Emoji (or emojis, depending on how you prefer to pluralise) are, quite simply, everywhere. No matter which direction you look, you’ll find them staring right back at you — from phones, computers, billboards and bus-stops. They even exist in cuddly toy form.
There seems to be no escape from the emoji explosion. And it’s a trend that looks set to continue. But where did they come from? Why have they become so popular? And what does the future hold for this new form of language?
In the beginning
It all started back in 1999 when Japanese mobile operators noticed a dramatic increase in the number of photos being sent via SMS. This quickly started to cause issues, with the filesize of an image typically thousands of times larger than a standard text message. And with such rapidly increasing popularity, the telecommunications companies couldn’t scale fast enough to reach the demand.
As a result, mobile phone operator DoCoMo released a brand new feature which allowed users to add tiny pictures to their texts, each representing common emotions or everyday symbols. It was instantly a huge success, with many other companies adopting the idea and creating a nationwide standard. The emoji had landed.
The success of these small pictures began to have an influence on the wider world, with many large companies integrating them into their applications. Most notable of these were Skype and Windows Live Messenger — better known as MSN.
There was one key difference. Namely, whenever you typed a smiley face emoticon :) into your message and pressed send, it would automatically be converted into an emoji — a small picture representing the emotion you wished to convey.
Although visually similar, these emoticons were fundamentally very different to the emojis we know and love today. Emoji are no longer tiny images — they’ve evolved to become keyboard characters in their own right.
Access all areas
The modern incarnation of the emoji is thought to have been sparked by the arrival of the App Store for iOS. Following the massive success of the iPhone, the store was launched on July 10th, 2008. The iPhone initially supported Japan’s pre-existing emoji standards — they were actually included within the operating system exclusively for Apple’s Japanese customers, meaning they could drop them into their messages in precisely the same way they always had. This offered an excellent opportunity for other companies to explore.
Very quickly, third parties like Emoji+ started creating emoji keyboard apps, which for the first time enabled users across the world to gain instant access to this new method of communication. Emojis were effectively a hidden language option for iOS — people simply installed an app like Emoji+ and added the secret language to their list of enabled keyboards. And just like that, they could start inserting emojis anywhere they pleased.
In late 2008, following the huge success of these third party apps, Apple announced the emoji keyboard would be available to all iPhone users across the globe. The popularity of emoji continued to skyrocket, with Unicode mapping making it easier to use them across different platforms, and the likes of Google, Twitter and Facebook going on to create their own unique emoji ‘sets’, each with their own artistic style.
With more and more people granted quick and easy access, it didn’t take long for emojis to become integral to everyday life. Driven by a desire to communicate briefly and effectively on texts, direct messages, tweets and status updates, emojis granted people new and exciting ways of expressing themselves, adding a welcome splash of colour and a heightened sense of personality.
Emojis have grown to become so much more than merely a way to augment our written language. Both in our businesses and our personal lives, we use them to convey meaning in all manner of situations, running the entire spectrum from jubilant celebration to abject sadness and pain. At their best, they offer a universal touchpoint for common experiences — an instantly recognisable set of symbols — helping us swiftly clarify our tone and intended meaning.
At their worst, it could be argued emojis offer a cartoonish reduction of our communication; a trivialisation of human interaction. But language is fluid and continues to adapt and evolve — emojis live and die by how suited they are to doing their job, and most of them seem to be doing just fine. Acknowledging their widespread popularity, in 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary named ‘Face With Tears of Joy’ – as its ‘Word of the Year’.
Looking to the future
Emojis are changing the world we live in, and how we express ourselves to others in the digital realm. At their core, they do exactly what they were always intended to do — add character, context and emotion to a vast sea of bland keystrokes. In fact, I can only see them growing ever more popular as more companies bring out their own customised emoji characters and offer an ever more accurate depiction of our diverse world.
As for me, I’m a casual emoji user.I use them when something I’ve typed is lacking character or is open to misinterpretation. I’m not the type to crowbar emojis into a sentence willy-nilly, but I appreciate just how frustrating text-based situations can be without a helping hand. Or — as is more likely — a smiley face.