Emojis represent a myriad of emotions, objects and other signs and symbols. Their wordless pixels offer a canvas to attach meaning too. The advent of emoji keyboards to apple devices in 2011 and android devices in 2013 advanced this system of referents to a level that would have seemed fantasy back in 1982. That was the year that Scott Fahlman first combined a colon and a bracket to indicate the emotional tone of a text. Since then we’ve come a long way in negotiating the toneless shine of online messages, and some emojis have taken on their own meaning.
Journalist Abi Wilkinson notes this disparity of meaning in an article about the ‘tears of joy’ emoji. She writes ‘If your mum texts you the aubergine, for instance, it might mean that she wants you to pick up the ingredients for a moussaka. This is less likely to be the case if you receive a similar message from a lover or spouse.’ This is an extreme example but it highlights the elusive nature of emojis. We’ve come full circle since Scott Fahlman’s days where it was the text that required context. Today emojis need their own context and often work in tandem with traditional text to cultivate nuanced and individual meaning. This is helped by the wide range of emojis and the endless possible combinations of them.
Tyler Schnoebelen is a researcher who works with a linguistic data firm. He has noted the difficulty in pinning down the ‘meaning’ of anything, ‘What we usually mean by “meaning” is an interpretation that is shared by people we’re familiar with using familiar interpretive schemes.’ and it is this vein that the meaning of emojis develops. With the incessant nature of online communication emojis have the time and space to build meaning among people. The frog emoji may mean something totally different between a teenage girl and a seasoned 4chan user, but within their own system of conversing they hold symbolic power.
Tracking the movement from simple faces made out of punctuation to pictorial representations is another avenue worthy of exploration. Morningside Translation has highlighted the difference between cultures when it comes to smileys. Western cultures focus on the mouth to gleam meaning but eastern cultures tend to direct their attention towards the eyes. This manifests itself in the difference between :’( and T_T , both of which express crying in totally different ways. It can be seen again with :O and (o.o), both of which indicate surprise. Emojis offer to cross this bridge and provide a more universal way to add to online chats.
There is still much to learn about emojis. They are still new, and potential developments are yet to occur, but it is clear that they are an intrinsic part of many people’s online communication. They bring meaning and inflection to messages that lack the development of speech and can even add nuance or make sarcasm clearer. Emojis are here to stay, it’s the message behind them that still holds potential.