👋 July 17 is 🗺️ Emoji Day! To 🎉 this ever-changing visual language that we use on our 📱 and 💻 and across social media, here are five 📖 recommendations — including a delightful post series on a blog about punctuation — on the history and evolution of the emoji. 😘

1. A Series on Emoji (Keith Houston, August 2018-January 2020, Shady Characters)

Don’t have time to read 10 posts? 😛 Adam Sternbergh’s 2014 New York magazine piece, “😊, You’re Speaking Emoji,” covers the emoji’s evolution.

On his blog Shady Characters, Houston tells the histories of our favorite punctuation marks, from the ⁉️ to the #️⃣. In a 10-part series on the emoji, he chronicles the beginning; its ancestor, the emoticon; its adoption outside of 🗾; the gatekeepers; its presence in the 📰; the challenges in making the character set more inclusive and representative; its future; its nature (“What are emoji?”); and, in the series conclusion, its current state. Don’t overlook the reference 📜 at the bottom of each post, which include even more recommended stories and articles.

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true an­cestor was born. Com­pris­ing only a colon, a hy­phen and a clos­ing par­en­thesis, the emoticon, or :-), was per­fectly de­signed to pierce the dis­in­ter­ested blank­ness of a crt mon­itor. Gran­ted, so-called emoticons have been dis­covered in many pre-di­gital sources, such as sev­en­teenth cen­tury poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ru­ins, (smil­ing yet:)
Tear me to tat­ters, yet I’ll be
Pa­tient in my ne­ces­sity.

and tran­scrip­tions of Ab­ra­ham Lin­col­n’s speeches:

…there is no pre­ced­ent for your be­ing here yourselves, (ap­plause and laughter;) and I of­fer, in jus­ti­fic­a­tion of my­self and you, that I have found noth­ing in the Con­sti­tu­tion against.

“Emoticon, Emoji, Text: Pt. 1, I Second That Emoticon” by Tom McCormack in Rhizome covers this joke gone wrong in more detail.

but these are al­most cer­tainly ty­po­graphic mis­steps rather than in­ten­tional smi­leys. The con­sensus is that emoticons proper ar­rived in 1982 in re­sponse to a joke gone wrong on an elec­tronic bul­letin board at Carne­gie Mel­lon Uni­versity.

2. How Emoji Conquered the 🌎 (Jeff Blagdon, March 2013, The Verge)

Blagdon tracks the beginnings of this digital communication through the 👀 of Shigetaka Kurita, the 💡👨🏻 of emoji.

Windows 95 had just launched, and email was taking off in Japan alongside the pager boom. But Kurita says people had a hard time getting used to the new methods of communication. In Japanese, personal letters are long and verbose, full of seasonal greetings and honorific expressions that convey the sender’s goodwill to the recipient. The shorter, more casual nature of email lead to a breakdown in communication. “If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling,” says Kurita. “You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head.”

Face to face conversation, and even the telephone, let you gauge the other person’s mood from vocal cues, and more familiar, longer letters gave people important contextual information. Their absence from these new mediums meant that the promise of digital communication — being able to stay in closer touch with people — was being offset by this accompanying increase in miscommunication.

“So that’s when we thought, if we had something like emoji, we can probably do faces. We already had the experience with the heart symbol, so we thought it was possible.” ASCII art kaomoji were already around at the time, but they were a pain to enter on a cellphone since they were composed with multiple characters. Kurita was looking for a simpler solution.

3. Everybody 😊💩 (Mary Mann, August 2014, Matter)

Mann discusses her conflicted feelings around her use of emojis: she’s fascinated by their ability to encapsulate our emotions so succinctly, and that they are understood across 🇺🇸🇯🇵🇫🇷🇨🇳🇧🇷 and 👶🏻🧒🏻👩🏻👵🏻, but also 🤦🏻‍♀️ to rely so heavily on them.

And of course emojis are inherently silly, but that’s not in and of itself a bad thing. Silliness is not necessarily an indication of shallowness. In fact, I’d argue the opposite: A capacity for real silliness is usually born out of pain. We’re attracted to silliness because we need it. We need it because life isn’t easy.

Your mom is sick.

Your grandfather died.

You got laid off.

Your company folded.

Your rent went up.

Your husband left.

He didn’t call.

She didn’t call.

They never call.

All these things happen every day, to billions of people all over the world. And if a stupid cartoon of smiling poop makes you feel better, well, that’s:

😜 + 💡

4. The 👄 History Of The 💩 Emoji (Or, How Google Brought 💩 To 🇺🇸) (Lauren Schwartzberg, November 2014, Fast Company)

Schwartzberg compiles an 👄 history on the origin and evolution of the beloved 💩 emoji, created in 🇯🇵 and brought to the 🇺🇸 by a team at Google.

Darick [Tong, Google 👨🏻‍💻 and 🇺🇸lead of its emoji project]: It struck me as a particularly flexible and effective emoji. It provides a way to say shit or crap in an email without explicitly typing the words, and it catches the reader’s attention in a way that smiley faces don’t. Most importantly, it always elicits a smile from the reader and the writer, which is ultimately the purest purpose of emoji: to add emotional expressiveness to written communication.

5. Emoji Don’t Mean What They Used To (Ian Bogost, February 2019, The Atlantic)

While it makes sense for emoji to cover the range of the human experience, Bogost ✍🏻 that “more specificity means less flexibility,” and that this visual language has shifted away from the abstract. More choices at our 📱fingertips changes the way we select and use emoji, viewing them more as 🖼️ rather than 💡. “Counterintuitively, all these emoji are less applicable because they contain more information.”

A skull (💀) almost never means that the speaker has a braincase in hand, Hamlet-like, but rather offers an ashen reaction or a lol, I’m dead sentiment. An emoji originally designed to signify an Eastern bow of greeting or politesse (🙇‍♂️) takes on the more abstract meaning of mild subjugation or psychic deflation in the West. Fire (🔥) could mean a campfire or house fire, but more often it suggests enthusiasm, ferocity, or even spice. Eggplant (🍆) could denote a nightshade, but more likely it suggests, well, something else. These and other meanings are possible because the emoji function primarily as ideograms.

But as emoji have become more specific in both their appearance and their meaning, their ideographic flexibility has eroded.

Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Cheri has been an editor at Longreads since 2014. She's currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area.