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Is it the end of the emoji era?

It’s September 19th, 1982 and computer scientist Dr Scott E. Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University has got himself in a bit of a pickle. After sending a message to his coworkers that (he thought) was clearly sarcastic, he now has everyone in the office sending him sideways glances thinking he's a bit of a lunatic.

Putting your foot in it at work? Something we can all relate to I'm sure.

Anyway, Dr Fahlman was keen to clean the slate once and for all and decided to fix the issue of misinterpreted text messages. After some thought, a solution was formed - from now on every time he sent a message intended as a joke he would mark it with a smiley face made from text characters :-) and swiftly notified the team of his new codification. And all of a sudden, the emoticon was born.

Fast forward 40 years and the media landscape has changed dramatically, and so have emoticons. Once simple diagrams made with text characters they have now evolved into full-blown dedicated images that we call emoji, and they are inescapable.

Approximately 5-9 billion of them are sent daily, and still serve much the same purpose as the emoticon did for Dr Scott E. Fahlman all those years ago. As surprising as it may sound, the reason emoticons, and now emoji, have become so embedded into everyday life is that they serve a necessary function.

The invention of the phone in the 19th century had scholars considering the future of text-based communication - why would we continue to write to each other when we can now speak to one another live anywhere in the world? Ironically though, thanks to the adoption of SMS messaging, forums, email and (more recently) social media, we rely more on text-based messages than ever before.

These text-based communication channels are not a rich form of media. For example, speaking to someone in person provides a host of contextual nonverbal factors additional to the text itself.

  • How is the message being delivered?

  • What emotions are being shown by the messenger?

  • What is the pitch and tempo of delivery?

  • What about body language and other environmental factors?

A text-based message cannot rely on any of these additional factors and therefore can be easily misinterpreted, much like Dr Fahlman’s slightly inappropriate joke in the workplace.

Emoji provide the ability to contextualise a message that may otherwise be misinterpreted. It allows us to anchor the message in a particular direction or context to make sure we can deliver our message with the utmost accuracy.

Scientists have also discovered that when we view emoji, we activate the part of our brain that recognises emotion on human faces. This of course opens a whole different can of worms; not only can we contextualise text-based messages with emoji, but we can also promote an empathetic response from the viewer simply by having them present.

Subconsciously, people will automatically form an empathetic response to any human-based emoji they see. Unfortunately for marketing teams, this doesn't mean it's as simple as adding a few smiley faces to your content to try and reinforce positive brand association (although it might not hurt to try). Much like text messaging itself, emoji are open to interpretation.

For example, is it a praying emoji… or is it two people high-fiving? And let’s not even delve into some of the more notorious codifications applied to some emoji by certain subcultures. It’s always a good laugh to see someone brazenly throwing around an eggplant emoji without a clue what the subtext might mean to some.

This ambiguity is highlighted further by studies asking participants what emotions they think certain emojis represent, and the results varied wildly. Emoji have even been used as a tool to understand emotion recognition by those affected by conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

Understanding how different people interpret these hyper-simplified human emotional icons is an important factor when considering their use, especially in a professional context. Emoji use is no longer limited to just language either, with many finding a use case for them as a tool for art itself, as popularised by artist @yungjake below (his page is well worth a visit).

So are emoji a flash in the pan or here to stay?

They may feel like an unnecessary side piece to regular nonverbal communication, but time has shown that as long as they remain useful to us they will likely continue to be a mainstay of modern communication.

You just have to ask yourself when using them; does the addition of this emoji help clarify my messaging, or does it just confuse things further? And to think, all those years ago Dr Fahlman made a bad joke at work and now the whole world has a keyboard full of mini faces on every device. Go figure.

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