💩 is the new black
Last week, the Museum of Modern Art announced it has added the first ever set of emoji to its permanent collection. These 176 icons were released by Japanese cellular provider DoCoMo way back in 1999. While some people have happily peppered their text messages with a multitude of colourful icons for close to two decades, I stuck to using boring old words until very recently. I've turned over a new leaf of late, only a few years behind my mum. To celebrate my transition to the world of emoji and MoMA's acquisition of their pixelated predecessors, today's blog post brings you three short stories about these cultural phenomena:
One step ahead
Anyone who's got an iPhone will know that Apple has recently introduced a predictive emoji function, which lets you replace words with a corresponding image. You can either replace as you go, or check your whole message for possible substitutions once you're ready to send. This tool is handy as a sort of emoji search engine — if you know what you're looking for, it can save you swiping through seemingly endless screens of pictures. Personally, I'm not so sold on the benefits of replacing words in sentences with pictures as a matter of course.
We see many icons on a daily basis that have standardised meanings which transcend linguistic and national boundaries, such as traffic signs. However, the meaning of emoji aren't fixed — their usage varies from place to place and they can be used as either a literal representation of something or to add meaning or emotional context. I'm pretty sure 🍆 isn't such a popular emoji because everyone's captioning photos of vegetarian moussaka. Because of this fluidity, in many cases using emoji to replace words makes communication messier rather than more concise. I guess if Pictionary without the actual drawing is your dream game, then predictive emoji might be your new best friend.
Behind the curtain
How can you be sure that when you're sending 😎 to a friend with a different phone, you're not actually sending 💀? When you send an emoji, the picture isn't being transmitted from one device to another. Instead, each emoji has a corresponding code which tells the receiving device which image to show (e.g. U+1F61C = 😜). There are close to 2000 standardised codes which are used by all the big providers including Apple, Google, Facebook, and Windows.
Since 2009, emoji have been incorporated into Unicode, a widely used standard for the consistent encoding and representation of digital characters. The addition of emoji to the standard has allowed them to be consistent, and therefore easily sent between different platforms and devices. New emoji are added each year, and anyone can submit a proposal for one to be considered by the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. Wouldn't membership of this group be a great addition to your CV?
Even with standardised codes, there have been miscommunication horror stories due to inconsistent emoji design across platforms. A remedy to this came in 2015 when Unicode published it's creatively titled Technical Report #51 which includes design guidelines for improving interoperability across platforms. Here's a few key pointers we learned from the report:
Even with these guidelines, some emoji vary quite a bit between platforms. If in doubt, you can check out this table to see what you're actually sending a friend with a different phone.
Predicting the future for emoji
When new methods of communication enter the popular imagination, they are often accompanied by impassioned cries from concerned folks who worry about the denigration of language. Emoji are no exception.
The jury is still out on what will be next for emoji — they could cement themselves as a key component of communication in the digital realm or become little more than a fleeting technological curiosity to explain to future generations (have you ever tried to explain fax machines to a 12 year old?).
I thought it could be fun to use the past as an indicator of a possible future for emoji, so I digitally delved into some old newspapers to find out what people thought about the use of slang 100 years or so ago. While slang and emoji are quite different beasts, they both represent an incremental change in the way we communicate. Here are a couple of my favourite slang-related snippets — I suggest mentally replacing the word 'slang' with 'emoji' for full future-gazing effect.