I hate emojis. That’s what the writer’s side of my brain tells me. That these tiny icons are literary assassins, replacing words and dumbing down our communicative dexterity.
Then there’s the UX developer side of my brain. That side loves emojis as they communicate quickly, effortlessly and across language barriers.
The benefits and pitfalls of emojis represents an ongoing debate, and one that splits opinion. It’s also a fascinating topic and, after the Oxford Dictionaries chose an emoji as its word of the year in 2015, I’ve been looking into the benefits of these overused icons.
Emojis have been a staple of teen texting culture for years, but only really exploded into mainstream communications in the last 12 months. Casper Grathwohl, president of dictionaries at Oxford Dictionaries, said: “Whether it’s Hillary Clinton asking for feedback on her campaign in three emojis, to the political debates we’ve had over the skin tones of smiley faces, we are preoccupied with emoji and this form of communication.”
It’s not surprising as users become increasingly dependent on imagery, expressions and push communications. Grathwohl added: “Traditional alphabet language has a hard time keeping up and adapting to our needs here. The idea of a pictogram communication form like emoji, coupled with traditional alphabet languages, allows for a deeper subtlety and richness. We’re only going to be seeing the interplay between traditional language and language like emoji more and more.”
And this is the crux of the argument. Emojis are not a replacement for language, but are a complementary form of communication.
This is not a new phenomenon either, as linguist Dr Neil Cohn, who will soon be joining the faculty at Tilburg University and runs the Visual Language Lab, explained: “Humans are naturally multimodal communicators. When we use written language alone, like text, much of that information is lost. Emoji provide a way for people to further enrich their communication with non-verbal cues.”
In addition, the creation of emoji as a delimited set of options makes it easier for them to be used, compared to having to actively draw images or build them out of emoticons. Cohn added: “So, people are now provided with a ready-made vocabulary of visual elements that can be used to enrich or enhance their communication.”
But this ready-made graphical emoji library brings linguistic limits, as Cohn explained: “They do not allow for complex sequencing, as one would find in linguistic sentences, and the limited vocabulary means that there are many ideas that cannot be expressed easily.”
“So, emoji are very useful, but they are also an extremely limited system that will not develop into more complexity because of several intrinsic constraints,” he added.
The technical benefits
The writer’s side of my brain feels somewhat reassured. No spoken or written language is threatened by the use of emoji. They merely provide a supplement to our written communications.
The UX developer side is still demanding answers though. Apart from the ability to show someone you’re just joking or genuinely angry, are there any tangible benefits to the emoji?
Yes. And there are a heap of scientific studies available to back up these benefits. Recent research found emoji use and social power are intrinsically linked and another study indicated those using emojis are perceived as more competent and friendly. Emoji use also correlates with real-life happiness and our sex lives.
Another study from the University of Missouri-St. Louis used smiley faces in two forms of email – one friendly and one work-related. Those emails featuring a positive emoji gave the recipient a more positive impression of the sender – regardless of whether the email was work-related or flirtatious in nature. And the sender’s credibility wasn’t affected by emoji use in the work-related message.
In the wider online world we’ve seen many examples of businesses adopting emoji into their campaigns. Daniel Braddock, content marketing manager at Oxford Dictionaries, said: “Sometimes this can be received as a desperate attempt to relate to younger demographics, but the results speak for themselves. We’ve seen examples of email open rates increasing when the subject line contains emojis, we’ve seen engagement rates in social media improve when emojis are used.”
The ultimate fate of the emoji is still undecided. Google tested the water by including the emoji in its search results last year, but then removed the functionality. And while many dismiss the potential for emojis to become a fully functional future language, they have become an intrinsic part of our communicative fabric.
It looks like I’ve become an emoji convert.
I <3 emojis.
Gemma Church is “the freelance writer who gets tech”. A journalist, blogger, copywriter and ghost writer for the science and technology sectors.