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Emojis: The Evolution of Digital Body Language


Do you remember where you were on July 28, 2017? The date might not mean anything to you at first, but it marks a major milestone in modern popular culture. On that fateful Friday, Sony Pictures Animation released the Emoji Movie. Critically panned as it was, the film still made money. It was just another mindless, summer movie, right? Yes, but it also represents a major shift in cultural consciousness regarding the emoji phenomenon. More than cute pictures to add on to the written word, use of emojis has become a language all its own.

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Body Language in the Analog Age

Before the written word, before language, before any kind of verbal communication, humanity had body language. Body language is that most primal and instinctual tool to exchange messages. It allows animals to exert power and dominance over other members of a species; it is effective in picking out the social hierarchy in any number of communities or groups; it is also the most effective way to pin down exactly how an animal feels. You can tell a great deal from any creature’s face based on a relatively small set of universal physical characteristics. Every creature has emotions. Whether they want to or not, every creature displays those emotions to some degree.

Pictures as Language

Though many modern opponents argue that using emojis distracts from supposed “real dialog,” the earliest written records used pictures. Ancient Sumerians invented cuneiform over seven thousand years ago. The ancient Egyptians used their pictorial hieroglyphics for written communication some five thousand years ago. It wasn’t until the spread of the Phoenician alphabet in the eighth century BC that civilizations began writing with more familiar alphabetic characters.

Ancient instances point to the history of language, but surely communication has evolved since then? Society no longer needs such basic representations of thought, right? Languages have increased in complexity and efficiency in the millennia since human beings first began etching symbols into tablets. However, one need only drive a car for five minutes to realize that pictorial ideas still serve important functions. See a red octagon at an intersection when you’re driving down the street in the United States and your mind immediately knows that you must stop. You’ve learned the rules to the point where you no longer need written or verbal instructions.

It’s not just road signs you associate with language, either. Human beings connect all sorts of visual cues with linguistic messages. Those cues can come in the form of colors, shapes, and even individual marks of punctuation. In most cases, people know to stay alert when they see orange or red; they know to exercise caution if they see a large exclamation mark on their computers.

In the short time they’ve been a cultural staple, emojis have made a huge impact on the way that people talk to one another. In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary added the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji to its storied collection of language; they also named that pictograph “Word of the Year” in 2015.

Emoji culture has changed the way that human beings interact with traditional language, as well. Twenty years ago, no one cared about your thoughts on a particular vegetable. In fact, at any given time, eggplant was probably one of the furthest things from anyone’s mind. Eggplants no longer mean what they used to. Mention one in polite conversation with someone remotely in tune with popular technology and you fundamentally change the nature of that conversation.

There’s also the phenomenon of the “100 Points” emoji. An expression of “100%” and “keeping it real,” the symbol has become something of a cultural icon. This emoji has been particularly influential to the point where it is one of the first to be heavily used on clothing designs. Again, there are some contexts where you can simply say “100” and people know exactly what you mean.

The Future of Emojis

Apple’s recently released iPhone X features a widely cover feature known as the Animoji. Unlike previous uses of animated faces for communication on digital platforms, Apple’s new technology functions much like the ever-popular SnapChat filters. Using the new iPhones facial mapping capabilities, you can filter your movements through any one of several popular emojis. Tech companies have now begun to blur the line between written language, pictographic representations of words and emotions, and face to face conversations.

Certain linguists and critics believe that it is because of this convergence of thought delivery that communication is now more effective than ever. Whereas once people in different cultures who spoke different languages had difficulties making their thoughts as concise as possible, emojis and digital animations make it easier to contextualize other messages. These critics stand in stark contrast to cultural elitism that equates the use of emojis with adolescent apathy and illiteracy.

To many, these cute little pictures are just that. For others, though, emojis offer a sense of legitimacy in today’s ever-diversifying world. Since its first widespread use in 2011, the emoji keyboard has been instrumental in representing minority and marginalized groups. People in these communities appreciate the recognition from multi-billion dollar companies. It allows their experiences to play a part in the cultural conversation that they might not have otherwise. You can now use hand gestures with nearly any skin color. Same-sex couples with children have several different emojis. Muslim women with hijabs now have their own symbols, too.

Major world religions have all found representation through emojis, as well. Of course, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism have their own symbols; but, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, Taoism, Orthodox Christianity, and even Atheism all have emojis dedicated to symbolizing their existences and solidifying them in the evolving cultural conversations carried out through pictures.

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Going into the future, people can expect major corporations like Facebook, Apple, and Google to further represent marginalized communities through inclusion in the emoji canon.

No form of communication is legitimate. There are plenty of reasons to celebrate a broader understanding of one another. The emoji just so happens to be a more visual way to foster that understanding. How do you feel about the rise of the emoji? Do you think that these faces improve people’s ability to communicate? Are some over-reliant on the pictures when trying to display emotion or make a point? What do you think the future of language looks like given that there are now definitions of emojis in the dictionary?

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, emojis are here to stay.


What Do You Think?

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