Jessy Ed­wards on the world's most mod­ern lan­guage

Idealog - - CONTENT -

Emoji use isg row­ing like a pp aar­rtt ii ccuu ll aar­rly good crop of. But the uni­ver­sal emoji key­board is a closely guarded vol­ume, with each icon painstak­ingly se­lected based on a huge num­ber of cri­te­ria, Jess y Ed­wards. So how does one get an emoji ac­cepted onto this, what does the pro­lif­er­a­tion of emoj is mean for the fu­ture of, and what do a liv­ing in Am­s­ter­dam and a re­al­ity TV star have to do with it? As a con­ver­sa­tion st arter, tr y ask­ing s ome­one what emoji t hey use t he most, and what new emoji t hey would l i ke to s ee made avail­able.

Speak­ing with New Zealan­ders, peo­ple ex­pressed f r us­tra­tion with t he l ack of a kiwi i con, or a meat pie. The kiwi i s mul­ti­fac­eted, one ar­gued: it can st and for a peo­ple, a bird, or even vul­ner­a­bil­ity, i f you want to get deep.

Ask­ing a Bar­ba­dian, t hey said t hey’d l i ke to s ee a ‘Rasta Man’ i con. It could st and for mar­i­juana, which i s als o miss­ing f rom t he key­board, a ‘chill’ way of l i fe, or, again, a peo­ple.

A young Pol­ish- Amer­i­can man told me t hat his most- used emoji was t he . For him, t he eyes st arted out mean­ing ‘ what’s up?’ But over ti me it evolved within his f am­ily to mean ‘what are you do­ing, can I come over? ’

Emo­jis have grown to be­come a global phe­nom­e­non akin to a uni­ver­sal vis­ual l an­guage, with f riends, sub­cul­tures and coun­tries adopt­ing t heir own i nter­pre­ta­tions of t he t i ny pic­tures to un­lock a whole new world of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

The grow­ing pop­u­lar­ity of emo­jis is be­ing recog­nised in di­verse ways. In 2013, the word emoji was in­cluded in the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary. But, per­haps more im­por­tantly, that same year, the clas­sic novel Moby

Dick was trans­lated, sen­tence by sen­tence, into emoji ( Emoji Dick was recog­nised as a ‘cul­tural mo­ment in his­tory’ and en­tered into the United States Li­brary of Congress).

But way be­fore so­ci­ety evolved to al­low such com­plex com­mu­ni­ca­tion ideas as aubergine = dick, peo­ple were us­ing char­ac­ters to show ex­pres­sion. As early as 1881, a mag­a­zine had pub­lished a di­a­gram show­ing punc­tu­a­tion used to make faces. This is what we know as emoti­cons and what any­one over about 27 prob­a­bly used in their early mo­bile flirt­ing ef­forts.

Over in Ja­pan, emoti­cons were evolv­ing into emo­jis via cell phone us­age. While the name is sim­i­lar, the word emoji ac­tu­ally comes from the Ja­panese 絵 (e pic­ture) + 文字 (moji writ­ten char­ac­ter).

They were thrust into the global spot­light in 2012 when Ap­ple re­leased iOS 6, and iPhone users were opened to the world of the Uni­code emoji key­board, the , the and so much more.

Emoji are thought to have been of­fi­cially in­vented in ‘90s Ja­pan, start­ing out when a com­pany called Do­como added a heart but­ton to its pagers and found it wildly pop­u­lar with its younger users.

The com­pany soon fol­lowed up with 176 more emoji, and other com­pa­nies started de­sign­ing their own, too.

That’s what caused that weird pe­riod where we thought we were get­ting lots of plain square boxes from our friends, when in fact they were send­ing us emo­jis from dif­fer­ent op­er­at­ing sys­tems that weren’t com­pat­i­ble with ours.

Google jumped in and started us­ing code points to en­sure that dif­fer­ent de­vices would see the same emoji, and that then led to Uni­code Con­sor­tium be­com­ing the gate­keeper for the code points on the uni­ver­sal emoji key­board. Nowa­days, emoji are every­where. There is an au­tho­rised, global list of emoji which is closely guarded by a com­mit­tee. If it sounds ter­ri­bly for­mal, that’s be­cause it is. Ev­ery year, the com­mit­tee as­sesses sub­mis­sions for new emoji to be added to the Uni­code key­board – much like a dic­tionary. Only about 60 new emoji are al­lowed on the list per year.

Any­one can make a sub­mis­sion to get a new emoji con­sid­ered, but be­ware: the cri­te­ria is strin­gent, and it will likely be up to two years un­til the emoji is us­able, if it is ac­cepted.

This year’s new set was an­nounced in March, with 56 new emoji char­ac­ters re­leased, in­clud­ing the , , ,

and the . The ma­jor­ity of the new emoji char­ac­ters are the smi­leys and peo­ple, such as the new , 13 new types of food and drink, as well as six an­i­mals and na­ture emo­jis.

