Emojis and me

In the age of email and text messages, some of the nuances that used to be conveyed by the spoken word and visible cues in face-to-face interactions can be lost, and thus there is greater chance of being misunderstood, especially with humor or sarcasm. Emojis seem to promise to fill that niche and have become increasingly popular.

I don’t use emojis, trusting in my ability to use just words to convey my meaning clearly. I also do not use texting abbreviations (‘LOL’ ‘Thx’, ‘TTYL”, and the like), preferring to spell it out. This tends to make my emails and text messages longer than those of others.

But sometimes people use emojis (and texting abbreviations) when writing to me. I can recognize a very few standard ones (smiley face, sad face, winky face, angry face) but that is about it. I ignore all the others because I have no idea what they are supposed to represent and am too lazy to find out.

Recently I got a text with an emoji that again I did not recognize. But this came at the end of a straightforward brief message thanking me for sending some information. Curious as to what the emoji might add to the message, I went looking for it and discovered that there are now hundreds of emojis! I took me a long time scrolling through the tiny images to find the one I had been sent and it turns out to be ‘confetti ball’, which was likely used because it accompanied new year greetings.

Are people really that familiar with the meanings of all these emojis that they can easily append them and know what they mean when they get one, and that it is just old fogeys like me who have to resort to emoji dictionaries to figure out their meaning? The person who sent it to me was younger than me but I would guess about fifty years old. In fact, do young people even use emojis at all these days or is it one of those things that they stopped using when their parents started using them, like with many social media applications?


  1. says

    Emojis are just a graphical icon atop the prehistoric “smileys” of the USENET days. I believe that the original driver for their use (other than that they are cute and indicate membership in an in-group) was to reduce conflict due to lack of emotional content in people’s postings.

    On iPhones and Android, smileys -- i.e.: “:)” started getting mapped to icons, which evolved into emojis.

    Personally, I happy to see heiroglyphics coming back into fashion.

  2. komarov says

    I think the emoji-thing has gotten a bit out of hand, to say the least, and guess it’s due to smartphones where -- in theory -- it is very useful being able to abbreviate messages using icons. Many emojis are rather open in their interpretation. It doesn’t help that different or older phones seem to use slightly different “fonts” or sets for emojis. So whatever someone sends might look different for the recipient and make the message unclear. For example, my phone shows a black star where the rest of the world presumably sees a regular sun. Rather confusing before I realised this (also by trawling emoji dictionaries). “I’m headed to the beach” becomes “I’ve been banished to the void”. My phone being older, a lot of icons aren’t displayed at all, which isn’t very informative either. Admittedely that’s not neccessarily worse than an exotic emoji salad, though.

    Old-fashioned as I am, I’d say the “classic” typed emoticons were more than enough.

  3. invivoMark says

    I for one think it is phenomenal how creative use of emojis can convey an impressive array of thoughts and feelings in so short a space.

    I am also wary of any system of communication or behavior that is entirely controlled by large corporations.

  4. A. Noyd says

    I think that with emoji the vagueness is sometimes the point. We don’t always think in complete, precise thoughts, so the imprecise nature of emoji can actually seem a more accurate form of self-expression.

    And yes, there are lots of times when this doesn’t work because different people interpret emoji different ways. But that’s true of the face-to-face nuances they’re supposedly replacing, too. Furthermore, the emoji used by one tech company might not look like the emoji from another company, which can also cause interpretation issues for people using devices from different makers or using different tech platforms.

    Overall, the degree to which emoji have taken hold in modern culture actually has a lot to do with the nature of the Japanese language. (I mean, it’s not a coincidence that “emoji” is a Japanese word.) There are two main ways in which Japanese has enabled the rise of emoji.

    First, Japanese orthography is partially logographic. The Chinese characters borrowed by the Japanese derive from pictures. Emoji are simply a more concrete and literal extension of the same orthographic phenomenon.

    Second (and more importantly), because Japanese writing has so many non-phonetic elements, the input method on a computer requires multiple stages. One must first type out a word phonetically, then choose from a list of potential non-phonetic ways to write the same thing. And since one is already interacting with a list, it’s very easy to add an emoji as one of the choices.

    This method of input has two effects. One is that entering emoji in Japanese is no more difficult than entering standard forms of writing. The word for musical note (音符), a symbol of a musical note (♪) and the emoji for it (🎵) are all entered the exact same way. This is true for more abstract uses, too. Japanese people sometimes add the character for “smile/laugh” (笑) to the end of a statement in the same way that an English speaker might use “LOL.”However, it’s just as easy these days to select an emoji like 😀 instead.

    The other effect of this list-based selection style is that every Japanese person who uses a computer (including older cell phones) is constantly shown which emoji correspond with which words. Even if you never use emoji yourself, they are there in the list of potential things to input, so you get passive training in emoji recognition. Accordingly, emoji literacy is far, far less of an issue in Japan.

    Emoji were bound to become a major part of modern Japanese communication. And from there, they spread to other languages. Unfortunately for anyone who doesn’t know a language that has multi-stage input, using emoji takes more of an effort and can leave those who aren’t keen on using them out of the loop where meaning is concerned.

    My native language is English, but since I learned to write Japanese on a computer long before emoji became a thing in English, I never actually had to use the English input style. In fact, I have no idea how to do it without Japanese because I just switch to Japanese input if I want to use an emoji in English.

