Our use of emojis may be one of the biggest recent innovations in how our species communicates.
These tiny unicode-based pictograms sent via smartphone messaging aren’t just popular with youngsters; they’re increasingly used by a wide cross section of society. Pay attention to how emojis are used around the world and you’ll spot some interesting patterns of behaviour.
Patterns of emoji use across the globe betray something of the concerns and pre-occupations of different nationalities.
Emojis began to emerge in the nineties, when developers made it possible for mobile users to add small picture icons into their text conversations. With the launch of iOS 6, iPhone users were able to access emojis directly in their keyboards. There are now around a thousand cross-platform emojis, although not all of them are available to everyone.
Look closely at the trends and you’ll see our use of emojis tends to betray a lot about how we communicate and about our individual characters. The smiley face emoji remains far and away the most popular worldwide. This probably illustrates how common it is to add nuance to our spoken communication using the power of the smile. Adding a smiley to your written communications helps convey this most common body language cue. It also helps the sender avoid any unintended hostility from the message exchange.
National preferences for emoji use
Dig a little deeper and you’ll find different nationalities favour different emoticons, often betraying some clichés in the national character as they do so. A survey by Swiftkey looking at over a billion instances of emoji use identified a number of cultural differences in various regions around the world.
North Americans show a tendency towards violence in their emoji use, with lots of use of the gun symbol.
French smartphone users were the most likely to use the heart icon – four times more likely than any other nation.
Russians used emojis relating to romance and cold weather, and the Spanish favoured party-related ones.
The survey also identified strong food preferences shown in each of the 16 countries surveyed. The States showed a strong interest in using meat emojis, pizza and chicken drumsticks. Australians particularly favoured the lollipop symbol, and were the nation most likely to use alcohol-related emojis. Brazilians were especially interested in using the beer-related emojis, but countries without such a strong drinking culture tended to use them less often.
Users get creative with their picture messaging
The emoji is having some surprising impacts on language. In the absence of specific emojis, people have been making do with what they have available. According to Mashable, users have become creative at incorporating innocent symbols into their sexting by using various combinations of the available emojis.
There have recently been drives to try to improve the diversity of emojis that are available, by adding a male groom to complement the existing female bride emoji, and also offering a wider range of skin tones to the existing array of white faced emojis.
Non-Christian symbols of worship, such as a mosque and synagogue icon, have also been added to the official hieroglyphic system.
Whether new emojis are to be included in the universal digital grammar is determined by a group called the Unicode Consortium. This group is dedicated to ensuring all networked devices are able to communicate with one another by standardising communications to make sure that characters such as punctuation are recognised by all devices.
Emojis become standardised by assigning each one a particular code. In a sense, the emoji vocabulary is intended to be a universal one which is accessible to speakers of all languages. It could be argued that emojis are a self-contained universal language of their own, albeit one with a very limited vocabulary. Some people believe that emojis could eventually evolve into a more substantial language, in the way hieroglyphics or Chinese emerged from pictorial symbols.
At present, the communication potential offered by emojis is expressive but not specific.
Although different emojis can be combined in an attempt to create phrases (the rocket ship combined with a heart symbol to denote ‘sending love’, for example), these remain open to many interpretations. In North America the aubergine symbol is known as the eggplant, and it’s become a cypher for the phallus. That’s useful if you know the raunchy meaning of the innocent symbol but it could be equally baffling if you don’t.
Using emojis for brand marketing
Trashy US celebrity Kim Kardashian recently launched her own set of lewd emojis which are available by downloading an app.
In another marketing stunt, This is Finland launched its own set of emojis that celebrated elements of national culture in a tongue-in-cheek way. These included naked figures in saunas, a head banging metal fan and the classic, apparently unbreakable Nokia 3310 handset.
It isn’t the only way emojis have been used as a key element of a marketing campaign. Norwegian Airlines decided to target a millennial audience by creating an ad depicting a cryptic URL made almost entirely of emoji.
While this may have worked well as a publicity stunt – the campaign website only received around 1,600 visitors. So, perhaps this was a bit too cryptic even for their target audience of clued-up millennials.
Any discussion of emojis inevitably veers into a reactionary hair pulling about the loss of articulation by today’s youth and the dumbing down of conversation as it is mediated via mobile devices.
But young smartphone users see their use of emoticons as supporting and improving their communication rather than degrading it. Emojis are a way to convey the intended message more effectively, by adding tone to the conversation using images. A curt message can be made less abrupt using an emoticon, or an emotion expressed to add colour to the communication. Or they can simply make communication more fun and aesthetically interesting.
For speakers of some of the more complicated written languages, it can be quicker and easier to use emojis or recorded messages than to type out regular text. That’s part of the reason why they are so popular in Asia, where users find them a fast and easy way to express themselves. Emojis may not need to be taken seriously but their popularity across the globe indicates how useful we find them in adding visual and emotional cues to our written communications.