Tracking the history of emojis, emoticons and smileys is a use of the internet probably unseen by it’s founders. These non-verbal expressions began life simply as a combination of a colon and either a open or a closing bracket. The architect of this simplistic code was Scott Fahlman, who used them in 1982 to indicate emotions in toneless online communication. A decade later his hieroglyphic punctuation was called ‘the electronic equivalent of a spin doctor’ by writer Neal Stephenson. Today the simple ‘:)’ is still among the most used, counting for 39.6% of used emojis in a 2012 study. It has also been somewhat replaced by more complex, pictorial emojis popularised through their addition to Apple products.
While we have moved on from the use of punctuation to form faces, there are interesting cultural differences in the use of these type of smileys. Morningside Translation have highlighted the focus on eyes or mouth ( ‘:/’ or ‘o_o’ ) varies depending on where on the face the culture expresses emotions.
Tyler Schnoebelen is one of the leading researchers working for Idibon, a firm that interprets linguistic data. Their research into the use of emojis revealed interesting and novel types of usage emerging. For example Schnoebelen found that when talking about their phone, people were eleven times more likely to use the skull emoji. He characterised this as a manifestation of our reliance on our phones, when they don’t work as planned we can feel cut off, isolated, socially dead. This emoji melodrama goes someway to highlighting the symbolic power of these pictographs and the dynamic nature of their usage.
Like an online version of shorthand, emojis help us condense complex messages into a more digestible form. So much online communication is clipped, in terms of length and power of expression, but emojis can work to bridge that gap. A third of people online use emojis to communicate every day and 92% use them less frequently. It should be clear that the world of emojis is one worth our attention.
Emojis can also become a vessel for meaning, being imbued with in-jokes or other personal meaning. This is especially significant when it comes to significant others or close friends, with regular communication building and codifying an individual language of implication. In addition to this facial emojis can be combined with those representing objects or moments to convey opinions. For example a sad face, then two people holding hands, then a cross to mark a bad date. This opens up a large number of communicative possibilities.
Perhaps this complexity is part of the reason that emojis are pushing ‘netspeak’ to the sidelines of online communication. They have the potential to be far more expressive than the ‘lol’ or ‘ttyl’ of yesteryear while also being largely uniform and crossing linguistic barriers. These symbols are the frontline of language development today, a unique language of the internet, perpetuated by its very nature. Whether in a sad tweet or good news on Facebook, emojis are rich with meaning and personal symbolism.