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?