Emoji: The evolution of emoticons

The ideograms that were once eyed with skepticism have transformed into a universally accepted part of daily communication

by

Special To The Japan Times

Emoji — the pictogram prodigy of text-based emoticons — can be found everywhere. In less than two decades, the ideograms of modern times have become internet shorthand for emotion: They encapsulate love and heartbreak, shock and surprise, euphoria and anger, and laughter with tears of joy.

Emoji are widely used in daily communications on comment threads, Facebook and Twitter, as well as in private messages.

These ideograms are inescapable and, despite what critics say about their negative effect on language, they can leverage our online communications with nuance, subtlety and fun. They are a product of our nascent social media age, and yet their future is far from assured.

Emoji — a compound of the Japanese words “e” (“picture”) and “moji” (“character”) — are essentially pictograms of the variety that humanity has been inscribing on walls since at least 9,000 B.C.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the country’s youth were trading the precursors to emoji — emoticons such as smiley faces and dotted hearts — on their pagers as the digital age flourished.

The first modern emoji was created by Shigetaka Kurita, who was part of a team given the task of preparing for the February 1999 debut of NTT Docomo’s mobile internet platform.

In 1999, Kurita and his team released a set of 176 pixelated symbols that — while probably appearing ancient by contemporary digital standards — are the forbearers of the complex and ever-increasing set of emoji that people use today.

Kurita’s manga- and kanji-inspired emoji were wholeheartedly embraced by mobile phone users in Japan. Outside of the country, however, users were slow to start using the ideograms, owing in part to the closed, complex and competitive matrix operated by different mobile phone operators in Japan.

However, with social media taking off and U.S. companies looking to expand into overseas markets, the time was ripe for emoji to go global.

“Just as a fleet of American gunboats had sailed in unannounced to open Japanese harbors to the world in the 1850s, America’s dominant tech companies had, in one fell swoop, paved the way to unleash Japan’s emoji onto phones around the world,” Tokyo-based U.S. writer Matt Alt wrote on The New Yorker website.

Although largely unheralded, the adoption of emoji into Unicode, a standard system for indexing characters, by the Unicode Consortium in 2010 allowed tech giants such as Apple and Google to include emoji options on their messaging platforms.

The consortium, a nonprofit, oversees and standardizes the ever-expanding catalog of emoji, which are essentially a short sequence of digits and letters.

Apple’s inclusion of an emoji keyboard on the iPhone 5’s operating system in 2011 effectively turned emoji from being a quirky Japanese thing into a global communication tool.

Other landmark moments in the evolution of ideograms include a crowd-funded translation of Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” into emoji titled, you guessed it, “Emoji Dick” (www.emojidick.com).

In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary gave language purists good reason for collective eye-rolling when it declared “emoji” — specifically the “Face with Tears of Joy” — to be its word of the year.

That same year, U.S. President Obama thanked Japan during a state dinner at the White House attended by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for giving the world the lovable ideogram.

In 2015, Facebook also co-opted emoji into shorthand, so that if you’re reading this article online you can now react to it emotionally.

It is estimated that 92 percent of people online use emoji and — as if that wasn’t enough — according to one survey, people who use more emoticons in their messages reportedly have more sex.

And just as overpriced designer dogs were an essential celebrity item a few years ago, the animal now appears to have been dropped for a set of emoji cast in their owner’s likeness — for example, “Kimoji” modeled on Kim Kardashian and “Warnimoji” from retired Australian cricketer Shane Warne, coming soon to an app store near you. 😂

In a paper published last year, Vyvyan Evans, a linguist at Bangor University in Wales, described emoji as the “fastest growing form of language of all time.” In the same paper, Evans reported that 72 percent of 18-25 year-olds in the United Kingdom believe that emoji make them better at expressing their feelings.

Interpretation tool

At their most basic level, emoji add tone and color to online communication. In effect, they represent a gesture, a frown or a contented sigh — nonverbal cues that occur naturally in face-to-face conversation and allow us to interpret meaning beyond the level of the language used.

According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of teenagers in the U.S. communicate with their friends daily through text messaging. A 2015 survey found that high school girls in Japan spend up to seven hours a day online; 10 percent reported spending more than 15 hours online.

With people spending so much time messaging, chatting and emailing others online, it’s no wonder emoji have become integral to online communication.

Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who specializes in internet language and is the author of an upcoming book on the subject, says that while texts and tweets are good at conveying the literal meaning of words, people typically have trouble expressing the emotional nuance of particular words or phrases.

“For example, you can’t express sarcasm on the internet because people get confused about it, so one of the ways of restoring that lost set of para-linguistic features — all of this stuff that comes along with language — is really where emoji do a very good job,” McCulloch says.

