Why is everyone so Emojinal?


So, Emoji are taking the social world by storm, with users of positive emoticons tending to be the most influential people on Twitter (Stylist Magazine, July 2014).


While I am not squarely in the Emoji camp, I do dabble. I like a well-timed Emoji. They’re kitsch in a good way; allowing us to be cryptic and thus a little bit cheeky without explicitly being so. They have the power to turn a banal tweet into something quirky. What’s more, their relatively limited number invites us to be a little bit creative when selecting them. If not carefully selected, they’re completely random, and bear absolutely no relevance to the accompanying text. In both of these cases, their use is both silly and childish, and it’s important to be both of these things from time to time, I reckon.

But while fun, Emoji can be downright perplexing. Perhaps I am not so well-versed in Emoji speak, but I often find myself drowning in a sea of semiotic confusion when trying to select an appropriate emoticon to best illustrate my meaning. So vast is their array, that it’s often difficult to tell one emotion from the other. Too much time spent deciding can result in a phalanx of yellow faces staring listlessly back at you, as if to say “for God’s sake, I’m getting bored now.”

Perhaps I had better illustrate my bewilderment a little bit better:

This guy’s face, is fairly inscrutable:


He could be smug; he could be expectant; he could be passive-aggressive. He could be all three. He’s the Mona Lisa of Emoji world and thus shrouded in mystery. Maybe that’s the point; sometimes people’s facial expressions are hard to read. Maybe I’m looking into it a bit too much – but you get my drift – kind of.

Perhaps as a pernickety linguist, I am someone who requires meanings to be conveyed to me unequivocally; but I think I am referring to meanings painted with words, rather than pictures. They say a picture can be “worth a thousand words”, whereas a single word can only elicit one meaning, really. So maybe there’s my first issue: Emoji are often so open to interpretation that I find myself struggling with their ambiguity.

While this all might sound a little bit old-fashioned – if not a little bit churlish – it’s not supposed to. I don’t mean to deride the use of Emoji. I understand that they can be fun and that they allow us to be a little bit silly. My only concern, however, is that their use risks eclipsing the power of words. And words are great. Strung together like charms on a necklace, they have the power to transform as well to cut straight through to the essence of a meaning. They form the limits of our existence, really.

Pictures, conversely, can accompany words and thereby illustrate or enrich their meaning, but can rarely substitute them.

Call me stuck in the times, but I think that if we begin to rely too heavily on the power of semiotics, we will start to overlook the rich, transformative power that words can have on the way in which we interpret information. We risk becoming lazy with our descriptions, seeking to pre-package imagination rather than conjure up images using the potency of carefully-selected and deftly juxtaposed words.

So I guess what I’m saying is that yes, Emoji are funny and seemingly influential, as evidenced by the fact that users of positive emoticons tend to be the most influential Twitter; but let them decorate our words, not replace them. Yes, Twitter only allows a stingy 140 characters per tweet; but a succinct, pithy tweet is more powerful than one littered with Emoji.

Yes, a picture can sometimes be worth a thousand words, but not when said picture is one of a cat with hearts protruding from its eyes. After all, what can the latter realistically denote? Feline madness? Delirium? The recent consumption of something hallucinogenic? I get what you’re trying to do, all you yellow fellas – but let’s reserve Emoji-speak for the trivial stuff, not for the serious.

Alice Mitchell is Account Executive at All about the Idea and sometimes writes for Big ideas Blog . Trivial and obscure media is her fave. Likes a good rant from time to time.


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