World Emoji Day 2019: thoughts from MU Vienna's Dr. Ivo Ponocny

World Emoji Day! Today we celebrate the humble Emoji. Fastest growing language in the UK, box office hit in the USA and literal icons of our digital age. Love them or hate them Emoji have re-shaped everyday communication for better or for worse. A few years ago we would have thought it unthinkable as a culture to translate Moby Dick into Emoji, but here we are! How I use the word ‘unthinkable’ is entirely up to you.

Created in 1999 the emoji has skyrocketed into popular use without being the subject of too many scientific debates. However, sometimes public attention has been attracted particularly when it comes to diversity – remember when they released emoji with different skin tones? More controversial is the question of whether there should be Emoji wearing headscarves or even veils! Spoiler – the answer is yes there should and we should all move on.

Interestingly enough cultural differences have not slowed the global adoption of the emoji even though for any kind of symbol the interpretation is a matter of context. There is some literature describing that the same icon can be differently interpreted in different regions of the world, such as laughing tears vs. sneezing.

A psychological perspective may be able to answer why almost all global regions have adopted the emoji so successfully. Emoji could be understood as the implementation of an old concept about communication, Watzlawick’s fourth axiom that communication has an overt explicit content (the digital one) and an analogic one known as the associative, in particular emotional content which is somehow hidden between the lines. An emoji can boost the analogic element of the content whilst compounding what is dryly and explicitly stated.

As with any language, they enable you to express yourself, and they can restrict you at the same time. It is this restriction which has also made the emoji so widespread. With a relatively limited vocabulary we have to creatively make do with the toolbox available. This means, unlike traditional language, we only have to grasp a few very basic rules, which are largely the same regardless of region. In linguistic terms the Emoji is the success Esperanto wished it was. Are we far away from seeing our first peace treaty entirely in Emoji?

Though people are working hard (on both world peace and the Emoji toolbox), there won’t be an emoji for everything you may want to express. Even if there were we you may be completely unaware of your sender’s intentions. For example, do you still know about the language of stamps? Probably not. So you might receive a letter with the stamp turned around and miss the loving message of your sender.

In ancient times when communication was at horse speed instead of light speed, people did not have Emoji, or even email but still wrote beautifully crafted letters to one another with polished sentences on an incredibly high linguistic level. Often a letter was the only contact you would have with someone for weeks, so it paid off to formulate it carefully.

Maybe the language of Emoji is a tool for bringing back emotional signals to a digital world lacking in open emotional expression. For now the Emoji is here to stay, but please remember it is not forbidden to switch to regular language and spell out your feelings

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Related programs at MU Vienna:

BSc with a specialization in Interactive Marketing

MSc with a specialization in Digital Marketing

MBA with a specialization in Digital Marketing and Social Media