The flip side of this is that while emoji do help to add tone and color, they lack sophistication.

Neil Cohn, a linguist and cognitive scientist who studies how our brains process images at the Tilburg Center for Cognition and Communication at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says there are recognizable patterns in the way in which people use emoji, typically deploying them at the end of the sentence.

“Those emoji are essentially operating as ‘let me give you some additional affect or some additional information that is not contained in the text,’ expanding, developing and adding to what I am saying in the text,” Cohn says.

Cohn says emoji, which he calls an “external vocabulary,” essentially compensate for a lack of gesture and intonation in written texts.

This view was echoed by Akari Kakura, a college student who says emoji and stickers are vital for expressing feelings.

“Literal communication is likely to arouse misunderstanding, which forces me to be expressive,” Kakura says. “If I only use words, some people are likely to believe that I’m angry.”

According to McCulloch, people use emoji in vastly different ways than they do words. Examining data released by SwiftKey, a technology company that makes predictive keyboards, she notes that people generally like to go overboard when using emoji.

“(Some) emoji strings are repetitious, there’ll be the same emoji three or four times in a row,” McCulloch says. “You really don’t get a lot of situations where people say the same word five times in a row.”

McCulloch notes that more than half of the strings of emoji that people use are repetitious, something that is “vanishingly rare with words.” For example, most people are never simply happy, but rather 😂 😂 😂 ; likewise, most folk are 🍺 🍺 🍺 , not just thirsty.

Another interesting development McCulloch highlights is that women appear to be the main drivers of emoji adoption.

“For most types of linguistic change, women tend to be ahead of the curve,” McCulloch says, explaining that earlier studies had showed that women were also early adopters and drivers of emoticons. Men, she says, typically catch up later.

As emoji originated in Japan, it’s perhaps not surprising that pictograms were created to represent specifically home-grown icons such as sushi and oden (a type of stew).

It’s also worth noting that some of the Japanese-specific ideograms have the potential to cause confusion or be misconstrued because they have been inspired by manga. How is one to decipher, for example, the emoji of a red tengu (goblin) mask (👺)? What’s more, there’s a fine line between the emoji of a grinning face with smiling eyes (😁) and one that is grimacing (😬). How does one tell the difference?

“The great thing about emoji is that there is no wrong or right way to use them,” author Gavin Lucas writes in “The Story of Emoji.” “That’s why they’re so much fun, but also there’s plenty of room for misrepresentation.”

Considering language constantly evolves, could the popularity of emoji be overtaken by another set of signifiers? Could it even go the way of SMS language (“text speak”) — in which words are shortened to the fewest number of letters to produce ultra-concise phrases in dealing with the constraints of text messaging — which has by and large been overtaken by new technology such as predictive text and longer character counts.

Cohn, who is conducting research on the efficacy of communication using emoji, foresees a long-term future for the ideogram.

“They are filling a very effective role for communication that’s natural and, because of that, they aren’t really going to be a (passing) fad,” Cohn says.

However, he warns that emoji have technological limitations that will prevent them from getting more complex.

McCulloch is not so certain about the future of emoji. In her upcoming book on internet language, she decided to include a chapter on emotions instead of emoji.

“I think it’s pretty safe to bet that we will keep having emotions and we’re going to keep needing ways to express them to each other,” McCulloch says. “Whether we do that with emoticons or emoji or stickers or GIFs or something that hasn’t been invented yet, the need that is driving them is going to stick around.”

Both linguists unequivocally agree that emoji will never replace written language. While a wide variety of emoji characters exist, they’re grammar-less, lack a means to express modality and generally fail to express ambiguity.

Take, for example, the first line from “Emoji Dick”: ☎ 👨 ⛵ 🐳 👌 . By the time you get to the third emoji, it’s anyone’s guess as to what the sailor Ishmael is really trying to say.

There’s a sticker for that

Considering that emoji originated in Japan, perhaps it’s not surprising that stickers — the symbolic heir to emoji — have also caught on here.

Line, a hugely popular messaging application, is at the forefront of developing stickers and, crucially, making money from them.

Line stickers differ from emoji in proprietary terms. For instance, Brown (a bear) and Cony (a rabbit) are two of the most recognizable stickers on Line. They can only be used on the app and not, say, on Facebook Messenger or WeChat. In contrast, emoji can be used on many different types of platforms because they have been encoded.

While there are clear distinctions between stickers and emoji, the two are used so frequently on Line that the distinction hardly matters, at least to users.

According to Icho Saito, a spokeswoman for Line, users typically deploy a variety of emoji and stickers in their messages.

