Emoji: Expressive or Extractive?


By Rhi Storer (UK)

It’s a typical tuesday rush-hour. My hands are overloaded with bags of shopping, a suitcase, and my rucksack slung across my back. All I can think about is how to best efficiently flow through the large swaths of crowds standing aimlessly on the platform – verbal and nonverbal interaction is minimal, at best. So when my mother messages me asking what time I will be home this evening, I hastily reply back with a bunch of bemusing hieroglyphics. I hope she interprets this as a means of streamlined conversation, and not a communication breakdown. Or worse, that I’ve broken my phone and the only way I can explain this mess is through a game of technological charades.

She texts back with a bunch of question marks, and an endearing concerned reply. I guess our generation’s usage of emojis isn’t quite as universal as the classic “x”.

Emojis: A Brief History

Emojis, for our generation at least, have exploded into the digital world. Pioneered by an employee of the Japanese mobile company NTT DoCoMo, Shigetaka Kurita, their original purpose was to tap into the booming late-nineties demand among Japanese teenagers for a discreet, cute, and more importantly, bona fide means of communication. And it wasn’t just teenagers who were craving a ‘real touch’ in their messages – businessmen also resented their long, boring emails full of corporate jargon. Both demographics were desperate to find a way to express their emotions, and build on their personal relationship, in an increasingly digitalised world. Even Kurita could understand the rationale behind it, for he to experienced this dissonance among both worlds:

“Everything was shown by text. Even the weather forecast was displayed as ‘fine’. When I saw it, I found it difficult to understand. Japanese TV weather forecasts have always included pictures or symbols to describe the weather—for example, a picture of sun meant ‘sunny’. “I’d rather see a picture of the sun, instead of a text saying ‘fine’.”

Despite big companies such as Fujitsu, Sharp, and even Panasonic turning down the chance to design these colourful characters, Kurita took it upon himself to design them – no feat too small for a economics graduate. Inspired by manga and kanji stylisations, Kurita eventually put together a set of 176 characters that were 12-pixel by 12-pixel. In Japan, these emojis were widely successful and bought about ruthless competition with other mobile companies to design more and more images to lock in customers. While these emojis appear crudely drawn by our contemporary characters, what really made these little pictures become an international phenomena is their incorporation into Unicode (a system of encoding text into a universal standard) and, by 2010, a little-known company syncing them onto their smartphones.

Seventeen years later, emojis have completely transformed how we interact with our digital peers, and are far more sophisticated in depicting language and story-telling.. From exhibiting at a certain critically acclaimed art gallery; to becoming a rather unusual home decor item, their cultural relevance is undeniable. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries named the “face with tears of joy” as the quintessential ‘word’ of the year. In fact, they have become so integrated into the 21st century that they have, in their own right, become a powerful marketing tools for advertisement. Only this year did Facebook include five new emojis to its “like” system. And history will decide whether fashion brand’s COMME des GARCONS recent decision to release a festive ‘Holiday Emoji’ collection and set of emojis will be just as revered as the late nineties culture it looks back to.

A Colourful Language

As a widespread form of communication, emojis now serve to smooth out our digital life. Or do they? For those who believe emojis are a good tool to be paired alongside our language, emojis are an easy way to communicate feelings and to signal social cues, fulfilling our need to express meaning. People who feel particularly anxious in social situations would welcome the positive effect emojis have, as emojis have been somewhat scientifically proven to replenish social intimacy, and can provide us with some of the social well-being that face-to-face communications offers.

Emojis are being used to enhance and compliment our language in our digital communications, especially if you consider that 41.5 billion texts messages are sent globally every day, using around 6 billion emojis. This rapid adaptation by the world’s 2 billion smartphone users make it a diverse and well-documented way of exploring the transformation of language.

For some scholars, such as linguistics professor Vyvyan Evans, emojis enable users to add tone and to interpret the meaning of texts. Of course, using emojis on their own would never be able to convey the deep paradigms of knowledge beset in such fields like political science; physics and complex philosophical questions. From this, emojis are clearly not a language. But they do help our ability to converse with one another, by facilitating more effective communication. In the real world, we would use gestures and body language to denote a social cue. In the digital world, this is illustrated by the use of emojis.

Despite a recreation of Herman Melville’s classic 19th-century novel – a humorously titled ‘Emoji Dick’ – emoji hasn’t quite been classified as a language. In order for this to happen, linguistic scholars agree that emoji would have to develop ‘generative grammar’: a logical set of rules that determine possible sentence structures and organise universal meaning. So while this article will follow strict grammar rules and different tenses in order to not be nonsensical, emojis compromise of nouns and verbs, and almost exclusively function in the present tense.

