Towards a universal language (of emoji)

A decade ago, there were only two acceptable situations in which you could use an emoticon: 1) You were a 16-year-old French exchange student, and 2) You were trying to flirt with a 16-year-old French exchange student (which is itself unacceptable in most situations).

Then came the great smartphone invasion, and with their global expansion, the insidious rise of the emoji – a panopoly of expressive little symbols from the Smiling Face to the Thumbs Down to the Aubergine, and everything in between.  Adam Sternbergh, in an excellent article for NY Magazine, described them thus: “In short, emoji are a secret code language made up of symbols that everyone already intuitively understands”. Their meaning isn’t bound by language or culture, which makes them perfect for collecting international consumer feedback (and, like the emoticon before them, international flirting).

Yet what makes using emoji (emojis?) so enjoyable is the way that our intuitive and cultural understanding of them jostles against the ambiguity of the images themselves. They can be used to sharpen context, soften tone, and satirise the content of the message they are part of. Creatively combined, they can suggest almost anything, from an invitation to dinner to the entirety of Moby Dick. In my nerdish private life, I play a geeky game where Person A sends Person B three emoji, which Person B then has to translate into a little poem. It can move quite slowly.

This embarrassing personal revelation serves a purpose: to illustrate what might be the most valuable use of emoji to us. Asking a person to express themselves through a non-verbal medium creates a tension – or a gap – between what they want to say, and the capabilities they have to say it. Where a person feels that a word is self-explanatory, an image requires explanation both to themselves, and to their audience. The gap then becomes a source of deeper insight, and, in some situations, a fountain of inspiration and creativity. A picture says a thousand words, after all.

 Originally sent out as an edition of The Latest

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