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“meanwhile the people are dead in their droves
but nobody noticed

well actually

some of them noticed.
You could tell by the emoji they posted.”

– Kate Tempest, From ‘Europe is Lost’ in Let Them East Chaos

Sometimes when I go to my local supermarket on my lunchbreak, I pass a shop selling emoji-shaped backpacks. It is a marker of how ubiquitous they have become that they have escaped the confines of the digital realm and can now be sold, bought and worn as an accessory IRL (‘In Real Life’, for those not savvy to internet abbreviations.).

In The Emoji Code, Professor Vyvyan Evans explores this pictographic phenomenon and posits that Emoji, (capitalised when referring to the system as a whole and not when referring to individual symbols,) rather than substituting for a language, is primarily used in the same way non-verbal gestures, expressions and paralinguistic signals (grunting, coughing, intonation etc.) are used in face-to-face communication. Perhaps a further distinction between physical cues in face-to-face and vocal cues in telephone conversations would have been nice, but since it is not central to the argument, the omission is not a problem.

Evans is very good on historical context and how language is always in flux but I would have liked to have read a comparison to the change between face-to-face conversation and the invention of the telephone, which seems to me the most pertinent previous linguistic transition, as the removal of any facial expression or gesticulation from communication to only words and paralinguistic signals.

He uses plenty of examples and research, with perhaps a little too much reliance on the former, but I doubt there is a wide variety of statistical data available and the anecdotal evidence is, however, illuminating. It is useful to know that some emoji have different meanings in different languages, like that the hands ‘praying’ in the UK would mean ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in Japan.

Another invaluable insight I discovered from the book, among many others, is that anyone can nominate an emoji, that ‘An individual Chinese-American businesswoman has as much influence as […] an American corporate food-giant.’ Professor Evans states that persons living or dead are not eligible for consideration as emoji, but I know that the footballers Neymar Jr and Paul Pogba were promoted as having them, although they may just be downloadable ‘stickers’ without a Unicode character, so I would venture they are not true emoji. If that is the case, they should not be presented as such in the media. Whether the system will continue to be as democratic as Professor Evans declares it is anyone’s guess.

Because of the resistance to change from those who the author refers to as ‘language mavens’, the book often reads like a defence of Emoji use, focusing on the benefits and none of the downsides. I’m not saying he’s in the pockets of a hypothetical ‘Big Emoji’, but Professor Evans appears to be firmly entrenched on the pro-emoji side.

He points out that Emoji is usually used at the beginning or end of a sentence and is therefore used as a form of multimodality. He mentions people who are actually substituting language with Emoji, such as the artist who rewrote Alice in Wonderland using only the symbols and a journalist who wrote an article the same way, but these are exceptions to common usage. He rarely includes examples where people use single or few emoji, as referred to in the quotation above, where a single emoji is hardly an adequate display of feeling. They may be comparatively rare, but because of the huge amount of usage, might constitute a significant number.

One particular bugbear of mine is the use of the smiley face emoji with tears coming out of the eyes. Like the preceding internet abbreviation for ‘laugh out loud’, lol, which was often used when the person had not actually laughed out loud, how many people are actually crying with laughter when they use this emoji? Is this hyperbole an advantage in communication because it cannot be misconstrued and accurately represents their interior emotion, or is it a disadvantage because it inaccurately depicts the state of the sender? At the present time on emojitracker.com, this particular emoji is the only one to have been used over a billion times. If that many people were actually crying with laughter, we could probably solve any impending water crisis with desalination equipment and the tears of our joy.

What it doesn’t examine is the cause for the lightning-quick proliferation of emoji.  My (admittedly speculative) guess would be that although it is not as expressive as video or face-to-face communication, it is more expressive than text, and although they were more convenient than video, previous emoticons and pictograms were not as convenient as text. I would venture that, when the latter obstacle is removed, and each emoji, with some combinatory exceptions, inhabits a single Unicode character and is displayed as an option for predictive text, it is no surprise that Emoji, with its happy synthesis of expressiveness and convenience, has enjoyed such popularity.

In David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which has aspects of speculative fiction, he explains that videophones never took off because people were too vain to get made up for video calls and would often be distracted during the conversation, which led to them being less popular than the telephone, where the illusion of attention can be maintained. I wonder if something similar is not also happening with emoji. After all, they don’t need to get ready and they never seem distracted.

It is possible you may even be limiting your digital emotional vocabulary by not using emoticons. In the epigram at the beginning of Tony Harrison’s ‘v.’, there is a quotation form Arthur Scargill: ‘My father still reads the dictionary every day. He says your life depends on your power to master words.’ Whether there will be a circumstance in which your life depends on your power to master emoji is up for debate, but that they are useful is hard to question.

On the whole, The Emoji Code is an excellent primer on a young subject and I can wholly recommend it. I expect there will be a more detailed analysis soon, but for now this serves as a great introduction. I have definitely moved from regarding them as occasionally useful symbols to invaluable as a means of modern digital communication and will probably start using them more, which, if not the book’s aim, is at least the effect.

But I’m still not buying a backpack.