Emo­jis? They’re more than just a smi­ley face

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - COMMENT -

Who knew, un­til it was pub­lished in China Daily and other me­dia out­lets this week, that there is an in­ter­na­tional non­profit agency that zeal­ously main­tains global stan­dards for emo­jis? The Uni­code Con­sor­tium, which de­vel­ops in­ter­na­tional stan­dards for text and sym­bols used in soft­ware for com­puter de­vices and mo­bile phones, has just an­nounced 67 more of the pesky lit­tle pic­tograms for adop­tion next year.

Pop­u­lar­ized by the Ja­panese from the early 2000s, emo­jis — from the Ja­panese for pic­ture and char­ac­ter — started off with the “smi­ley face / sad face” combo with which even the most out of touch com­puter il­lit­er­ate is now fa­mil­iar. Since then emo­jis have evolved into a vast char­ac­ter set of sym­bols for every oc­ca­sion that is now al­most as ex­ten­sive as an ac­tual lan­guage.

Maybe it’s an age thing, but this de­vel­op­ment raises the ques­tion among us from the Ne­an­derthal age be­fore so­cial me­dia: Why not just stick with lan­guage? Af­ter all, “I love you!” is prob­a­bly still more ef­fec­tive as an ex­pres­sion of af­fec­tion than a measly pixel pic­ture of a heart.

And what if you don’t un­der­stand the lan­guage? Most peo­ple in most cul­tures can cor­rectly in­ter­pret the sen­ti­ment be­hind a smi­ley face, but what do you make of the so­cial me­dia friend who texts you a pic­ture of a smok­ing bomb or some­thing that looks like a dead sheep?

The emoji lan­guage has evolved to take ac­count of cul­tural sen­si­tiv­i­ties and cul­tural dif­fer­ences — faces, both smi­ley and sad, now come in all colors. Some are coun­try-spe­cific — the Ja­panese have bow­ing busi­ness­men and ra­men noo­dles. Oth­ers in­cor­po­rate Chi­nese char­ac­ters, fa­mil­iar to some but not to most.

Fa­vorite foods and cute an­i­mals are a main­stay of the emoji world. New sym­bols be­ing con­sid­ered for 2018 in­clude bagels and cup­cakes, lla­mas and rac­coons.

The de­vel­op­ment of emo­jis, like most phe­nom­ena of the in­ter­net age, has in­evitably at­tracted aca­demic at­ten­tion as re­searchers en­deavor to de­ter­mine what it all means. At the start of this year, re­searchers at the Univer­sity of Michi­gan and Pek­ing Univer­sity an­nounced the re­sult of an anal­y­sis of 427 mil­lion mes­sages from nearly 4 mil­lion smart­phone users in 212 coun­tries and re­gions. Ev­ery­where the “face with tears of joy” emoji is the most pop­u­lar, ex­cept for France where the heart still rules, the study found.

The emoji revolution seems un­stop­pable, not least now that the con­cept has been en­shrined in The Emoji Movie, a 3D com­puter-an­i­mated Hol­ly­wood ex­trav­a­ganza that screened this year. The hero is Gene, an emoji that lives in Tex­topo­lis, a dig­i­tal city in­side the phone of his user Alex.

Be­fore that, US celebrity Kim Kar­dashian in­tro­duced her own range of 500 per­son­al­ized “Ki­mo­jis”, hav­ing hired a per­sonal de­signer to de­velop them. Heart-shaped pizza, any­one?

A turn­ing point of sorts came in 2015 when Ox­ford Dic­tionar­ies for the first time chose a pic­to­graph — “face with tears of joy” — as its word of the year. The pub­lisher noted that emo­jis were no longer the pre­serve of tex­ting teens and had now been em­braced as a nu­anced form of ex­pres­sion, and one which can cross lan­guage bar­ri­ers.

We oldies may gripe about the inanity of the emoji craze and har­rumph about the de­cline in lin­guis­tic stan­dards, but Ox­ford Dic­tionar­ies may have a point. Any­thing that en­hances cross-cul­tural com­mu­ni­ca­tion can’t be all that bad, and pic­tograms could be the ideal medium. Chi­nese, for ex­am­ple, de­spite the chal­lenges the writ­ten lan­guage im­poses on non-na­tive learn­ers, uses a char­ac­ter set that ren­ders it read­able to a vast pop­u­la­tion that speaks some­times mu­tu­ally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble di­alects.

Maybe a day will come when emo­jis, or some ver­sion of them, en­ter the school syl­labus as a com­pul­sory sub­ject for as­pir­ing in­ter­na­tion­al­ists.

The au­thor is a se­nior edi­to­rial con­sul­tant for China Daily. har­vey­mor­ris@gmail.com

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