For example, if I were to type “I am driving home”, I would use “??”.

To emphasise “I am quickly driving home”, I would use “?????‼️” The addition of more than one car is to denote intensification, literally translated as “car:car:car”

Emojis then, according to sociolingustic Jonnie Robinson, share some feature similar to pidgin languages. Pidgin languages develop when two or more groups of people who don’t share a common language have to find grounds to communicate, for example, on slave plantations. As languages pass between generations, and children begin to use this pidgin language as a primary means of expression, it begins to develop nuance and syntax – all features of proper languages. Whilst it is unlikely in the future that we will see entire generations communicating only in digital forms, we are beginning to see more and more emojis develop in line with shifting cultural and political values. And that can only be a good thing.

Compliment or Complication?

On the other side of the debate are those who firmly believe that emojis will be the death of the english language. Emojis, to the believers of a pure english language, are dumb creations, showing how our civilisations has progressed from hieroglyphics, to Shakespeare, and fallen back into ancient Egyptians times.

Those who hold the view that emojis are merely but a flash-in-the-pan trend are becoming rather obsolete as more and more emojis are released. For some, the emoji represents a stifling and simplification of ideas – a symptom of a world repressed by the sensory overload of the digital age. For the younger generations, this leaves a distaste to fully articulate their thoughts and feelings through words, which could damage their psychological well-being.

If emojis really are destroying our language, what lies for our future academics, poets; anyone who has an interest in discussing ideas? Is our society really going downhill where we all wear yellow smiley grins on our face?

In this sense, emojis are an insincere way of expressing emotion. For example, often, those who post a crying face emoji are not using it to convey that they are laughing to tears, but rather they are sympathising with whoever they are communicating with. However, this is a rather pedantic way of looking at emojis: languages do develop, and words do change meaning over time. Yet, as there are only a small number of emojis (only 800 to be precise) that can show human emotions, the extremity to which value is added to them can only denote a reduction in our emotional intelligence.

Critics would even go as far as to signal that the adoption of emojis in our lives is dangerous. The modification of language and subsequent alternate modes of thoughts have similar parallels to George Orwell’s 1984. By swapping meanings for certain words, and replacing antonyms altogether (so ‘bad’ no longer exists, instead you have to convey a negative feeling through the word “ungood”), language becomes controlled. In 1984, this is the ultimate tool used by the Party in establishing a totalitarian society.

Although our current use of emojis is more for light-hearted fun, critics believe that emojis have a pernicious influence on society. With our reduction in face-to-face interactions, preferring a text; snapchat; or tweet, have we really limited our way of expression? Are we so reliant on technology communicating our feelings, that we use a standard set of emojis without thinking?

Even more worryingly, it is not our government that has implemented emojis as if they were a new public policy, but companies. And here in lies the real threat – for critics, our emotions are slowly being digitalised as a virtual commodity.

Selling Smiles: Emotions as a Commodity

Last year, Twitter and Coca-Cola collaborated on their first emoji brand campaign, where if you typed #shareacoke into a tweet, two coke bottles would affectionally lean against each other – a sign of goodwill from your favourite beverage and social media platform. But for communication scholars Luke Stark and Kate Crawford, in their article ‘The Conservatism of Emoji: Work, Affect, and Communication’, emojis now symbolise the tension between businesses who want to harness this creative force, and the every-day human interaction.

For them: “Beyond their adorable exuberance, emoji can act as an emotional coping strategy and a novel form of creative expression, even if, in both cases, working within real limits. Emoji create new avenues for digital feeling, while also remaining ultimately in the service of the market.”

Emojis capture feelings yet are recaptured as an intellectual property – a tool for corporate power. These subtle pictograms can be manipulated to provide communicative diversity, and at the same time, incorporated into the very spheres of economic production. Put in another way, emojis constrain “affective labour”, and according to Michael Hardt “affective labor, the production and reproduction of life, has become firmly embedded as a necessary foundation for capitalist accumulation.”

Using feelings to sell products is not a new phenomena. But the use of emojis across social media platforms quantifies as a new business model – emojis could potentially be used as a source of data, in which social media platforms could then use to advertise products to you.


Emojis are a fun way to “humanise” our interactions within the digital worlds we inhabit. They are succinct enough to show humour, sadness, angst, and fear into our daily conversations, and have become deeply embedded into our popular culture. An emoji allows you to present a conversation in a varied, colourful and personal manner. Some may argue that they have become a brain-drain upon our written complex languages, and while they are incomparable to our native tongues, yet it is undeniable they have evolved alongside our own languages.

There are millions of emoji fans adamant about the usefulness of emojis. But so long as you don’t end up like this guy, I think it is safe to say that emojis are here to stay – they’re cute!


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