Happy face, sad face – are emojis the nearest thing to a universal language?

More people “speak” emoji than English.

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The Emoji Movie tells the story of Meh, an emoji facing deletion for expressing emotions other than his pre-assigned stance of permanent nonchalance. It was pilloried by film critics: the New York Times described it as “nakedly idiotic”, the Guardian as “a force of insidious evil”; “‘Emoji’ movie sucks (sad face!)” wrote the New York Post, in a headline that could be a Trump tweet. And yet, however ill-conceived, that a film was made attempting to bring to life a phone keyboard for cinema audiences hints at the extent of our cultural obsession with smiley faces, flamenco dancers and anthropomorphic turds.

Emojis have spread at an astonishing rate. Following emoticons – the typographical markers such as :-) which have a longer history – the icons were first introduced to mobile phone users in Japan in 1999 (the word emoji means “picture character” in Japanese), but were not made available internationally until 2011, when Apple introduced its emoji keyboard. Samsung, the world’s biggest-selling smartphone manufacturer, did not make emojis standard until two years later. Yet by 2015 they had hit the mainstream, and the Oxford English Dictionary named the “face with tears of joy” emoji one of its words of the year.

In 2016, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired the first 176 emojis, developed by programmer Shigetaka Kurita to help mobile users communicate despite the short character limit on text messages. “These 12x12-pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language,” read a MoMA statement announcing the acquisition.

Emoji lacks the grammatical complexity or semantic richness of a true language, but it is certainly the closest mankind has come to a universal mode of communication: a smiley face means the same in London as in Lilongwe, in New York as in Nuku‘alofa. Today, it is estimated that 90 per cent of people on social media use them, which means that more people “speak” emoji than English, a language with 1.5 billion speakers and a history spanning centuries. 

This isn’t to say that miscommunication doesn’t occasionally occur, even among the most fluent emoji speakers. Small differences in emoji design can cause mishaps when switching between interfaces: a face bearing teeth may look like a grimace on your phone, but a neutral face on mine. There are also dialects of emoji. For instance, the image of two hands held together means “praying” or “hoping” in the West, but is read as “please” or “thank you” in Japan. Americans are more likely than Brits to use a peach emoji to mean a bum, or to read any double entendre into a picture of an aubergine. Earlier this year, a London-based translation firm hired its first emoji translator – which might illustrate the linguistic diversity of the new communication form. Or it could simply be further evidence of what the writer David Graeber describes as the modern “phenomenon of bullshit jobs”.

As with most digital trends, I joined the emoji party late. Just a few years ago, emoji snobbery was common. I judged people who used them as negatively as I viewed friends who persisted w txt spk long after we grew out of pay-per-message phone contracts. Emoji’s initial PR problem was expressed neatly in a scene in the 2008 comedy The Inbetweeners. Puppy-eyed sixth-former Simon is hunched over his phone, composing a text to a potential sex kitten from caravan club. “Smiley face at the end?” he asks, visibly strained by his literary efforts. “Smiley with a wink. It’s cheeky,” suggests Neil, a lanky, pale-faced dope. “No. The winky face is the mark of a moron,” interjects Will, the voice of reason.

Emojis did, indeed, seem to be vaguely moronic. Their emotional simplicity suggested a lack of depth, a fundamental basicness on the part of the sender. As I saw things, the “cheeky” winking face was a crutch for people who lacked wit, the smiley face less an expression of a joy than the blank, uncomprehending grin of an idiot. The direct, unguarded way in which emojis communicate feeling also sits uneasily with a certain British squeamishness at emotional sincerity, a cultural tendency to seek refuge in understatement or sarcasm. And yet, those little picture characters have finally taught our emotionally-repressed nation to say I <3 you: over 80 per cent of adults in the UK regularly use them in texts.

Like many late converts, I began by telling myself I was using emoji only ironically. And then, once I had started regularly sprinkling my texts with pictures they seemed dull, humourless and impersonal without them. I envy people who still show restraint, selecting only one or two particularly apt icons to underline their point. My texts now look like those of an approval-seeking teenager, punctuated by long giddy lines of dancing girls and party poppers. But emojis are like that: they are self-perpetuating. They raise the communication stakes. Sending a text-only reply to an emoji-strewn SMS has become the digital equivalent of leaving a high-five hanging.

