Emojis: Silly teenage fad or frontier of modern communication?

November 12, 2013

Don’t laugh, but emojis are taking center stage. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

What is an emoji?

Emojis are small images that are generally used in text messages to better communicate. These cartoon-like icons range from smiley faces to animals, buildings, hearts and more. Emoji is a Japanese word meaning picture (e) + letter (moji).


Why should I care?

Emojis have grabbed a strong foothold in American culture, especially among the young, who are obsessed with messaging on smartphones. Katy Perry has a music video that represents the lyrics of Roar as emojis. The Oxford Dictionaries added emoji as a word this summer.  Timeless pieces of art have been revisited with emojis. Herman Melville’s classic Moby Dick was translated into emojis. Sample review: “That’s astoundingly useless.”

Is it possible to communicate entirely in emojis?

Where did this all start?

Emojis began in Japan in 1995 when NTT Docomo added 12×12 pixels icons to its pagers. Young people quickly adopted them.

What emojis are used the most?

Smiley faces and hearts are dominant on Twitter, according to emojitracker.com. Emojis for less exciting things such as baggage claim, left luggage and aerial trams are rarely used.


It’s been 20,000 years and we’re still communicating with pictures of animals. (Cave painting photo, Jean Clottes/AP)

There are already a million words in the English language to express myself. Why do I need emojis?

The constraints of a small smartphone keyboard make typing difficult, so people are inclined to be brief. One emoji can convey what would take plenty of taps from clumsy thumbs. Emojis can also be used as punctuation, to add inflection and energy! Tone is often lost in text messages and e-mails. Adding a happy smile at the end of a message can help make sure a message isn’t taken the wrong way.

Isn’t this a fad that will die soon?

(Screenshot of Emoji Free Emoticon Keyboard for Facebook, WhatsApp & Kik Messenger)
(Screenshot of Emoji Free Emoticon Keyboard for Facebook, WhatsApp & Kik Messenger)

The trends indicate otherwise. More and more platforms such as Facebook are building emojis into their service. Mobile messaging apps (Line, Lango and MessageMe) use what are essentially emojis, but call them stickers or icons. Line made $17 million in the third quarter of this year from selling stickers. Two of the top 54 free apps in the Apple iTunes store are emoji apps. Three of the top 72 paid apps in the iTunes store are emoji apps.

Emojis have been the next step in visual digital communication within text that started with emoticons such as :-). The rise of photo and video sharing apps has shown that Web users prefer visual content over text. With the tremendous popularity of smartphones, there’s a market for communication solutions on those small screens. Like it or not, the sun doesn’t appear to be setting on emojis anytime soon.


A sampling of emojis available on iPhones.
Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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Matt McFarland · November 12, 2013