison Avenue executive named Martin K. Speckter.1,2,3 A combination of the exclamation mark and the question mark, the interrobang made its way onto a select few typewriter keyboards and later into the Unicode standard itself,4,5 where it lives on as a flag-bearer for invented punctuation marks — and yet now, half a century later, it remains virtually unknown. The contrast between the interrobang and the legions of emoji that bound across our screens is stark: in the two decades since their invention, emoji have done something to language that the interrobang and a host of other also-rans never could. They have changed it.

Conversely, the more popular emoji become the more they start to resemble any other cultural or linguistic artefact. They have started to stratify and ossify and, generally, to gain respectability at the expense of some of their initial novelty and momentum. Young people use them frequently but older people do not.6,7 Like contractions such as “it’s” or “haven’t”, they remain steadfastly ostracised from “formal” documents.8 And, against all odds, they have even started to infiltrate the artistic establishment: in October 2016, MoMA “acquired” NTT DOCOMO’s original set of emoji designs, explaining that “these 12 x 12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language”.9

Emoji are now so embedded in our written culture that they have become a barometer of national — and personal — character. Numerous surveys have found that France, for example, is the only country in which ‘❤️︎’ comes top of the charts; everywhere else, ‘😂’ and ‘😍’ rule the roost.10,11 There are subtler undercurrents to be found, too. A 2016 conference paper entitled “Learning from the Ubiquitous Language: an Empirical Analysis of Emoji Usage of Smartphone Users”10 examined 3.88 million emoji users across 212 countries and regions to uncover previously-unknown proclivities and peccadilloes. The authors began by classifying countries according to “power distance” (that is, how unequally power is distributed); collectivism versus individualism; masculinity versus femininity; risk aversion; long-term versus short-term social ties; and indulgence versus restraint. Next, they examined emoji use in those countries, labelling emoji as conveying positive, mixed, or negative sentiments based on their Unicode descriptions.

The results were striking. The more unequal a society, for instance, the more likely its citizens were to use negative emoji, as was true of countries that value risk aversion over risk taking. Conversely, emoji users in regions where long-term family connections are valued above short-term “face saving” preferred more positive symbols, as did those in countries with a slant towards individualism. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the inhabitants of countries that enjoy a bit of self-indulgence every now and again tended to use both more positive and more negative emoji — a kind of hangover effect writ in ‘🥂’, ‘🎰’, ‘🤢’ and ‘😢’. Emoji tell us who we are.


Now, though, familiarity is tipping over into contempt. Who among us hasn’t fumed at the simplistic “😃🙂😕😡” customer feedback buttons that await us after passing through airport security?12 Or glazed over at the yearly raft of headlines announcing “Here are the new emoji coming to your phone”?* There is a growing antipathy, too, to companies seeking to capitalize on the ongoing emoji party. A YouGov poll conducted in 2016 of Americans aged 18 and up found that 58% of respondents wanted businesses to cut back on their use of emoji. This was not simply affrighted older respondents swaying the results; the figure was 50% or above in all age groups surveyed.13

Apple did not get the memo. The emoji-friendly touchscreens on Apple’s newest laptops launched in 2016 to an overwhelming shrug,14 we’d say it can be more of a hindrance.15

Today Translations, a London-based firm that announced in May 2017 the appointment of its first emoji translator, was another company to double down on emoji even as consumers were starting to weary of them. The company explained: “The role will involve explaining cross-cultural misunderstandings in the use of the mini pictures, and compiling a monthly trends report.”16 The news was greeted in the mainstream press with polite curiosity,17,18 while Twitter served up a variety of pithier opinions ranging from incredulity to exasperation.19,20 Emoji are no longer a guarantee of positive column inches.


All this is to say that we are surely nearing ⛰️ emoji, if we have not already reached it — and, given its ongoing flirtation with getting out of the emoji business, the Unicode Consortium may feel the same. Emoji have been wildly successful, bringing a cartoonish, exuberant, and outright useful expressiveness to an otherwise staid means of communication, but they are also hemmed in by the bureaucracy of an organisation that is unsure whether emoji are the future of text or a sideshow to be enjoyed while it lasts. Unicode continues to release yearly batches of new emoji while toying with the idea that maybe, just maybe, it could devolve control of emoji to its millions of users.

It is a mind-boggling prospect. Can you imagine the creativity, the nuance that would be unlocked if emoji were freed from Unicode’s regimented, iterative model? If you, or me, or anybody else could create an emoji and send it to whomever they wanted? For the Unicode Consortium to let go of emoji would be a bold act, and it would dodge the monochrome truth at the heart of emoji’s colourful icons: that they have never really belonged to us, their users. Rather than express our own ideas in visual form, we have little option but to borrow someone else’s. Isn’t it time we had the chance to 💭 our own thoughts and 💬 our own words? Free the emoji! Coded hashes of arbitrary images for all!

Now, it is not at all clear that custom emoji will ever happen. But they may appear one day, and, given the sea change they would represent, it is worth considering how it might play out. To me, there are two ways to think about what might follow.

When we talk about what makes a successful mark of punctuation, we tend to think in terms of the longevity and ubiquity of individual symbols. The exclamation mark was new, once upon a time; now it is hundreds of years old, and it is everywhere. But readers of Shady Characters will know better than most that creating a new mark with that sort of staying power and popularity is well nigh impossible: emoji aside, not one of the new marks we’ve seen here has caused so much as a ripple on the surface of the English language. What are the chances that any custom emoji could emulate the success of FACE WITH TEARS OF JOY while simultaneously avoiding the pitfalls encountered by the interrobang, ironieteken and SarcMark? Slim to none, surely, without a giant marketing budget to back it up, and who wants a world populated by COCA-COLA and NIKE AIR MAX emoji?

