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Learning the language of emoji

Blog | 23 May, 2017
Dubbed the “fastest-growing language of all time”, emoji use is at an all-time high. Forget Rosetta Stone, this is a language learned in the back streets of social and mobile communication. Are you ready to be fluent? And, more importantly, are businesses ready to adopt?

Ah, the humble emoji. That bright, graphic little keyboard that sits so snug and naturally alongside the traditional qwerty on our smartphones and devices. It’s as if they’ve been around forever, right? In actual fact, they only properly began to hit our screens in 2010 - but they have hit it big time!

So, some history: The term ‘emoji’ was first coined in 1998 by Shigetake Kurita, who created the original set of 176 emojis to help visually convey emotions and thoughts. Fast forward 20 years and there are nearly 2,000 emojis in existence (not including skin tone-modified variations), with the exciting roll-out of Unicode 10.0 in the pipeline.

And what?

So, according to research, a whopping 72% of 18 - 25 year olds claim they find it easier to express their thoughts and emotions via emoji rather than through the written word. But before you laugh at the prospect of our post-literate generation communicating via smiley faces, let’s not forget what the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year for 2015 was…

‘Crying face emoji’ hit the top spot. Yes, the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year was an emoji. Case in point: Emoji has hit the mainstream, and it’s not just Generation Z who are all over this new visual form of communication - four in five 18 - 65 year olds have admitted to using emojis on a regular basis too.

I think it’s safe to say that emojis are sticking around for a while, and what’s more they have become an incredibly popular way to communicate, both for users and more recently, brands.

The fastest-growing language of all time

The ascent of the emoji has been undeniably remarkable. Linguist Gavin Lucas even describes it as the “fastest-growing language of all time.” To illustrate, when emojis were added to the iOS keyboard in 2011 around 10% of Instagram posts contained an emoji, today that figure well exceeds 50%.

The original set of emojis seemed to serve as a one-tap shortcut for things we commonly chat about. But as they evolved, the arbitrary nature of the selection is of such inexplicable randomness that it makes the original purpose seem somewhat futile. I mean, does ‘tin of plum tomatoes’ (this is an actual thing) really enter text chat regularly enough to constitute earning its own place on the emoji keyboard?

 

Emojis have become much more arbitrary, evolving into a sort of slang where popular meanings have been assigned to seemingly unrelated symbols. An example would be my good friend ‘New Moon With Face’, which ostensibly looks like a gray moon with a face, but actually, has a number of other uses.

It is this which has made them so very popular and endearing, propelling then from smartphone app to global phenomenon. And that’s great until you consider the rapid rate in which they’ve managed to hijack our language.

Cross-device confoundment

There is an abundance of articles out there referencing a particular sentiment study carried out by GroupLens, which used a 5-point scale to measure sentiment surrounding participants’ perceived meanings of emojis over various platforms and devices. On average, they found a significant sentiment variance of over 2 points. Pretty interesting stuff, I thought, but understandable considering how dramatically the appearance changes between device:

What I’m more interested in is another finding the study touched on; apparently, even across the same platform or device, average sentiment difference is still 1.88 points. This suggests that even when people are looking at exactly the same thing, there is a strong level of ambiguity surrounding even the most basic of emoji.

This ties into all the research surrounding the commonly misinterpreted emojis, where the ‘misused’ meanings have become the widely-acknowledged norm. Yes, I’m talking about you, so-called ‘information desk person’ – you’ll always be the sister of sass to me.

In an attempt to seek some clarity surrounding some of the more ambiguous fellows, I set out to investigate the ‘real’ emoji meanings. I figured this way at least I’d be able to assist in educating others before our language becomes overridden by pictorial nonsense. 

Insight from the experts

While Unicode is the governing body behind emoji, the only insight they give are the very black and white names they attribute to each symbol. I hit up Emojipedia, THE go-to emoji reference website which documents over 1,800 emoji symbols, their official Unicode names, as well as a seemingly certified view into their ‘meanings’. 

Due to its accredited status, I assumed Emojipedia would have some affiliation with Unicode or some other grand emoji-governing body that could put an end to all this nuance surrounding their official meanings. I took to Twitter to get some confirmation on the matter and managed to strike up a conversation with the man behind Emojipedia himself, Jeremy Burge.

I discovered that the ‘meanings’ have been put together based on a combination of ‘research into original intention’, and ‘observation of common use’ (if you haven’t already, I strongly advise you check out emojitracker, which documents emoji usage real-time in Twitter - it’s pretty fascinating!) So, although Mr. Burge has done a pretty slick job in compiling his encyclopaedia of emoji wisdom, the descriptions are not necessarily accurate, rather general representations of common use.

This reaffirms that the ‘meaning’ of emojis all boils down to interpretation. It’s not merely a matter of being ‘lost in translation cross-device’ as research leads us to suggest, but rather an issue of comprehension. As with any unspoken word, this reaffirms how hard it is to pin down one sole definition for something as subjective as a facial expression, be that of a human or an emoji!

But what does this mean?

So, the question is, as emoji continues to embed itself into modern day communication, is the arbitrariness of emoji interpretation something that we, and more importantly brands, should be wary of?

I don’t think so. Although the language of emoji is not without its complications, the same can also be said for the written word. Go back nearly a century and refer to philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who identified the trouble humans can have even expressing themselves using spoken language.

If you think about it, the issues he spoke of are only magnified across online communication. The absence of facial and bodily gestures and other contextual cues can make our written language appear sterile, and of course, open to misinterpretation:

Provided the emoji doesn't completely replace the written word, I don’t think we should be too worried just yet. On the contrary, they are for now serving an extremely useful purpose in conveying context and tone to our exchanges.

So, despite failing at semiotic nuance, just bear in mind that the overarching presence of emojis serves to communicate a friendly, informal tone. And if used carefully and strategically, adopting this savvy digital language can be for brands who want to resonate and engage their audience in a personable manner. 

That said, they should of course only be used if and when appropriate. Although tempting to add them to your content willy nilly (after all, social posts containing emojis have been seen to significantly increase engagement on both Facebook and Twitter), take a moment to consider who you’re addressing and the nature of the content you’re publishing. After all, no one wants to be the next USA Today.

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