There is no escaping emojis. It can be almost taken for granted that your spouse, child, friend or colleague will send you an emoji today. Some find them unsightly, while others delight in the expression they allow.
For World Emoji Day, we take a look at the journey of emojis, how they came to be, how they became so popular and what they might tell us about ourselves.
From Japan to the World
The first emojis were created by Shigetaka Kurita for Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo’s mobile internet platform i-mode. The word is a portmanteau of sorts, combining the Japanese words for picture (e) and character (moji).
Dissatisfied with the limitations text imposed, Kurita set about designing a set of 176 emojis. No small feat for an engineer who majored in economics.
The innovation proved wildly successful and led to the emojis we know today.
And wildly successful they remain. A study of emoji usage on Twitter over a two-year period showed an average of 250 million are used a month on the social media platform.
On Facebook, more than 60 million emojis are used on any given day, while Messenger, Facebook’s instant messaging app, sees over five billion emojis used daily.
These statistics are impressive considering emojis were first officially included in non-Japanese smartphone keyboards in 2011.
Emojis have become so ingrained in our lives that the “face with tears of joy” emoji was Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2015.
The Flexibility of Emojis
In person, we rely on facial expressions, body language, hand gestures and our tone of voice to help convey our intended message.
Our increased reliance on text-based communication, for both work and leisure, stripped us of these important tools.
Emojis help fill this void when we communicate through text. Research has found that our brains recognise emojis as non-verbal communication.
So much so that emojis have had a measurable impact on the way we talk to each other.
Instagram found that as emoji use increased, usage of popular internet slang such as ‘lol’, ‘rofl’, ‘omg’ etc. decreased. We have decided, possibly without realising it ourselves, that emojis express our emotions better.
Emojis occupy a unique space. Often, their meaning depends not just on context but also on who the sender is and their relationship with the receiver.
For example, a “thumbs up” emoji can mean “no problem” when replying to a colleague, or “it was great” when you ask a friend how their holiday was. There is a surprising amount of subtlety and nuance to the meanings we can derive from these simple pictograms.
When we take into account the universal meanings inherent in popular emojis and their ability to bridge language barriers, in addition to all their other qualities, it is easy to see how they have become crucial so quickly.
Emojis in Business
The popularity of emojis has not gone unnoticed by businesses.
The number of top-100 headlines on Facebook with emojis in the title jumped from six in 2015, to 52 in 2017.
If we focus on news publishers using emojis in the top-100 headlines on Facebook over the same period, the figure rises from zero to 22.
An analysis of a popular UK newspaper’s Facebook posts discovered headlines with emojis generated more than double the engagements of those without.
Emojis are also being used outside of the newsroom. They have been used in marketing campaigns by multinational companies to promote products such as fast food and clothing. A major international pizza chain gained nationwide media coverage in the US when it allowed Twitter users to order a pizza by posting the pizza emoji.
Diesel’s spring/summer 2016 collection was accompanied by an emoji-heavy marketing campaign.
Branded emojis have also become a marketing tool. Disney created hashtag-generated emojis with likenesses of popular Star Wars characters to promote a film launch.
The World Wildlife Fund created 17 emojis of endangered animals, encouraging users to donate a small sum for every engagement.
The 2016 US Presidential candidate and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had her own set of emojis and emoji keyboard created as part of her election campaign.
Lastly, an animated feature film using emojis as the cast was released in 2017. Unfortunately for The Emoji Movie, reviews indicate audiences did not appreciate it.
Once derided for being unprofessional, it seems emojis have become big business. Perhaps their informality resonates more with the current world than traditional practices.
The Future of Emojis
With emojis being pervasive in so many areas of our lives, one has to wonder whether we will reach a saturation point. Will we get sick of emojis and decide to eschew them in favour of text again?
While that is certainly a possibility, since we seem to view emojis as a non-verbal language that enables us to communicate better, it seems unlikely.
The most likely scenario is that emojis will remain a part of our shared culture as long as they continue to serve their purpose.
Emojis as a fad will eventually fade, as all fads do. Emojis as a communication tool are here to stay, at least until a better alternative arises.