The increasingly abundant use of emojis across cultures and age groups — and the similar meanings we assign them — suggest we're entering an era of hybrid communication, as we treat pictures like a real language.
You can now hashtag them in Instagram — so long as it's not the eggplant. As a spinoff to this year's State Of The Union address, The Guardian debuted a Twitter account, @emojibama, that live-tweeted a transcript of Obama's speech using emojis and a spare amount of actual words.
In Asia, the most popular messaging apps feature larger emojis that are designed to take over text-driven exchanges, as NPR's Elise Hu reports. Entering text into LINE — the choice app in Japan, birthplace of the emoji, and Taiwan — actually encourages default sticker options that represent those words instead.
Shooting Mixed Messages
Emojis can help us easily communicate in inside-joke-like ways that text sometimes cannot, and "certain images can evoke a shared pop culture understanding," Hu tells NPR host Melissa Block.
But without a unified translation as to what the pictures all stand for, widespread use in absence of text can further complicate communication — and lead to consequences.
Lately the gun emoji has been getting people in trouble. Last week the Houston Rockets used a gun emoji next to a horse in a tweet, aimed at their opponent the Dallas Mavericks, just before beating them in a playoff game. It's since been deleted, and the Rockets fired their social media manager.
The gun emoji is especially popular among U.S. teenagers. In a story from Youth Radio, Tylyn Hardamon found that most of his teenage peers use the gun emoji as a joke in reference to casual annoyances. He looked up that particular one on emojitracker, a website that shows how people are using different emojis on Twitter in real time.
He watched as messages like "I hate school" and "no one better mess with me today" popped up next to the tiny gray pistol. He asked friends to explain what the emoji meant in the context in which they were expressing themselves.
To Savannah Robinson, 17, " 'my homework is killing me, gun gun gun,' that means just that your homework's really hard, and you want to, like, kill yourself — not actually kill yourself."
To 20-year-old Donta Jackson and his friends, it's clear that the gun is not violent.
"I don't think anything of it, because it's not like it's a real gun," he says. "It's on a phone. It's just like every other emoji."
However, multifarious meanings for a single emoji can have more serious repercussions. In January a teenager in Brooklyn was arrested for posting a police officer emoji next to a series of gun emojis. (The charges were later dropped.)
Capturing 'The True Grammar Of Emoji'
The use of emojis as a supplement for words still is evolving, and Gretchen McCulloch, a writer who specializes in linguistics and pop culture, says emojis can be useful for adding context. But the problem with the gun emoji, she says, isn't necessarily that it's overused, but maybe that it isn't used enough for us to agree on its meaning.
Fred Benenson, head of data at Kickstarter, is working on something that might help with universal fluency. He hopes that we might one day have somewhat of a Google Translate for emojis, he tells NPR host Melissa Block.
Benenson edited a translation of Herman Melville's literary classic Moby Dick into emoji, published as Emoji Dick in 2009. Now he's using the crowdfunding platform to back the Emoji Translation Project, towards creating the first "emoji translation engine."
When people have tried to do this before, Benenson says in the Kickstarter promotional video, "the results have always been too literal — they never captured the true grammar of emoji."
Such stumbling steps towards formalization resemble signs of a new language rising.
A 👍👍 🐘🐴 is 1⃣ ❓🌎 🇺🇸👪 👛➡💵 less ⌚ drowning in dark 💵 for ads that pull 🇺🇸👪 into the gutter, and 👛➡💵 more ⌚ lifting 🌱 👥 🆙— Emojibama (@emojibama) January 21, 2015
- Canadians Love Poop, Americans Love Pizza: How Emojis Fare Worldwide
- Simmering Online Debate Shows Emoji Is In The Eye Of The Beholder
- Cooking With Emoji: We're Taking Eggplant Back From The Bros
Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And we're exploring one way our communication is changing in All Tech Considered.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SIEGEL: In this era of mobile messaging, emojis carry more and more weight. Emojis are those smiley faces, thumbs up and other icons that are worked into texts, tweets and Facebook posts.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
During the Japanese prime minister's visit, President Obama counted emojis among Japan's great cultural exports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Like karate and karaoke, manga and anime and, of course, emojis.
SIEGEL: Emojis sparked a firing a few days ago in the NBA. During game five of the playoffs between the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, heard here on TNT, the teams' twitter feeds were rooting them on.
(SOUNDBITE OF BASKETBALL GAME)
SIEGEL: In the fourth quarter, a Rockets tweet quipped, don't worry, it'll all be over soon, and featured two emojis, a pistol aimed at a horse's head. It earned thousands of retweets. It also cost the Rocket's digital communications manager his job.
BLOCK: That gun emoji is highly controversial, and Youth Radio's Tylyn Hardamon has been talking with teens about it.
TYLYN HARDAMON, BYLINE: A few weeks back, I sat in a booth at Youth Radio and looked up a website called Emoji Tracker. It shows you how people are using emojis.
I've barely even heard of any of these emojis and...
There was one emoji in particular I wanted to track. I scanned the website's grid full of flashing cartoon pictures until I found it - the gun emoji.
Jeez, some of these are aggressive.
I watched the list of Twitter messages pop up in real-time, a lot of them obviously written by teenagers. Messages like, no one better mess with me today, or, I hate school, next to a tiny, grey pistol. But it wasn't always clear to me why people were using a picture of a gun to express themselves. I asked some of my friends at Youth Radio if they use the gun emoji and, if so, how? Seventeen-year-old Savannah Robinson breaks it down.
