Talking online: The language of emojis

It has happened to many of us: sending texts that end up being misinterpreted. This confusion usually happens because words were read in a different tone, the lack of social cues making communication more difficult. But we do have a well-known tool that can be of help when correctly used online – emojis. How did they appear and how have they changed online interaction? 

A short history of the emoji 

The creation of the emoji happened in the late 90s in Japan. Its translation means pictogram or pictograph, the word remaining the same throughout the years and keeping its Japanese origins. The story of the emoji begins with Shigetaka Kurita, who was working for a Japanese mobile company called Docomo. At that time, the company had already made the heart emoji available for their Pocket Bell devices, which were heavily used by the local youth. But there was a desire to create something even bigger – something that can be beneficial for the majority of mobile users and hook them.  

Kurita wanted to create a technological feature that could easily convey information, but with less word usage. What stands at the base of this creation is the Japanese language, which played an important role. At that time, writing letters in Japanese included longer expressions that showed cordiality and respect towards the receiver. Because emails approached a shorter writing style, some modernly written expressions led to confusion. ‘Emailed expressions’ could have been interpreted by the receiver in many ways. These misunderstandings instigated a need for something that could convey more tone, nuance and emotion to the text. Therefore, Kurita thought of using small images, designing them in such a way so that they could represent commonly used information and familiar facial expressions. This led to the design of a total of 176 emojis that were possible to select within the i-mode platform (also owned by Docomo). The platform was about to be one of the most popular and complex platforms at that time.

The 176 emojis designed for mobile phones and pagers by Shigetaka Kurita

Emojis are now coded in a way that they can be used almost all over the world. This happened because Unicode, which supports and standardizes languages throughout code, adopted emojis and indexed them. As it became possible for languages to be written and read around the Internet, starting from 2010, emojis were also “transformed” to be compatible for multiple technologies. 

Roles of the emoji and their usage 

More than 10 years have passed and most of us use emojis on a daily basis. This is, of course, a captivating happening for communication researchers. Various papers have been published in an attempt to find the whys and hows behind online language use. Riordan (2017a) stated that there are two primary roles of emojis and emoticons: (1) they are communicating affect and (2) they disambiguate the message. The lack of non-verbal cues in texting asks for the help of these on-screen visuals, which have a compensatory role. There are different types of emojis, though. What about the usage of the ones with and without a face? In another study by Riordan (2017b), we are shown that both types of emojis boost positive affect perception. This came as remarkable because the non-face emojis do not depict the expression of an emotion, but rather, objects. Therefore, these tiny images somehow do make us feel better when used right.  

The popularity of these small images tells us even more. Reports from UnicodeFacebook and Twitter in the past years, revealed that their Top 10s mostly have emojis with faces. Some of the most frequently used ones in the past years are the face with tears of joyred heartloudly crying face and smiling face with heart-eyes. Surprisingly, it seems like the heart has kept its popularity since the Japanese Pocket Bell devices. And it is not only about its usage within text, but we see it as a reaction on other platforms too. It looks like we are fools for giving and receiving online love – or at least we are made to be like that. 

Create to better communicate  

Whereas emojis are given for people to use, it is also possible to create one yourself. Ever wanted to use an emoji that you could not find on your keyboard? Well, every year, new ones are released and people are given the chance to make a proposal to Unicode with an original idea. The proposal needs to be 10 pages long and it should explain, with strong arguments and being backed up by data, why that design is needed. In an article on Business Insider, Sebastián Delmont, one of the people who had their emojis accepted, gave some advice on making strong proposals. Firstly, the emoji needs to be one “that people will use frequently”. Secondly, it should be “specific enough to warrant a separate image and not general enough to be confused with other things that are not that emoji”. Looking at the emojis accepted for 2020 it seems like an easy job. If you are a creative person, do not hesitate to design one yourself!

Emojipedia presenting the 117 new emojis accepted in 2020

Written by Ioana Pintilie

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