Another reason for their rapid spread is that emojis cater to a very modern need. In the digital age we are communicating ever more in writing, and we are writing much in the same way as we speak. With a bit of effort, the written word can convey emotion with much greater subtlety and accuracy than many of us can manage face-to-face. But most of the time we don’t write like this: we communicate in quick-fire WhatsApp messages or texts, and unlike when we wrote letters we don’t take time to “compose” emails.

This “textspeak… seemingly possesses the power to strip all forms of nuanced expression from even the best of us,” writes Vyvyan Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University. In his latest book, The Emoji Code, he argues that emojis fulfil a similar function in digital communication to gesture, body language and intonation in spoken interactions, helping to provide the emotional cues and sense of tone that are so often missing in textspeak. By clarifying our digital conversations, emojis can be seen as “empowering, a force for good in twenty-first-century communication,” Evans writes. 

Sometimes, an emoji can function a bit like punctuation. As with an exclamation mark, a winking face can alter the meaning of the preceding sentence. When you tell your friend that you’re running late and they reply “OK”, you may wonder if they’re annoyed with you. If they reply “OK ;)” it’s clear that they are not. The most commonly used emojis are those that help clarify tone and feeling, often by acting as a direct substitute for facial expression or body language. According to research by the software developer Swiftkey, over 60 per cent of emojis sent worldwide are faces; while faces, hand gestures and hearts together make up over three quarters of all emojis used. The rest of the time we use monkeys and margaritas, tacos and bunny girls to jazz up an otherwise flat text. In this way, emojis bring a human touch to our abstract, computer-aided communications.

Their simplicity belies emojis’ communicative force. They draw people in. People are more likely to respond to or share social media posts that contain emojis than text-only ones. As with any language, emoji slang can help foster a sense of group identity. Islamic State group fighters use the green bird symbol to represent martyrdom and the lion to symbolise bravery. Among the alt-right the red pill emoji is popular, a reference to The Matrix film used to suggest enlightenment to the white nationalist world view.

However, emoji can also be the language of love. Astonishing as it might seem, a 2014 poll of 5,600 singles found that the more emojis a singleton used, the more dates they went on and the more likely they were to have sex. Bizarrely, it found that women who used kiss-themed emojis reported having more orgasms than others. The designers of the study, which was commissioned by the dating website match.com, suggested this could be because emoji use is a sign of being self-expressive and an effective communicator.

The straightforward and intuitive way in which emojis can convey emotion means they can have therapeutic and educational uses, particularly for helping young children express and understand feelings that they may not yet be able to put into words. The Emotes project uses cartoons expressing ideas such as loneliness, embarrassment or mischievousness to help children explore and communicate their emotions. To help victims of abuse seek help or share their experiences, a Swedish charity has developed an app that allows them to download a range of emojis showing images of violence, self-harm and facial injuries.

They have come to play a critical role in our everyday language and yet emojis differ from the written and spoken word in one crucial, and troubling, respect. The way in which languages evolve is usually relatively democratic. Change is driven by speakers and attempts by central authorities to influence this process always has limited success: consider, for instance, the French cultural ministry’s failed campaigns against the use of English words such as email. But Emoji is different. The only way a new emojis can be added to the lexicon is when it is approved by the tech companies that make up Unicode, the consortium that standardises text and characters to ensure that, say, an email sent on an Apple Mac is readable on an Android phone.

In 2015, a former New York Times writer launched a campaign for the creation of a dumpling emoji. Jennifer Lee argued that because of their international ubiquity, dumplings deserved a place alongside sushi and pizza on the phone keyboard, but she also wanted to highlight the lack of diversity among Unicode’s emoji board, whose members pay thousands of dollars for their voting rights and who are “mostly male, mostly American and overwhelmingly engineers”.

The emoji subcommittee at Unicode consists of around a dozen people who hold weekly telephone meetings. While governments, companies, students and other individuals can join the discussion, the final decision rests with representatives of Unicode’s voting members, which includes 13 tech firms, Berkeley university and the governments of Oman, Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu. The co-founder and president of Unicode, Google engineer Mark Davis, was so tickled by an article that described him as the “shadowy emoji overlord” that he posted photographs of himself online in a T-shirt bearing the slogan.