In an at­tempt to fur­ther cater to di­ver­sity in the key­board, an ad­di­tional 180 emoji se­quences for gen­der and skin-tone were also an­nounced. If you think your ideal emoji is miss­ing, the next round for emoji sub­mis­sions opens July 1, but be pre­pared to put to­gether a thick doc­u­ment filled with de­tailed re­search on why your emoji should be added.

The pro­posal must ad­dress, point by point, the emoji’s ex­pected us­age level, the fre­quency, whether it has mul­ti­ple us­ages, how it might be used in se­quences with other emoji, the dis­tinc­tive­ness of the im­age com­pared to ex­ist­ing emoji and whether it has been fre­quently re­quested. All should be backed up with search and in­ter­net use data.

The tone can be seen in a 2016 pro­posal to have the con­dom added to the emoji key­board.

The pro­posal’s au­thor writes: “Emo­jis are play­ing a big role in re­la­tion­ships as young peo­ple are us­ing aubergines/egg­plants, hot dogs, peaches, etc. to dis­cuss sex on mo­bile de­vices. This is ev­i­denced by mul­ti­ple in­ter­na­tional me­dia ref­er­ences to sex­ting and emo­jis and by re­cent re­search show­ing over half of 16-24 year olds reg­u­larly use emo­jis when talk­ing about sex.”

The au­thor goes on to ar­gue that the con­dom emoji would be used in con­junc­tion with ‘phal­lic’ emo­jis and would pro­mote safe sex. It pre­sented data from Google Trends show­ing searches for a con­dom emoji were ris­ing, ver­sus searches for var­i­ous other emoji.

Uni­code is clear in its in­struc­tions that pref­er­ence will be given to an emoji that has more than one pos­si­ble mean­ing. In an ex­am­ple of what is re­quired in a pro­posal, it says: “For ex­am­ple, SHARK is not nec­es­sar­ily only the an­i­mal, but also used for a huck­ster, in jump­ing the shark, card shark, loan shark, etc.”

If that pro­posal is ac­cepted, it starts go­ing through the Uni­code com­mit­tee which as­sesses it point by point and works with the sub­mit­ter to help the sym­bol get ac­cepted.

If it does then be­come ac­cepted, Uni­code adds the icon to its next re­lease, and providers like Ap­ple or Twit­ter then start to move to sup­port them.

It’s worth not­ing that while the premise of the emoji is handed down by Uni­code, how it ac­tu­ally looks is up to the ven­dor. That’s why emo­jis look dif­fer­ent on dif­fer­ent de­vices.

For ex­am­ple, a per­son who sends a on an Ap­ple de­vice is likely to have in­tended a dif­fer­ent mean­ing that the one re­ceived by their friend on a Google de­vice. While the term emoji is every­where, many of the things we might con­sider emo­jis are in fact stick­ers. Spark made a valiant at­tempt to right the wrong that there’s no Kiwi in the emoji key­board by re­leas­ing a sticker pack in 2014 called the Kiwi Emoji.

It ini­tially launched the Kiwi Emo­jis to co­in­cide with the 2014 elec­tions, with the view to en­gage peo­ple fur­ther in the po­lit­i­cal process. As well as a kiwi emoji there

We’ve all had that ex­pe­ri­ence of post­ing some­thing and some­one takes of­fence and you have to go back and do that re­pair work. Be­cause you may have meant some­thing with a smile on your face, but there was no face to smile. Dr Tony Fisher

was also a bal­lot box, an emoji Colin Craig and a Peter Dunne.

While Spark head of brand comms and ex­pe­ri­ence Sarah Wil­liams says the emoji pack was not pro­gressed, she says there’s no deny­ing that emo­jis have been a “re­ally cul­tur­ally im­por­tant phe­nom­e­non”.

As part of the pro­mo­tion of iPhone 6, Spark used gi­ant per­son­alised emo­jis to re­place ac­tual peo­ple in the queue to be the first to get their hands on the new de­vice.

“It’s been in­ter­est­ing to see how emo­jis have evolved into a much broader spec­trum of vis­ual lan­guage – just look at the rise in the pop­u­lar­ity of gifs for starters.”

Voda­fone con­sumer di­rec­tor Matt Wil­liams pointed out the way peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate and share ex­pe­ri­ences is con­stantly evolv­ing, with younger peo­ple es­pe­cially be­ing highly vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tors.

“Over time they have com­pletely changed how they com­mu­ni­cate with each other – in the past they used mainly words, now they can choose from a vast ar­ray of con­tent, such as im­ages, videos, memes, GIF and of course emo­jis.”

He says it takes the hu­man brain less than one se­cond to in­ter­pret a sin­gle im­age or video, so it made sense that emo­jis and other forms of vis­ual com­mu­ni­ca­tion were ris­ing as the way in which peo­ple trans­mit and con­sume in­for­ma­tion.

