Adam Sternbergh on the Wordlessly Expressive Language of Emoji

Photo via Sari Botton's iPhone

Happy World Emoji Day, everyone. The occasion seems an appropriate time to re-read Adam Sternbergh‘s layered history of this “wordless tongue” in the November 2014 issue of New York Magazine. Sternbergh considers not only how those funny little icons came to be, but also how our relationship to them has evolved–and how they make the hard, cold digital world just a little nicer:

When I first encountered emoji, I assumed they were used only ironically—perhaps because, as a member of Generation X, I am accustomed to irony as a default communicative mode. And it’s certainly true that emoji have proved popular, unsurprisingly, with early adopters and techno-fetishists and people with trend-sensitive antennae—the kinds of people who might, for example, download a Japanese app to “force” their iPhone to reveal a hidden emoji keyboard. But emoji have also proved to be popular with the least ­techno-literate and ironic among us, i.e., our parents. Many people I spoke to relayed that their moms were the most enthusiastic adopters of emoji they knew. One woman said that her near-daily text-message-based interaction with her mother consists almost entirely of strings of emoji hearts. Another woman, with a septuagenarian mother, revealed to me that her mom had recently sent a text relaying regret, followed by a crying-face emoji—and that this was possibly the most straightforwardly emotional sentiment her mother had ever expressed to her.

And now we’re getting to the heart of what emoji do well—what perhaps they do better even than language itself, at least in the rough-and-tumble world online. Aside from the widespread difficulty of expressing yourself in real time with your clumsy thumbs, while hunched over a lit screen, and probably distracted by 50 other things, there’s the fact that the internet is mean. The widespread anonymity of the web has marked its nascent years with a kind of insidious incivility that we all now accept with resignation. Comment sections are a write-off. “Troll” is a new and unwelcome ­subspecies of person. Twitter’s a hashtag-strewn battlefield.

But emoji are not, it turns out, well designed to convey meanness. They are cartoons, first of all. And the emoji that ­exist—while very useful for conveying excitement, happiness, bemusement, befuddlement, and even love—are not very good at conveying anger, derision, or hate. If we can take as a given that millennials, as a generation, were raised in a digital environment—navigating, for the first time, digital relationships as an equally legitimate and in some ways dominant form of interpersonal ­interaction—it stands to reason they might be drawn to a communicative tool that serves as an antidote to ambient incivility. They might be especially receptive to, and even excited about, a tool that counteracts the harshness of life in the online world. They might be taken with emoji.

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