Emojis at face value

comments 6
History / Myths / Psychology

If you’re reading this, chances are you’re familiar with emoji and have used them in an 📧, or text. How did this visual ‘language’ come about and how will it impact communication in the future? Tara Bautista explores the history and 🔬 of emojis.

👍 or 👎 them, emojis are the fastest growing ‘language’ in the world. Photo by Lidya Nada on Unsplash.

Smiley faces

“How r u?”

“I’m OK.”

How many of you have received a reply like this and wondered what OK meant?

It could mean anything from “Life’s all good” to “I’m barely surviving, but there’s no need to call emergency services just yet”.

Now how about:

“I’m OK 😊.”

Isn’t that more reassuring?

The simple inclusion of a smiley face emoji adds a depth of emotion that is often lost in text-based messages. This convenience in communication is the reason why these small pictures were introduced in the first place.

The 📈 and 📈 of emojis

The first widely used set of emojis was created in 1999 for the Japanese phone operator NTT DoCoMo. The word ‘emoji’ is an amalgam of the Japanese words for picture (‘e’) and letter/character (‘moji’).

Creator Shigetaka Kurita noticed that despite the potential of digital communication for bringing people closer, written text didn’t provide cues about feelings and intent that we can pick up from hearing people’s voices or seeing their faces and body language.

Kurita devised 176 simple ideograms made of 12 x 12 pixels, which included faces that conveyed emotion. Other emojis represented things we commonly talk about, like traffic and weather.

Today over 90% of the world’s online population uses emojis. There are currently 3053 emojis approved by UniCode, the governing body of emojis whose voting members include IBM, Microsoft, Google and Netflix.

(Fun fact: Anyone can propose new emojis but the approval process is lengthy – up to 18 months. A new emoji must satisfy criteria including that many people are likely to use it, and that it conveys something different to existing emoji.)

Such is the power of this visual ‘language’ that the ‘😂’ emoji was chosen as the 2015 word of the year by Oxford Dictionary.

The 👍 case for emojis

Emojis act as an addition or substitute to written language. They fulfil the role that tone of voice, facial expressions and body gestures do in face-to-face and verbal communication.

Emojis may be simple pictures, but they can express a nuanced range of emotions. Consider how you would tell someone you’re happy. There are many options, including 🙂, 😃 and 😄. Even using non-face emojis can help convey your mood.

On the other hand, the same emoji can mean many things in different contexts. For example, 😕 might be taken as confused, neutral, sad or unhappy.

But the popularity of emojis is undoubtedly due to the fact they are easy to use and understand. Their meanings largely transcend different cultures, ages (and operating systems!).

A 2015 survey of 2000 British young people found that 72% agreed that it was easier to express their emotions using emoji.

An interesting example that showcases the universality of emojis is their use in food-related market research. The potential for using emoji in gauging consumers’ preferences was first noted by researchers when analysing over 12 000 tweets on meals. In a large number of them, people commonly and spontaneously used a range of emojis or emoticons to express their thoughts.

Now, emojis are being used to report the food-related thoughts and feelings of children as young as eight. In one study, children lined up behind emojis that best reflect their feelings about drinks. In another, they chose emojis that represented their feelings when eating certain foods. A similar ‘select-all-emoji-that-apply’ reporting system has been successfully used with Chinese consumers.

Supporters of emojis suggest they may help us communicate with illiterate or poorly-educated people. In 2019, the mosquito emoji was added at the proposal of malaria researchers who wanted to spread public health messages about malaria prevention.

️ : not everyone is 😃 about them

For some people, the idea that 😂 is a ‘word’ and emojis are a language is as controversial as the singer Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.

It is difficult to conduct a deep and meaningful exchange in emoji. This is because emojis are almost all nouns, with few verbs and no adverbs.

One researcher argues that our greatest power as humans is our ability to clearly express complex thoughts. If we rely too much on emoji, he argues, it ‘may push us back towards cave drawings we started with.’

Another opinion is that that our increasing dependence on fast, visual-based communication may make us mentally lazy and decrease our ability to think about abstract, long-term and complex issues.

Using emojis can also leave a bad impression when used in formal digital communication.

So, it seems that as with most things, 🤷 … can’t please everyone, right?

Links and stuff


  1. Great post – almost felt inspired to submit an emoji until you mentioned the lengthy review and approval process. Years back I thought having a dung beetle rolling a dung ball up hill would make a great emoji to express that feeling of getting nowhere. I checked out the 2020 prospects from your links and can see a beetle is on the cards for 2020 – can’t help but wonder if it’ll be a dung beetle.

    • Thanks Marti. LOVE the idea of a dung beetle for getting nowhere. Maybe we should propose it?! I’m excited about some of the other animals on the way too.

    • The issue will be how to prove LOTS of people will use it. I fear not everyone thinks the way you and I do 😂

      • Yes, I understand the difficulty, that’s why I thought a smart doctor such as yourself was better suited to that role, whilst I stick to imagery 🙂

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