An emoji’s worth a thousand words

Pictures add nuance to short-form text communication

Illustration by Justin Ladia

Emojis are used every day by millions of people as a simplified way to communicate. They allow for deeper emotional resonance within short-form digital communication like texting or social media posts, and they are often used as a stand-in for certain non-verbal cues you observe in face-to-face communication.

A quick Google search of the word “emoji” will turn up dozens of articles about how the pictographs themselves have evolved into a sort-of global language. However, poet and linguist Chimwemwe Undi feels that gaps in communication from culture to culture aren’t so easily bridged.

“Just as the way that certain gestures and facial expressions across cultures mean different things, emojis have probably taken on different meanings based on language and culture,” Undi says.

“There’s some very obvious ways that emojis can be helpful, in that you can probably use the banana emoji in place of trying to explain what a banana is, but I don’t necessarily know that there’s any evidence to say that emojis are a global language.”

Matthew Flisfeder, an assistant professor in the Department of Rhetoric, Writing and Communications, agrees. According to him, the ability to convey tone is often lost due to the brevity of most digital communication. Long-form communications, such as literature, allow room to apply the kind of expression and nuance that short-form communication doesn’t.

Flisfeder feels that the very nature of emojis and their use has certain political implications.

“I think there’s something specific about the way that we use emojis, and specific to the technologies that we’re using for communicating within the culture and context for neoliberal capitalism,” he says.

“Within the context and culture of neoliberalism, a lot of communication has to do with speed and efficiency, and the way in which we’re engaged in multiple conversations simultaneously through the practice of online and digital communication,” Flisfeder says.

“Emojis … (have) become an efficient way of getting affect and emotion across to the receiver of the message,” Flisfeder says.

Emojis have, of course, evolved alongside technology. However, the translation between human to computer is not flawless.

“What I can say from both personal use and the study is that emojis are a great supplement to text-only, computer-mediated communication,” Undi says. “There’s a lot of things that people do with their bodies, their faces, tone and hands that emojis can’t replicate, but at the same time, there are some emojis that go beyond what people can do with their bodies.

“Humans have been evolving for a very long time, all the while figuring out how to communicate with one another. Computers haven’t been around for nearly as long as humans have, so technology just hasn’t caught up to the very complex and sophisticated ways that we convey tone and nuance in face-to-face communication.”

Published in Volume 72, Number 23 of The Uniter (March 29, 2018)

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