  5. lochaber says

    I once got sent one that was a yellow face, with a straight mouth (I mean straight as in not curved up smile-like, or curved down frown-like, not straight as in sexual orientation…) with bared teeth. I didn’t know what it was, but it looked like anxiety-face, so I asked the person (who frequently tries to communicate with me through solely emojis(“tries” is the key word there…)), and they claimed it was a smiley face. I don’t know them well enough to know if they were fucking with me or not, but I don’t really believe them…

    I’ll just stick to the ones we used in the usenet days, they seemed to be plentiful and variable enough to suit my needs…

  6. says


    Sure, inefficiency is inefficient, but from the perspective of a human using a tool, we care about what’s efficient for the human, not the tool. Maybe a tool can more easily display this or remember that, but if the human accesses the full range of communicative intent less efficiently when a message is filtered through a tool in a manner efficient for the tool, then the tool is badly adapted to its purpose.

    With an eggplant, I can communicate a number of things simultaneously, even adding humor to an otherwise non-humorous communication, without extending the amount of time required to read/take in the message.

    Should the tool be judged “inefficient” or “efficient” based on how much RAM is used at any given moment -- especially if the difference in RAM used never results in errors or lag -- or by how quickly and effectively it communicates a complicated and multilayered message to the brain of the recipient?

    I think that here you’re in Hermione’s position vis-a-vis being killed or expelled: you need to get your priorities straight.

  7. John Morales says




    Should the tool be judged “inefficient” or “efficient” based on how much RAM is used at any given moment

    No; bandwidth, not storage.

    A typical smiley emoji is around 8 kilobytes; a smiley emoticon is at most 3 bytes.

    I think that here you’re in Hermione’s position vis-a-vis being killed or expelled: you need to get your priorities straight.

    I professed no priorities. 😉

  8. says

    Are people really that familiar with the meanings of all these emojis that they can easily append them and know what they mean when they get one, and that it is just old fogeys like me who have to resort to emoji dictionaries to figure out their meaning?

    I am 27. I don’t use emojis in my own texts. I recognize only a few most popular ones, and usually I just ignore all the emojis I don’t know. I am too lazy to use an emoji dictionary.

  9. lanir says

    I’m old enough my communication patters were pretty established long before emojis came about. I grew up with computers but the internet began to really spread around when I was in highschool.

    I tend to view emojis as a simplified version of an accent picture such as you might see in creative works. For example if you see a picture of a bald person holding their head opposite a poem about perseverance, you’ll understand what you’re supposed to get out of it. Emojis seem to mostly be the same although because they’re simpler they tend to be less nuanced and specific.

    Outside of various icons to portray a mood directly via a facial expression, I really only know of one that has a specific meaning that isn’t obvious from looking at it and that’s the eggplant emoji. The association for that one is pretty silly and feels like an in-joke that just spread a lot. Any others you run across with specific meanings are probably going to be similar, but I never seem to run into them. My guess is they’re about as rare as having different meanings to words or made up words specific to a particular group.

  10. says

    @11 John Morales

    A typical smiley emoji is around 8 kilobytes; a smiley emoticon is at most 3 bytes.

    This is incorrect. Modern emojis are transmitted as 3-4 bytes.

    You’re conflating an image with a glyph. For bandwidth purposes, modern emoticons are transmitted as Unicode code points, generally encoded as either UTF-8 or UTC-16, depending on the application. These are found in the Unicode blocks “Emoticons”, “Supplemental Symbols and Pictographs”, “Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs”, “Transport and Map Symbols”, “Dingbats”, and “Miscellaneous Symbols” – the images we consider ’emoji’ as a group are rather scattered in the standard. Those are the smileyface ones; there are even more for various other symbols and images.

    The way an emoji is DISPLAYED depends not on the bandwidth used for it but by the fonts and rendering methods used by the displaying application. This is why you have, for example, whole projects comparing the different ways the same emoji appears on Apple vs. Google vs. Microsoft vs. Samsung products. The rendering is handled a little differently than traditional glyphs, but they are still considered Unicode characters.

  11. Pierce R. Butler says

    A. Noyd @ # 4: … 🎵) … 😀 …

    I copied ‘n’ pasted yr comment into an email, and each of those glyphs displayed at the full width of the message window (even when widened to >2 pages across if printed).

    That may contradict abbeycadabra @ # 14’s point about Unicode, at least by indicating further complications in how different software handles the same input. Thank you, FtB protocols, for not using the same output parameters as Thunderbird!

  12. says

    Emojis are part of and symptomatic of two problems in written and online communication over the last 20-25 years:

    1) Literalism: Anything that does not contain explanations or explicit indications will always be taken literally. And if possible, the worst possible intent is assumed. (As I was reminded recently with my “modest proposal” for the homes of boomers….)

    2) Impatience: If the point isn’t immediately clear, it will be ignored. Clarity is good, but we’re losing perspective and consideration. Too many think a nuance is a nuisance, to use an anagram.

    I don’t use emojis, trusting in my ability to use just words to convey my meaning clearly.

    As it happens, Tom Scott recently did a video on gestures, calling them “emojis for the real world”.

  13. says

    If I see an unusual emoji I right click, highlight, get search engine result, read, make appropriate grunt, move on. Not an involved process.

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