My mother has stopped speaking to me. We don’t see each other often, as we live across the country; she no longer calls to check in. But we are in touch frequently — by text messages filled with emoji.
About the author: Jessica Bennett, a columnist for Time.com, is a New York-based journalist covering gender issues and culture.
“ !!” she sent me and my brothers when the Seahawks — our hometown team — advanced to the Super Bowl. It was followed, two weeks later, by “.”
“Hi sweetheart ,” she wrote a few weeks ago. “How are you doing? Is your better? Still very busy with ? Do you know what you are coming ? ”
Emoji have been around since the 1990s, but only recently have the little picture icons seem to be everywhere. “Emoji” was added to the Oxford Dictionaries Online in 2013; the Global Language Monitor, which tracks word usage online, anointed the “” as its Top Word of 2014 — the first time a symbol was chosen. According to the Web site Emojitracker, which measures emoji use on Twitter, 250 to 350 emoji are being tweeted per second.
So this next development was inevitable: emomji, the adorable adoption of emoji by mothers (and sometimes dads, too). In much the same way that Facebook has been overtaken by baby boomers — in the past three years, the number of users older than 55 has grown by 80 percent, while the number of 13-to-17-year-olds has shrunk by 25 percent — emoji is the latest technology to be adopted by parents, in part to keep up with their kids. That was made easier in September, when the iPhone’s new operating system made the installation of the emoji keyboard automatic, meaning moms no longer had to beg their children to put those little pictures on their phones.
There’s no scientific method for measuring the rise in emomji, and Apple declined to comment on the trend. But anecdotal evidence is everywhere. On Instagram, children screenshot messages laden with bursts of love. On Facebook, moms post and for birthdays, and to celebrate job promotions. And while moms use a wide range of the symbols, they are most loyal to a specific few: Idibon, a company that studies digital language trends, did a data analysis on Tumblr that revealed that some of the most frequently used emomji are the and . As the weary face shows, it’s not easy being mom.
“Maybe emojis are a generational equalizer,” says Elizabeth Plank, a 27-year-old editor at the millennial news Web site Mic. “It’s not like, ‘Ugh, Mom’s trying to be cool.’ It’s like, ‘Aw, she’s trying to speak my language.’ ”
There’s no better way to strip a tech trend of its cool than for boomers to adopt it. But with emoji, it's almost as if those little icons were created for moms in the first place. Emoji let moms lavish their kids with kisses without the public embarrassment (or slobber). They make cheesy mom-speak — “See you later, !” — cute. They are the perfect digital valentine. And because they are less intrusive than a phone call, emoji texts may be a more effective trick for getting busy children to respond to their mothers, says Matthew Rothenberg, the 35-year-old developer behind Emojitracker. (His father, meanwhile, is the primary emoji user in Rothenberg’s family.)
“When we were kids, my mom would write us notes on the napkins in our lunchboxes and draw hearts and smiley faces,” says Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist and the lead data analyst at Idibon. “Now, instead of being limited to doodles, moms can ornament their notes with symbolic nudges and emblems of affection: phones, foods, umbrellas — and you know, volcanoes.”
Kristin Houser, a 63-year-old lawyer in Seattle, uses in texts to her two grown children because, she says, it shows affection but is lighter than saying, “I love you, I miss you, you’d come home right now if you really loved your mother." When she wants to express encouragement — or “woman power,” she says — she sends . Or she might punctuate a “See you tonight!” text with — to convey that it’s going to be fun, “even if it’s hanging out with your parents.” Her signature emoji: . Though in reality, she looks much younger.
Plank’s mother, 63, likes to add and to text messages of all kinds, Plank says, “because telling me to relax and eat more food are my mom’s two favorite hobbies.”
My own mother, Veronica Mratinich, 70, counts the and among her favorites — to “find out when my children are coming to visit” and as code for “Call your mother!”
There are emomji hiccups, of course. Sometimes moms don’t understand the nuance between, say, a (which means crying) and a (tears of joy). While a young person might receive a “Happy birthday!” text that includes to denote excitement, a mom might see that text and think her child is praying for a poodle.
“With my mom, emoji use is generally restricted to literal meaning,” says Jane Solomon, a lexicographer at Dictionary.com who recently turned 30 — and was not hoping for a dog.
Phyllis Slutsky, a retired nursing educator in Narberth, Pa., faced a particularly steep emoji learning curve after buying an iPad last year. She was finding her way around the device at the same time her children were teaching her how to text and use emoji. The result, says her 34-year-old son, Matthew Slutsky, was a “perfect storm of technological mom-chaos.” After Phyllis listened to the Beyoncé song “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” the tune got stuck in her head, but she couldn’t remember its name.
So she texted her sons: “Do you know the song ‘uh uh oh uh uh oh’?”
“We were like, ‘Are you drunk?’ ” Matthew Slutsky says. When she finally figured it out, she excitedly alerted the family — by emoji, of course.
“!!!!” she wrote.
Slutsky was so confused he had to call her. “If the goal of moms is to get their kids to call them more often, my mom has mastered this with the indecipherable use of emoji,” he says.
As an art form, emomji will continue to evolve. Yet there is one consistent complaint: their size.
“My mom asked me to show her how to put the ‘little pictures’ on her new Samsung Galaxy,” says Tara Giacalone, a 33-year-old school psychologist in New Jersey. “I showed her, and she enlarged the text font and the emoji option was removed from the screen. It was like the phone's way of saying, ‘If you need reading glasses to see your phone, you shouldn't be using emojis.’ ”