When Apple announced a banquet of upgraded emoji features at its annual developer event on Monday, even its own software boss groaned. “The children of tomorrow will have no understanding of the English language,” he quipped, veering only slightly off course from Apple’s upbeat corporate spiel.
Apple’s emojification will be welcomed with ? by a certain demographic, but greeted with a ? by another.
As cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker wrote in 2014: “It is a failing of human nature to detest anything that young people do just because older people are not used to it or have trouble learning it.”
At the time Pinker was defending Twitter, and accusations that tweet-length communications would impair people’s ability to communicate in long form. “I have no patience for that idea,” he said. “This simply misunderstands the way that human language works … In the heyday of telegraphy, when people paid by the word, they left out the prepositions and articles. It didn’t mean that the English language lost its prepositions and articles; it just meant that people used them in some media and not in others. “
“The prevalence of texting and tweeting does not mean that people magically lose the ability to communicate in every other conceivable way.”
The same argument can be made for emojis. Certainly until you have used it, lived with it and benefited from it, it is easy to resent this uninvited linguistic invasion, if it conflicts with your established view of what language should be.
Emojis have become a staple of millennial identity, whether helping you to show off your linguistic dexterity on social media, soften the blow of criticism, or – if you’re Kim Kardashian – extend your own brand in visual form.
Since their 2011 introduction internationally in Apple’s iOS 5 update, a study in 2015 found that emojis are used by 92% of the online population. Originating in Japan the early 90s, emojis developed as a way to convey emotion in emails, used in Japan as text messages are used in the west.
As the use of the smartphone has grown, so has the variety of emojis: there are more than 1,600 emojis available on multiple platforms, the most commonly used being the ? and ?. Usage isn’t limited to millennials, but women use emojis more than men.
Yet emojis are more powerful than they may first appear, and their real power lies in their ability to emulate a real face. “In speech, you can use body language, facial expressions and intonation to help convey you and your message,” said Tyler Schnoebelen, founder of language analysis service Idibon. “Emoji lend a hand for doing that in writing.”
Text can’t convey tone in the way voice can, and emojis bridge that gap – even at work. Some research has found they improve the tenor of conversations, while a report from 2008 claimed that their use among students increased happiness and improved the user’s enjoyment and personal interactions.
“Language is a huge part of how we move through the world,” says Schnoebelen. “People are wedded to how things have been and so they miss out on how central diversity and change are to language.”
There is legitimate criticism. The first generation of emojis were exclusively white, and representation matters. In the way they constitute the language we use, emojis help to both construct and cement identity. One friend told me how he felt being underrepresented in the emoji selection: “Over time it felt like you couldn’t fully express yourself without attaching your color – a large part of your identity – to it.” When your image isn’t represented, what does it say about your relevance?
Apple’s 2015 OS 8.3 update introduced same-sex couple emojis and the ability to vary skin tone – a development that spoke to both the importance of the icons and the transition away both from heteronormativity and the white status quo of the technology companies. The June 2016 update expanded the selection of breakfast foods – yet still crucially failed to address the representation of women.
The current firefighter, police officer, private detective and an array of sportspeople in Apple’s emoji are all represented by men. Women, by contrast, appear occasionally as as brides, princesses or dancers. Facebook, it should be noted, recently updated their own emoji selection to add female surfers, swimmers, police officers and even redheads.
Those fighting forms of oppression have pointed to the use of language as part of their subjugation, from words that have specific oppressive implications to behaviour like “mansplaining” that affect the power dynamic of conversations. We change language to adapt to our world view, and it’s no wonder then that the diversification of emojis became so important.
“The set of emoji we have access to are not value-neutral – they express certain kinds of ideology about who does what,” Schnoebelen explains.
It may seem minor to emoji skeptics, but representation is an important change; if emojis can make a difference to our behaviour, then they also have the power to influence our construction of societal norms.
If you still hate emoji, have a long, hard think about your desire to cling to the past. Language is in perpetual change, and those little faces hold true power. Resistance is futile …
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