why it's easier to express our emotions in emojis

It only takes a single glance at our screens to see that language has shape-shifted from the written word to shiny happy emojis, but what does this say about us?

by Billie Brand
26 May 2015, 3:33pm

Mastering the digital dialect of emoji is a pretty important 21st Century life skill. The dial up days of running up a phone bill were replaced by nostalgic Nokias in the 90s, and in turn we said C U L8R to the teen text talk of LOL. But instead of moving into more literate pastures, modern communication has been further reduced to smiley yellow faces. No matter how many love letters or notes from ex-pen-pals you have stashed under your bed in an attempt to cling on to the past, the world has moved on to a pixelated place. It seems we've reached a communication Renaissance as pretty little pictures replace the written word. It's safe to say that we ♥ emoji.

Last week, Professor Vyv of Bangor University, who has been studying the speed of emoji evolution, claimed that emoji has become the fastest growing language in the UK: "As a visual language emoji, has already far eclipsed hieroglyphics, its ancient Egyptian precursor which took centuries to develop." It seems we've come full circle, and instead of expanding our vocabulary, we've returned to a form of symbolization. As technology speeds ahead, our communication skills have been left behind, and with the decline of text messaging, emoji is forever on the rise. Instagram recently reported that 48% of the text used on the social media platform is emojis, and with no evidence to suggest emoji is near a decline, the surge is set to continue. Earlier this year we saw the introduction of multi-ethnic princesses, same-sex couples and 32 new flags. Unicode (the masterminds behind emoji) are already planning 38 new icons to hit our screens next June. Based on popular demand, these will include cowboys, crossed fingers, a selfie and yes, an avocado.

In some ways we've been blessed with the ever blossoming pictorial language. It's like a utopian jargon for the world - no matter what your mother tongue may be, emoji is universally understandable. Things are kept light hearted with a sprinkling of emoji throughout conversations, but they also amplify a message too. It really is a case of simple science, as Dr Owen Churches from the school of Psychology at Flinders University in Australia concluded: people react to emoticons in the same way they would react to a real human face. In other words, a "J" is recognized as a real smile. And then there's the ambiguity factor. The phallic resemblance of the eggplant emoji resulted in its ban from Instagram's search engine, which resulted in a jokey the online protest to #freetheeggplant. Lost for words? Simple, just send a selection of your favorite emoji - no letters necessary. But maybe that's the problem. Distracted by an emoji mirage of happiness, have we reached a communication crisis amongst the internet generation?

In a recent study conducted by Talk Talk Mobile, 72% of 18-25 year-olds admitted they found it easier to express their feelings through emoji rather than text. "I think people are connecting with each other more often because emoji makes it more fun," suggests Dan Brill author of Emojinaylsis, a Tumblr dedicated to dissecting identities through their recently used emoji. "Honestly I don't get most of the backlash to the emoji uprising, I'm sure we said the same thing about text messaging cutting ourselves off from each other as it replaced the phone call, but my sister and I now have a constant stream of communication instead of the once-a-week phone call I'd struggle to find time to do."

Forever staring at our screens, the obsession over our online personas is spiraling out of control. Are we simply a society of selfie-loving narcissists? Even with the recent update, some of us are still in search of our emoji doppelganger (red heads and inter-racial couples for example). The other day a friend of mine confessed the emoji struggle is real: "Sometimes I feel in the midst of an identity crisis because I can't find one single emoji that represents me." If emoji originated as a simple icon to express emotion, why is the spectrum of skin tones, sexuality and gender a necessity? It seems emoji is starting to shape personal identity in the 21st century and it signifies our need for a technological persona. Standing out amongst the white noise in cyberspace has become crucial to our online identities and with that emoji isn't just a way to express emotion, but a way to express individuality.

While emoji may be connecting people in the digital sphere, you can't help but question if it's disconnecting us in reality. "Emoji will probably get replaced by something else before it has the chance to shape a generation, but there will certainly be a window of people who will never look at peaches or eggplants the same way again," Dan Brill suggests. Tech-trends come and go (Friendster, MySpace, Bebo?) and while the decline of emoji is arguably inevitable, what will follow it? A dystopian digital world where our only forms of self-expression are represented by some sort of post-emoji avatars? "Personally, I often find myself searching for a GIF response to an email before even thinking about writing something." He continues. "Not to say that any of this is particularly a good thing - as a writer, the impending downfall of the written word is a terrifying prospect, but I think it's true."

Will the written word ever reign again? Even Vladimir Nobokov, whose beautiful prose was immortalized in the literature classic Lolita, recognized that sometimes an emoticon can speak louder than words. In an interview with The New York Times in 1969, the author was asked where he would place himself in comparison to other writers, to which he responded: "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile—some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket, which I would now like to trace in reply to your question."

So why are we so obsessed with emoji? Brill puts it best: "They're just fun. It's way better to talk about sex with eggplants and water squirts than with actual words. And overall, technology is constantly allowing us to get more visual with our communications." It seems the shiny happy world of emoji has charmed us all. We're the generation that never wants to grow up. We can't hide behind emojis forever, but for now it's better than facing the realities around us. Then again, what's the harm in embellishing our lives in hearts, rainbows and dolphins? 


Text Billie Brand

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