The narrow composition of the Unicode committee has affected how Emoji has developed. Emojis were not available in different skin tones until 2015. Up until 2016, the world’s newest linguistic tool took a very 19th-century view on gender roles: there was a bride and a princess emoji, and one of a woman getting a haircut, but there was no female counterpart to the emoji policeman, or male doctor, or businessman. A proposal made to the Unicode consortium by Google engineers changed this. In emoji world, women can finally hold professional jobs and play sport, and a man with a Jedward-style quiff gets his hair cut. A combination of popular pressure and a desire to read customers’ mood means emojis are moving in a more progressive and inclusive direction.

The new emojis for 2017 are very right on: there’s a bearded hipster, a breastfeeding mother, a woman in hijab, some dude meditating – and, yes, a dumpling. But the closed politics of emoji is troubling and indicative of internet culture more broadly: Emoji offers the suggestion of bottom-up power, because anyone can, in theory, propose a new icon, while concentrating power among a handful of companies. This matters, because it means a small number of tech-firm representatives set the parameters for a communications tool employed by 90 per cent of social media users worldwide.

Yet this is not the most worrying aspect of Emoji. In 2015, a TalkTalk survey found that almost three-quarters of 18-25-year-olds find it easier to communicate their feelings in emojis rather than words. On one level this seems positive: self-expression in Emoji is better than feeling unable to say anything at all. But it’s also tragic. Smiling, frowning and “meh” faces lack the emotional range of traditional language. In the same way, even as emojis enrich our everyday digital conversations, they also reveal just how impoverished these daily interactions are becoming. Given how cheap and easy it is to make voice or video calls, it’s noteworthy how often we use texts, emails or Whats- App messages instead.

According to a 2016 study, the average office worker receives 122 emails a day. Even while we complain about our overflowing inboxes, we often choose to exchange dozens of one-line messages when a one-minute phone chat would do. In a recent survey by the internet research firm Pew, 49 per cent of teenagers said that texting is the most common way they stay in touch with friends, followed by 20 per cent who rely most heavily on social media and just 13 per cent who usually call their friends. And it’s not just teens who conduct their social life from behind a keyboard. I am in my thirties and I sometimes get anxious when a close friend calls: my friends and I usually text or use WhatsApp. Phone calls are almost exclusively reserved for bad news and emergencies.

In a hyper-connected world, we’re becoming communication commitment-phobes who opt for platforms on which earlier rules of politeness and social convention no longer apply. Unlike when you speak to someone in person or on the phone, text chats allow you to talk to several people at once, to ignore questions, to cut off conversations without warning or to continue speaking while also watching TV, or pretending to work, or sitting on the loo.

Our reliance on emojis is an extension of this trend. An emoji-strewn text is an improvement on radio silence, but it’s a poor substitute for face-to-face contact and a lazy, half-hearted way of conveying joy or sympathy, one that forces the recipient to fill in the gaps. <3 <3 <3 is now an appropriate response to a news story about a puppy, a compliment, the birth of a baby: it’s a reply that creates the illusion of feeling and emotional connection without saying anything personal at all.

Part of the reason emojis help smooth over awkward interactions and reduce the chance of unintentionally causing offence is because they offer a narrow emotional range. Happy emojis – smiley faces, thumbs-up, pictures of food and animals – do little more than add some zing to dull textspeak, and sad emojis tend to skew slightly positive too. The “sad face” emoji is just about sad enough to be a fitting response to a delayed train or a dropped ice-cream, it would be a blithe reply to a friend telling you their grandfather has died. Far from amplifying annoyance, an “angry face” is a signal the sender is not really mad. It’s an emoji to deploy if your flatmate steals your cookies, not if they steal your boyfriend. Whether we want to express joy, anger or sadness, our emoji interactions are inescapably glib.

The makers of The Emoji Movie missed the real story: the problem isn’t that the Meh emoji is required to remain forever indifferent, it’s that we humans are relying on him and his hollow friends as a stand-in for our real feelings about our messy, complicated social lives and a troubled and divided world. Sometimes it feels that emojis are not just the communication tool we need in the digital age, they are the one we deserve.

Sophie McBain is a New Statesman contributing writer based in New York

Sophie McBain is North America correspondent for the New Statesman. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire