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Emoji under the microscope

Sarah Putt, Contributor. 26 July 2018, 9:12 am

There are people who are awesome at emoji, they include at least three in every text, tweet or Instagram post. I am not one of those people, mostly I make do with :) and never the inverse :( because it is too confrontational, while ;) is open to misinterpretation.

So, it was with some surprise that I discovered that there are actually over 3000 official emoji, and what's more, there are entire conferences about them, by people with academic degrees and everything. And why not? Anytime humankind finds a new way to communicate it's worth taking copious notes. I'm actually glad that one of the greatest incubators for tech - Stanford University - has hosted an event dedicated to emoji. I'm just amazed- given the proliferation of emoji - that it has taken so long. Here's the conference pitch:

"Emoji 2018 aims to stimulate research on understanding social, cultural, communicative, and linguistic roles of emoji and developing novel approaches to analyze, interpret and understand emoji and their usage in social media applications. It provides a forum to bring together researchers and practitioners from both academia and industry in the areas of social network analysis and mining, natural language processing, computational linguistics, human-computer interaction, and computational social sciences to discuss high-quality research and emerging applications, to exchange ideas and experience, and to identify new opportunities for collaboration."

Sorry if you wanted to attend and this is the first time you've heard about it. But it's OK because the good news is you can check out all the presentations from the conference, and ponder the world of emoji on this website here.

I must confess to being indebted to Wired magazine, which has the most excellent guide to emoji. Apparently, it all started with emoticons - just 176 of them - in Japan in 1999. They were symbols invented for a mobile phone company DOCOMO by artist Shigetaka Kurita, who wanted to convey information in a succinct way. So, there were characters of the weather, TV, traffic etc. That doesn't surprise me. Around that time Japanese school girls were inventing a whole new literary genre known as the cellphone novel or keitai shousetsu  which were written and designed to be read on a cellphone with around 200 words per chapter. Also, the Japanese invented haiku.

Anyway, emoticons became popular and then about 10 years later Apple and Google decided it was time to adopt them into their operating systems. And now - according to Wired - 5 billion emoji are sent and received on Facebook's messaging app every day. Also big on Instagram - with half of all comments featuring an emoji.

Which begs plenty of questions. Are emoji destroying human communication or enhancing it? How can you teach a computer to understand all the different meanings in an individual emoji? For example the OK emoji means different things in US sign language, in English sign language and - to warn you - to white supremacists. And, sort of bizarrely, the gas pump emoji means marijuana to some gangs in the US, according to a US academic who was studying gangland tweets.

If you're maybe thinking that you could invent an emoji - for example, I couldn't find a kiwi - then you need to be prepared to argue your case. You have to provide a submission to the Unicode Consortium who - according to Wired - are very particular about what emoji they accept. It can take up to two years before an approval is granted and these people are meeting twice a week!


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Ant McMahon 30 July 2018, 2:15 pm

Sarah, some good thoughts in here. In response to your question "Are emoji destroying human communication or enhancing it?", I think the answer is that they are actually evolving it. If you look back at how the English language has evolved over the last 1500 years, specific words have come and gone based on a range of factors.

Equally, language has slowly migrated across the world through colonisation, transport and entertainment. With each phase, it's the adoption of upcoming generations which have seen it become part of main stream society.

Emoji have simply seen a more rapid migration and adoption because of technology. We can sit here today and pass judgement on whether Emoji will be good or bad for language, but can also ask our kids if they are more likely to communicate in Emoji when it comes to the written language

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