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Descended from emoticons – combinations of punctuation marks used to illustrate facial expressions – the first 176 emoji were designed in 1999 specifically for use on early smartphones.
Emoticons were initially used to convey tone or add emotional nuance to short messages such as texts or chats – to indicate a joke or sarcastic comment or to express shock or love, for example.
Emoji are used for these reasons too. But because the design of our phones makes it difficult to type, we increasingly use emoji instead of words. We don’t give this much thought. It’s easy – and fun – to communicate with a few faces, a flower or a flame.
But it’s not usually more effective. As with so many of the ways we use our phones, there are opportunity costs to using emoji instead of words.
A string of emoji can’t convey a complex idea with anything like the same precision or nuance as a collection of words. And the risks of misunderstanding or misinterpretation are much greater.
What’s more, if we don’t practise using more complex language we won’t maintain or improve our ability to do so – our communication skills will become blunted.
So too might our cognitive skills. Unlike a real language, which can evolve naturally, gatekeepers decide which emoji we have access to. This can build in bias, however subconscious. That’s one reason why people lobbied for the introduction of emoji representing a greater diversity of people, cultures and experiences.
Emoji are billed as a lingua franca for everyone in a digital world, understandable across borders and cultures, regardless of mother tongue, or age, or operating systems.
But reaching for ‘off-the-shelf’ emoji shapes the ways we communicate and, potentially, even the ways we think – with costs to ourselves and those we interact with.