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Mark the date – today we observe the fifth annual Emoji Day, celebrating the global impact of these humble pictograms.
But while some are baking emoji cakes and dressing as their favourite flamenco dancers, others will be railing against the demise of human contact IRL.
We use the words interchangeably, but emojis and emoticons are different creatures. Emoticons have arguably been around for a long time, with 17th century examples of smiley faces used on contracts, but only in the internet age found true popularity.
Emojis on the other hand were born online. Originating on Japanese phones in the nineties and becoming popular in the West around the year 2010, an emoji is an actual image: confusingly, you’ll often type an emoticon to generate an emoji image.
Kaomojis on the other hand are emoticons that can be read without tilting your head. The fuller character set required for the Japanese language can create more detailed expressions, such as frustration (╬ಠ益ಠ) and facepalming (－‸ლ)
Psychologically, emojis are fun to use and to receive: one study found that users experienced a “positive effect on enjoyment, personal interaction, perceived information richness, and perceived usefulness” when using the images.
They’re also a shorthand for those elements of communication we lose through text, such as tone of voice, facial expressions and gestures. The most used emojis are faces and hands; after all, anyone who can interpret a smile can understand .
Scientists even found that looking at a smiley face emoji triggers the same part of our brain as if we were looking at a real human face.
Some worry that young people aren’t learning social skills, or how to articulate themselves fully through speech. Others cite the inconsistent appearance of emojis as a potential for misunderstanding, especially across cultural divides.
But these criticisms echo those heard by the radio, comic books, television and video games – any progress in technology, entertainment or communication is met with backlash and resistance.
Companies throughout the world are envisioning how to put emojis to good use. Some want to see them used to quickly communicate public health risks, while the Ad Council’s “I Am A Witness” campaign allows young people to use emoji to highlight bullying.
We’re also seeing a wider scope of representation, with five skin colours now on offer and the inclusions of same-sex couples, professional women, hijab-wearing woman and more androgynous characters.
But perhaps the most compelling factor is the simplest: we enjoy using them. They’re fun. Symbols can take on a particular meaning in a friendship group, or they can be as universal as a smile, but in an increasingly busy world, they make communication quicker and simpler.