The Importance of Understanding Emoji

August 11, 2017

Executive Summary

Given the rise of digital communication via text, emoji have become key to communicate emotions. The word emoji comes from the Japanese language: 絵 (e ≅ picture) 文 (mo ≅ writing) 字 (ji ≅ character); emoji represent actual icons that appear on the keyboard or that are converted from emoticons such as ;-). Although emoji are quite recent, emoticons have been used since 1982 when a Carnegie Mellon professor used a smiley face on the computer science general board. Compared to Emoji, which are actual icons, emoticons refer to a series of text characters that are used to textually form a gesture or facial expression, the most famous example being the shrug ¯_(ツ)_/¯ expression (thanks Slack!, also make sure to check out Donger List (つ▀¯▀)つ).

Emoji are linked to the Unicode standard, which is the foundation for text in all modern writing systems. Emoji are first represented by various code points and numbers, then encoded in Unicode Transformation Format (UTF), making emoji machine understandable, and finally rendered by platform vendors into their graphical appearance. Although emoji have different appearances on different platforms, the Unicode Consortium is making sure that emoji names and meanings are standard across platforms.

The Impact of Emoji

Emoji have a widespread impact on multiple human science areas such as psychology, sociology, linguistics and business. However, emoji might be translated into different meanings based on the context and on the respective platforms they appear on. Thus, it is important that emoji have text attached to the context in which they appear to make sure there is no misunderstandings.

Psychological Impact

In face-to-face communications, people share empathy and create relationships through a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion, in which similar emotions and their corresponding behaviours are directly triggered from one person to the other. In digital communication, emoji serve the purpose of translating emotions to express facial expressions. Indeed, researchers found that the same sections of the brain are activated when an individual sees an emoji as when seeing real human facial expressions. As such, emoji solve the inability to express gestures and emotions by allowing users to communicate through a variety of picture characters to express opinions, feelings and personality.

Sociological Impact

In 2015, the Unicode Consortium introduced a range of emoji skin tone modifiers, giving users the ability to express diversity in many forms such as race, gender and ethnicity. The ability to express diversity through emoji is key in digital communication if people want to create confidential uniqueness and a sense of identity within a personal or business related relationship.

Linguistics Impact

In digital communication, emoji help represent the human gestures, voice tones and physical expressions people do when communicating vocally. As such, people read emoji as emotional information, which help articulate the meaning of digital messages that can sometimes differ depending on the individual personality and on the individual social context. Furthermore, some researchers argued that emoji have three linguistic functions: emotional indicators directly correlated to facial expressions (e.g. sad), non-emotional indicators directly correlated to facial expressions (e.g. joking) and as indicators not correlated to facial expressions but to deep intention.

Final Words

As we saw in this article, emoji are important in business as they enable emotional expression, reduce digital communication complexity and allow a greater sense of identity. However, since there is significant diversity among emoji users, the meaning and usage will vary. Some emoji may mislead the receiver and cause the message to misunderstood. This can be limited through a diverse workforce and people spending time understanding the meaning of messages compared to automated replies on digital communication channels. In conclusion, make sure to check out Emojipedia, a search engine categorising the official meaning of every emoji standardised by the Unicode Consortium.