“Most users don’t even think about (the distinction) when they are messaging,” says Saito, adding that this fits with Line’s goal of making communication rich in expression. “Stickers and emoji are there to help users express the very detailed nuance of communication they want to deliver.”

“It’s a more rounded form of communicating,” Saito says, adding that you’re less likely to confuse people, echoing the comments of many others.

The one area of difference between Line stickers and emoji lies in the price consumers pay to use them.

Emoji and some stickers are free, but Line typically charges ¥240 for a set of official stickers and ¥120 for a set that has been created by users. At present, the company has approximately 258,000 sets of stickers for sale.

Saito says that 2.7 billion stickers are transmitted via Line every day; they currently account for 22 percent of the company’s annual revenue.

No other messaging app has been so successful in getting users to trade words for stickers, which they typically buy in packets.

Another clever innovation by Line, which has yet to be adopted by other messaging apps, are the emoji predictions Line makes based on words that users type.

This time-saving feature makes a huge difference, especially when you consider that Unicode has so far encoded around 1,800 emoji. More emoji are added every year. However, quantity can sometimes create hassle.

“There is a danger that the more emoji that are added to an ever-growing bank of tiny images — that simply scrolling through to find the right one will become a chore and that the more complicated meanings we look to encapsulate in emoji form, the more boring and less intuitive they become to use,” Lucas says.

Like emoji, Line stickers are unquestionably a product of manga influences combined with a large dose of kawaii (cute) and kimoi (gross or disgusting) culture.

Saito says Line creators are tapping into the “tradition of craftsmanship that is so important in Japan,” and that creators also have “a great eye for detail.”

Line is also a good place to examine another key aspect in the showdown between emoji and stickers, which centers on control. The ace card, or cards, for Line is its Creators Market, which has 480,000 members who churn out stickers of variable quality in order to earn themselves a piece of the pie.

Some of the stickers are bonkers, others brilliant, but common to all is an inventiveness and energy that can be injected into online communication. For example, Line stickers can incorporate sound, movement and text. It’s like taking a cartoon strip and watching it come alive. It’s almost easy to feel sorry for the future of emoji, which have to be vetted and voted on before they finally make their way onto a keyboard, where even then they will be displayed smaller by comparison.

In the battle of emoji vs. stickers, McCulloch thinks Japan is one of the best places to see if the emoticons can hold their own. As McCulloch points out, emoji have been around longer in Japan than anywhere else and people haven’t stopped using them.

If there’s one thing that’s certain, words alone will never cut it online — smiley faces, beads of sweat, broken hearts, anthropomorphic bears and their ilk will keep interrupting and enlivening our online communication with one symbol or another.


Characters at a glance

Emoticons: Emoticons, a portmanteau of the words “emotion” and “icon,” combine typographic characters. The most famous is the smiley face: :-), or simply, :). Emoticon hunters have found examples of the colon with the closed bracket dating back to a poem published in 1648 in England and a possible smiley face in a transcript of a speech by Abraham Lincoln from 1862.

Kaomoji: Kaomoji are a Japanese creation that started appearing in the 1980s. “Kao” is Japanese for “face.” Similar to emoticons, kaomoji also use typographical characters. In addition, they include symbols, which allows for more complex expressions. They range from a simple expression of dissatisfaction, (—_—), to pure joy: .:☆*:・'(*⌒—⌒*))).

Emoji: Emoji are pictograms used in electronic communication or on websites. The term “emoji” is a compound of the Japanese words “e” (“picture”) and “moji” (“character”). The first emoji were created in the late 1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, who was part of the team working on NTT DoCoMo’s mobile Internet platform.

Stickers: Stickers are a Japanese phenomena created by Line Corp. Stickers are more detailed than emoji, and can be animated by sound and/or movement. Stickers include Disney characters and Hello Kitty, as well as thousands of others created by users around the world.


Do you know your emoji? Take our pop quiz.


Not everyone is happy

Emoji are representations of our world, distilled into a catalog of about 1,800 symbols. The catalog increases every year but it’s a slow, and sometimes controversial, process.

In June, Unicode released 72 new emoji for 2016 after a submission and vetting process. As it was an Olympic year, sports-themed emoji were well-represented, as were emoji for gold, silver and bronze medals. A selfie and a kiwi emoji also made the list. The hijab did not.

However, Rayouf Alhumedhi, a 15-year-old female student in Germany has started the process of submitting an emoji for the headscarf that is worn by more than 500 million people around the world.

Since 2015, emoji faces show five different skin tones based on dermatological scale known as the Fitzpatrick scale.

In the wake of a series of high-profile mass shootings in the United States, Apple ditched the gun emoji and replaced it with a water pistol earlier this summer. What’s more, the rifle was one of the two sports-themed emoji that did not make the final cut for this year’s release.