Cast your mind back just a few months ago when the only way you could re­act to a Face­book post with­out mak­ing a com­ment was to ‘like’ it. This wasn’t en­tirely ap­pro­pri­ate when some­one was shar­ing a story about a death in the fam­ily, or a di­vorce.

En­ter Face­book re­ac­tions, whereby peo­ple can now re­act with a like, a heart, a laugh­ing face, an an­gry face, a cry­ing face, and now even a ‘pride’ rain­bow.

As Sonal Chok­shi points out in the a16z pod­cast on emoji, this en­hanced range of re­ac­tions also al­lows Face­book to ‘cod­ify’ peo­ple’s emo­tions, turn­ing peo­ple’s men­tal states into ma­chine read­able data for sen­ti­ment anal­y­sis. Massey Univer­sity lin­guis­tics lec­turer Dr. Tony Fisher says dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tion sits some­where in be­tween speech and writ­ing. A tweet or a text is not the same as writ­ing an email or a let­ter, the mes­sages are shorter and more con­ver­sa­tional, and peo­ple can re­spond or re­act al­most in­stantly much as if you were speak­ing in per­son. What’s dif­fer­ent is the face-to-face el­e­ment, mean­ing all the nu­ances of tone, body lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sion are miss­ing.

“We’ve all had that ex­pe­ri­ence of post­ing some­thing and some­one takes of­fence and you have to go back and do that re­pair work. Be­cause you may have meant some­thing with a smile on your face, but there was no face to smile,” Fisher says.

That’s where emo­jis come in: they pro­vide that smi­ley face, the wink or the sar­cas­tic girl to add another layer of mean­ing to the mes­sage.

“It al­lows us to present a metames­sage, a mes­sage about the mes­sage and how it should be de­coded. I think that’s where the pop­u­lar­ity comes from,” Fisher says.

One of the other as­pects of emo­jis that make them such an ex­cel­lent form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion is their uni­ver­sal na­ture. In the same way that two peo­ple from dif­fer­ent coun­tries might com­mu­ni­cate us­ing sign lan­guage and fa­cial ex­pres­sions in per­son, they might use emo­jis to com­mu­ni­cate on­line.

Many have called emoji a ‘lan­guage’ in its own right. But Fisher says the sys­tem is not suf­fi­ciently well-de­vel­oped to be clas­si­fied as a lan­guage by lin­guis­tic stan­dards.

“The fact some­one man­aged to trans­late Moby Dick sug­gests they are be­com­ing more so­phis­ti­cated,” he says. “And if you can com­mu­ni­cate in a closed group of peo­ple us­ing these ideas it does seem they’re start­ing to op­er­ate as a lan­guage, but the real test would be could we use emo­jis pro­duc­tively to write a new book that has never been writ­ten? And at this stage I don’t think you’d be able to get very far.”

We may not be able to cre­ate a book (al­though The Spinoff re­cently wrote an emoji ar­ti­cle re­port­ing the state of our na­tive birds). But plenty of hu­mans are re­liant on emoji to de­scribe how they feel to oth­ers, with­out hav­ing to use their words. So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

A re­cent study from Brigham Univer­sity in Salt Lake City found that emo­jis were start­ing to creep into school stu­dents’ as­sign­ments. Welling­ton East Girls’ Col­lege teacher Ed­win Bruce says the grow­ing use of emoji among young peo­ple was in­evitable, but not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. He says emoji could be used to en­hance and aug­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion, de­spite not yet be­ing ap­pro­pri­ate for for­mal com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

He pointed out that while there may be a bit of gen­er­a­tion gap di­vid­ing teach­ers and stu­dents on emoji use, teach­ers have long used vis­ual el­e­ments – stars and smi­ley faces – to en­hance learn­ing.

“In­ter­est­ingly, they may turn out to be the equiv­a­lent of [sup­posed global lan­guage] Esperanto but much more uni­ver­sal in adop­tion, use and ac­ces­si­bil­ity.”

And the im­pacts of emoji can be pow­er­ful, some courts are start­ing to recog­nise. In a bizarre case in Is­rael, a cou­ple were or­dered to pay more than 8000 shekels (NZ$3189) af­ter send­ing a set of mis­lead­ingly fes­tive emo­jis to a prospec­tive land­lord, En­gad­get re­ported.

Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a mes­sage that roughly trans­lated as: "Good morn­ing In­ter­ested in the house ... Just need to dis­cuss the de­tails... When's a good time for you?" the land­lord took the place off the mar­ket.

When the rental fell through, he took them to small claims court for mis­lead­ing him with their emoji use. Part of the judge's rul­ing read: "These icons con­vey great op­ti­mism. Al­though this mes­sage did not con­sti­tute a bind­ing con­tract be­tween the par­ties, this mes­sage nat­u­rally led to the Plain­tiff 's great re­liance on the de­fen­dant's de­sire to rent his apart­ment.”

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