Let’s do an experiment. Grab your phone and open up your text messages. Scroll through a text thread until you land on an emoji. Chances are you didn’t have to scroll very far if at all, right?
For the past few years, emoji have been taking up prime space in our digital conversations. But they’ve actually been around since the 1990s, when a man named Shigetaka Kurita invented them while working at Japanese telecom company NTT Docomo. Emoji were a way to appeal to teens who were messaging and to distinguish Docomo from other competitors.
But it wasn’t until Apple introduced an easily accessible emoji keyboard in iOS 5 that an emoji text culture really started to take shape internationally. That was in 2011.
Fast forward to today, 2015. Emoji are everywhere, and have greater meaning than ever. They’ve left their original home wedged in between “LOL” and “omg” or simply floating alone in a text bubble. Sure, they’re still tacked on at the end of tweets or an Instagram captions, but they’ve transcended the original purpose Kurita and Docomo intended for them. While emoji once had a symbiotic relationship with words, the cartoonish icons have begun to stand on their own carrying their own weight, meaning and role.
Emoji goes to the movies
The most extreme example of just how far emoji have come is in the fact that Sony Pictures Animation won a bidding war in July over an emoji movie in a deal valued at up to almost seven figures.
While a deal is far from a theatrical release, that the deal even happened at all speaks to the how far emoji have ascended as a cultural force.
And just who would go see an emoji movie? Probably the same people whom Carly Rae Jepsen is speaking to with her video “Run Away With Me,” a choose your own adventure emoji music video. Or the sizable audience of Taylor Swift, who got her own “Bad Blood” emoji on Twitter because, well, she’s T-Swift.
Fashion companies have designed emoji jewelry, phone accessories come with emoji stickers and right now, there’s a nail art device on Indiegogo that will give you an emoji manicure. If Diplo remixed Wu-Tang Clan’s C.R.E.A.M., it would be E.R.E.A.M. Emoji rule everything around me.
This year saw emoji in all forms and fashion. But many people and companies proved emoji could be pretty useful and convenient beyond a form of entertainment.
Manhattan’s Aloft Hotels launched Text It, Get It in October, which lets guests request things from room service just by texting a string of different emoji. The emoji menu consists of bundles like “The Hangover” and “The Munchies.”
In the same vein, Domino’s lets people order a pizza by tweeting a pizza emoji, and Fooji also lets people in New York, Chicago and San Francisco order food by tweeting an emoji. Just this month, Uber started experimenting with emoji ratings in lieu of the five-star system.
But perhaps the biggest testament to the power of emoji this year was Facebook Reactions. In October, Facebook finally indulged a form of “dislike” button, and for the task of expressing different sentiments to a post, it chose emoji. Similarly, in November, a Twitter user noticed the platform was experimenting with multiple emoji reactions.
In all these instances, emoji have become a new way to communicate not just how we feel but also what we want. Some wonder if emoji are destroying our language; others say it’s a new universal language though the linguist Neil Cohen would say “this is hogwash.”
No matter what you think, what is true is that Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji not the word “emoji” but an actual emoji the word of the year. Specifically, they chose the Face With Tears of Joy. So what exactly does that say about what we consider language or words? Does it count? Should it even count?
Naomi Baron, professor of linguistics at American University and author of Words on Screen: The Fate of Reading on Screen says it does.
“If you were to ask an old-fashioned linguist, ‘What are the components of language?’ they will tell you about sound, they will tell you about these things called morphemes,” Baron told Mashable.
“They will tell you it has grammar in it. But if you shrug or you grimace your face, that contains meaning too … I’d be happy to call [emoji] language for the simple reason it’s a way of conveying meaning.”
And we’ve attached a lot more than meaning to emoji. Emoji have arguably come to represent things that matter and things we care about. That’s probably why 2015 was the year we finally got diversity in our emoji, with a range of skin tones as well as images that represent families with same-sex marriages.
When iOS 9.1 was released, we all rejoiced over the release of the long-awaited taco emoji and the hot dog, burrito, middle finger and plenty of new ways to sext. But almost lost in the 184 new emoji released in iOS 9.1 was the Eye in Speech Bubble, one of the first emoji specifically designed and dedicated to support a cause. The icon represents the Ad Council’s anti-bullying initiative called I Am A Witness.
The release of iOS 9.1 may well be looked back upon as emoji’s point of no return. With its mix of both serious and humorous emoji, it showed people not only use emoji for fun but also use it as a tool to communicate far more than “LOL” and “omg” can.
There’s no telling when or if emoji will ever slow down. My guess is it won’t. Especially when we’re still waiting for those pancakes emoji.