Emojis and changing communication

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It’s #WorldEmojiDay today and which is obviously just an excuse for brands to tweet about their favourite emojis or for people to use those rare and forgotten emojis that only come out when talking about emojis (a bit meta huh?). Aside from the massive tooth emoji, yes it’s real and unnecessarily creepy, and vast selection of clocks that are never used – some emojis are very popular and have infiltrated our daily communications. Love something? Heart eyes emoji 😻 obviously. Think somebody’s Instagram picture is banging? Fire emoji 🔥 is a definite choice. 😍😜🌈🍷☕️🎉

Millennials and Gen Zers (like yours truly) are so comfortable with emojis that many responses and sentences can be created and understood just with emojis of sorts. And even older generations are starting to get to grips with the use of a smiley face or two. Although, we’ve all seen that viral tweet about the guy’s Mum who used the crying with laughter face 😂 when she was expressing sadness in a few awkward encounters on Facebook. Now, too, there’s bitmojis and avatars that make emojis personal to each and every user should they choose to customise them. You can express your hysterical laughter looking like you too (or at least a cartoon version of yourself with limited options). 

And, emojis aren’t just used in Tweets and Whatsapp messages anymore. I am guilty myself of sending smiley faces in work emails – even important ones. This might be frowned upon in some work environments but it’s perfectly normal and acceptable where I work and often it is the best way to soften an annoying request in my opinion (sweet talker me…). 

So, the expansion of emojis is clear – we use them in all our digital comms meaning I always find it a bit strange when I get texts from my Dad without any hearts or smiley faces. Although he insists on having a ski boot next to his name on my phone so I guess he’s expanded my emoji use extensively in some ways… How, then, are they changing the way we communicate?

Well, take my example of softening the blow of an annoying request with a smiley face on a work email – that is literally my default. Instead of using actual words I just add a smiley face and hope for the best. When I don’t know what to reply to an Instagram DM I’ll just send a heart emoji 😻 (or better just like the message which then provides me with an in-built ‘heart’ next to the message). Texts with my best friend nearly always consist of one of us sending a ‘sticker’ in iMessage (aka a personalise emoji). I express my emotions, facial expressions and opinions through the use of a few extra characters.

If you look at the academic research surrounding emojis, they are often described as ‘non-verbal cues’ suggesting that they add to digital communication what facial expressions and body gestures do to real life conversations. This makes sense, right? You are laughing – you send a laughing emoji. But as they become more and more normalise, it feels weird to have digital communication without them and they feel so integral to the way we communicate. Imagine a Twitter completely without emojis… I retweeted something yesterday with a clapping emoji to show my approval, no words needed. This kind of interaction adds such a level of complexity to language on social media and on messaging apps that likens it to the complexity of verbal comms. 

Also, our communication with people outside of our individual households has been solely digital for 3-4 months now. We haven’t socialised in a ‘normal’ way for weeks and weeks on end. Sending our pals hearts to let them know we’re still thinking of them has become more important than ever. The use of social media has sky-rocketed as people pass the time scrolling and scrolling. Sending emojis now can be seen as even more of a virtual hug. Without a doubt, the impact of the pandemic will spread through the whole of society, language included. Will we rely on digital communication for the foreseeable? How can we show we care with a few characters?

A last point to note is how emojis reflect society. True, they have changed the way we show affection and communicate somewhat but analysing the introduction of new emojis can be an insight into changes in society from popular culture to the sharp (and necessary) increase in diversity and inclusion. Disabilities, race and sexuality are all now represented by the vast array of emojis available, giving people real ways to express themselves in their choice of emoji. Whilst these additions may have arrived too little and too late, it does reflect conversations that are being had in society.

If we can express ourselves with a diverse range of emojis and we can even personalise our avatars, does this make our communication through the use of emojis more genuine and personal? Will they ever feel as nice as a IRL smile and a hug? Probably not. But, who knows how emojis will content to impact our daily communications in the years to come. 🤷‍♀️

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