Or, more radically, we could abandon the idea that individual marks must “succeed” in and of themselves, and instead look at custom emoji as a whole. The common or garden meme is a useful analogue: memes are everywhere, like exclamation marks or emoji, but the images on which they are based and the in-jokes, commentary and sentiments they convey change from moment to moment. A single custom emoji might never travel beyond a lone Twitter feed, but custom emoji as a whole could still become wildly successful. The online world would seethe with perpetual motion — emoji after emoji winking into and out of existence like mayflies. It is exhilharating and exhausting to think of.


And yet even when I imagine the dizzying potential of a world full of custom emoji, I can’t shake the idea that emoji as they are right now might just be the best possible version of themselves. Setting aside the question of emoji ownership, we have access to a set of characters that is diverse enough to be useful but small enough to fit in the average human brain. We have straightforward symbols (😀, ❤️) and euphemistic ones (🍆, 🍑). We have universal emoji (🔥, ✈️), niche emoji (👺, 🔱), and controversial emoji (🔫, 🇹🇼). We have secular emoji (🧪, ⚛️) and religious emoji (🕋, 🕎). They aren’t perfect — no finite set of symbols ever could be — but with each passing emoji season, a few more of the most egregious gaps are filled in.

Part of me wishes that we could stop the bus and just revel in the emoji we already have. There’s fun to be had in mastering a limited set of symbols and stretching their meanings in new and interesting ways. After all, the chromatic scale has only twelve notes, and no-one is complaining about that. And besides, who, apart from the indispensable martyrs at Emojipedia, has time to keep up with the annual carpet-bombing of new emoji?

But then I see the arrival of gender-neutral faces (🧑), same-sex families (👩‍👩‍👦), Scottish flags (🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿), dumplings (🥟) and guide dogs (🦮), and I’m glad that Unicode has stuck with its most successful sideshow. Whether custom emoji ever come to pass; whether emoji can ever become truly representative of their users; whether Google’s blobs ever make a comeback; the world of text is richer for having emoji in it.

1.
Martin Speckter K, “Interrobang”, ed. Martin Speckter K, 1968. 
2.
Martin Speckter K, “Making a New Point, Or, How about that...”, ed. Martin Speckter K, 1962. 
3.
Martin Speckter K, “Toward the 2-Way Punctuation Mark”, ed. Martin Speckter K, 1962. 
4.
“Business Bulletin”, Wall Street Journal, September–1968. 
5.
“Code Charts - Scripts”, The Unicode Consortium, September–2011. 
6.
Emogi Research Team, “2016 Emoji Report”, 2016. 
7.
Stéphanie Chevalier, “Frequency in Emoji Usage by Mobile Phone Users in Mexico by Age 2019”, Stastista, 2019. 
8.
Lydia Dishman, “The Business Etiquette Guide To Emojis”, Fast Company, July–2016. 
9.
Paul Galloway, “The Original NTT DOCOMO Emoji Set Has Been Added to The Museum of Modern Art’s Collection”, MoMA, 2016. 
10.
Xuan Lu et al., “Learning from the Ubiquitous Language: An Empirical Analysis of Emoji Usage of Smartphone Users”, in Ubicomp, 2016, 770-80. 
11.
SwiftKey, “SwiftKey Emoji Report”, 2015. 
12.
“Smiley Terminal”, Happy Or Not, 2019. 
13.
Paul Hiebert, “Brands Beware: Don’t Overdo It With the Emojis”, YouGov, November–2016. 
14.
Samuel Gibb, “Apple Launches New MacBook Pro Laptop With Touch Bar for Instant Emoji”, The Guardian, October–2016. 
15.
Karen Haslam, “MacBook Pro Touch Bar Vs MacBook Pro Without Touch Bar”, Macworld UK, May–2019. 
16.
Nalina Eggert, “Emoji Translator Wanted - London Firm Seeks Specialist”, BBC News, December–2016. 
17.
Luke Graham, “Meet a Guy Who Makes a Living Translating Emojis”, CNBC, July–2017. 
18.
Jonathan deBurca deBurca Butler, “Keith Broni Is an Emoji Translator, But it’s Not What You Think”, Irish Examiner, August–2017. 
19.
Kiss Radio, “Only 2017 Could You Get a Job in London As an Emoji Translator.”, Twittert, 2017. 
20.
Breanna Barrs, “Is This #reallife an #emoji translator??? What ??‍♀️??#2017 #bbc”, Twitter, 2017. 
*
There are too many references here to list, but see part 6b and part 6c of this series for more detail on “emoji season”. 
It’s worth mentioning that Keith Broni, who landed the job, does sterling work for Emojipedia
The interrobang got further than most, but, and it pains me to say this, it has never risen much above the level of typographic curio. 

2 comments on “Emoji, part 10: state of the nation

  1. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    I don’t think it makes sense to compare novel punctuation marks to novel emoji. The former are auxiliaries to traditional written text; the latter are a logographic writing system in themselves. New emoji are like new hanzi: you need them when you see a gap in the system, and there will always be gaps (new hanzi are in fact being invented constantly and submitted to the IRC for things like the names of newly discovered species).

    I also don’t think devolved emoji make much sense either. They would be not text but very small pictures, and we already have ways of transmitting pictures.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John,

      The trouble with drawing comparisons between emoji and other sets of symbols is that emoji don’t really correspond to anything else. Punctuation isn’t quite right, as you say, since emoji both have a punctuational function _and_ convey ideas in and of themselves. That said, are emoji any closer to hanzi/kanji? Emoji aren’t pictures of words but rather pictures of things, and, as is painfully clear, they lack a conventional grammar or syntax. That’s why I mention memes, which, like emoji, are both digital natives and straddle any number of traditional categories of language or art.

      As always, thanks for the considered comment!

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