SAVANNAH ROBINSON: Oh, like, my homework is killing me - gun, gun, gun. That means just that your homework's really hard and you want to, like, to kill yourself - not actually kill yourself.
HARDAMON: Is it harmless in some contexts?
ROBINSON: Now that I'm saying it - like, I never have said out loud, I'm going to kill myself or I'm going to kill you. Like, that just sounds like - that's definitely not what I mean.
HARDAMON: Emojis may seem playful on a screen, but when you start reading into their meaning, things can get really serious. In January, a teenager in Brooklyn was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats for posting an emoji of a police officer next to a series of gun emojis. The charge was later dropped, but it just goes to show you how hard it is to tell what someone means by the gun emoji. So with all the potential to read the gun emoji wrong, should teens stop using it altogether?
DONTA JACKSON: I don't buy that at all.
HARDAMON: That's Donta Jackson. He's 20.
All right, Donta, do you use the gun emoji yourself?
JACKSON: A lot - almost every day.
HARDAMON: Almost every day?
JACKSON: Almost every day.
HARDAMON: Like, in what context?
JACKSON: I pretty much use this for somebody getting on my nerves or I'm late for work, oh. You know, stuff like that because it's like the (making shooting sound) - the sound like you brushing it off.
HARDAMON: He says that whatever other people think, it's clear to him and his friends that it's not violent.
GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I think everybody knows it's a gun, right? The question is, what do you mean by it being a gun?
HARDAMON: That's Gretchen McCulloch. She's a linguist and writer who specializes in language and pop culture. She says that in general emojis can be really useful for adding context to messages and tweets - a winky face to show you're kidding, for example. But when you use the gun...
MCCULLOCH: ...It's - maybe it's not quite as clear what that conveys if someone isn't as fluent in emojis.
HARDAMON: The problem with the gun emoji, she explains, isn't necessarily that it's used too much. It may be that it isn't used enough for people to agree on its meeting.
MCCULLOCH: In general, it's good to exercise caution about what you're saying on the Internet before you say it.
HARDAMON: Talking to my peers about the gun emoji, it seems like most young people use it as a joke. But all it takes is one person to misinterpret it, and you're in big trouble. So the way I see it, the next time you're texting and your fingers hover over the gun emoji, if you're not sure how someone will react to it, go with the frowny face. For NPR News, I'm Tylyn Hardamon.
BLOCK: That story - produced by Youth Radio.
Well, how far can emoji go? Pretty darn far, as NPR's Elise Hu has found out. She recently moved to Seoul, South Korea, where she's seen that communication by emoji has overtaken the use of regular text. Hey, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there, Melissa.
BLOCK: And I'm looking at some screenshots of a conversation you've been having with your family that you've posted on your Tumblr. There are no words here. These are all super-stylized mega-emoji I think.
HU: That's right. My family communicates on a mobile messaging app called Line. It's very hot in Japan and Taiwan and Thailand. What's unique about Line is its super emoji called stickers. And so what I showed on the Tumblr was my husband sending an image, my father responding with thumbs up, my mother responding with star confetti, which is kind of how our conversations go.
BLOCK: So do you type in a word and it translates into a sticker or...
HU: You're exactly right. It basically defaults you into stickers because when you type something like happy birthday, it gives you options for cake or candles.
BLOCK: Is this the kind of thing, Elise, that's bigger in Asia in every way?
HU: Well, mobile messengers certainly are huge in Asia. Line, for example, adds 1.7 million new users a day...
HU: ...To give you an idea of its scale.
BLOCK: Are there some expressions that there really just aren't emojis for, where you have to go back to plain old words?
HU: I think that's true. I mean, I don't think we're ever going to get completely away from words. But I like this notion that certain stickers or images can evoke a shared pop culture understanding.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Elise Hu. She reports and blogs and emojis from Seoul, South Korea. Elise, thanks so much.
HU: You bet.
BLOCK: What is the verb form of emoji? I don't know.
HU: (Laughter) I don't either, but I kind of like it.
BLOCK: OK, so why not take all of this to its most extreme conclusion - emojis as a real language. Serious linguists might scoff, but Fred Benenson is working on it. He edited the book "Emoji Dick" back in 2009. It's a translation of "Moby Dick" entirely into emojis. Now he's working on something called The Emoji Translation Project.
FRED BENENSON: The hope is that at the end of the day, we'll have something like Google Translate for emoji.
BLOCK: Don't we all sort of interpret emojis in slightly different ways? I mean, my version of smiley face with a tongue sticking out might not be exactly your interpretation of that same symbol?
BENENSON: Yeah, and I think that's kind of OK. I mean, I've found myself in this position where everyone is saying that I'm trying to establish emoji as a language, and we could get there. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we are certainly capable of establishing more formal grammars around it.
BLOCK: You know, I'm looking at one of the blurbs on "Emoji Dick" from some years back. Somebody writes, that's astoundingly useless. Do you get that a lot?
BENENSON: Yeah. I mean, what happened was is that I'd presented this project as like, oh, here's a useful translation of "Moby Dick" into something that everyone can interpret. As soon as I started digging into it, it just felt more and more like an art project that had this absurd and provocative premise that I just had to continue and push to its limit. So the astoundingly useless quote was kind of exactly the point.
BLOCK: Well, Fred, thanks for talking to us about it.
BENENSON: No problem.
BLOCK: And you can't see me right now, but I'm giving you an emoji thumbs up and an emoji...
BENENSON: I'm giving you the...
BENENSON: ...Emoji wave (laughter).
BLOCK: Fred Benenson is head of data at Kickstarter and a software engineer. We were talking about The Emoji Translation Project for this week's All Tech Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.