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Why People Who Read Should Care About Emojis

My friend Anne sent me a lightning bolt. She also sent me three flexed biceps and a dripping faucet. Also a rainbow, a volcano, and a crying-with-joy face. No smiling pile of poop yet, and no frowning devil or smirking cat. She has nothing against those. The right occasions just haven’t arisen.

Anne loves emojis, the goofy digital pictograms that have become the latest bones of contention in our culture’s never-ending deathmatch of old codger versus eternal youth, and she chides me for my skepticism. The thing is, Anne isn’t a fourteen-year-old girl, a gadget-fetishist, or a trend-hound. She’s a witty, serious, and cultivated writer in her fifties—an award-winning novelist whose elegant and precise prose lingers and haunts, and epitomizes the splendor and necessity of nuanced language.

On emojis, she’s unequivocal. “They’re fun!” she cries. “Silly, sure, but that’s the point. It’s not a reason to reject them.”

She shows me her iPhone. The dripping faucet came from a text exchange with her college-age daughter about a running bathtub: affable shorthand for, “I know, I’m not an idiot.” The string of flexed biceps went to her sick personal trainer, a woman half Anne’s age: a perky “get well” card that strengthened an intergenerational bond. A gift-wrapped candy heart helped patch up an argument with her husband.

“Sometimes language can get in the way,” she explains. “An act is sometimes better than a word. Emojis are like tiny presents. There’s no need to attack them with your intellect.” I’m a theater critic and professor in my fifties who has impugned them as ridiculous and childish. She sends me screenshots so I can mull over her examples, a slow student receiving extra help from Teacher.

Some version of this argument has played out over the past few years between countless literate people. Ever since Apple and Google made emojis standard on iOS and Android smartphone keyboards in 2011 and 2013, they have proliferated not only in texts and emails but also in social media, the art world, literature, politics, advertising, music videos, and fashion.

Most people still use them the same way the Japanese teenagers who first drove their development did—as social lubrication in electronic messages. They’re a cute, shorthand way of clarifying emotional intention and smoothing the rough edges of quickie notes that are easily misunderstood without crucial facial cues. Women use them much more than men, researchers say, and their sincerity has powered a welcome pushback against the bullying brutality on social media.

At the same time, their downside is pretty obvious, at least to educated grownups. Emojis are an infantilization of language in the name of amusement. A New York magazine cover story last year compared them admiringly to ancient hieroglyphs without mentioning that civilization bounded forward after advancing from pictographs to symbolic language. Emojis are also a flagrant and increasingly common means of pandering to the young. What else are the White House’s emoji-peppered online notices to millennials about the Affordable Care Act, or The Guardian’s emoji translation of Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address?

The nadir of emoji pointlessness, in my view, is Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick, a 736-page, crowd-sourced emoji translation of Melville’s Moby-Dick that was accepted into the Library of Congress in 2013. It beggars belief that anyone but Benenson has ever read this book cover to cover.

Small reason was there to doubt, then, that ever since that almost fatal encounter, Ahab had cherished a wild vindictiveness against the whale, all the more fell for that in his frantic morbidness he at last came to identify with him, not only all his bodily woes, but all his intellectual and spiritual exasperations.

The White Whale swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies which some deep men feel eating in them, till they are left living on with half a heart and half a lung.

I am obviously an emoji skeptic, yet I found myself drawn to investigate them for deeply personal reasons. I have lived for more than a decade with facial palsy that distorts my smile and causes a lot of social misunderstanding. I employ a raft of improvised strategies to clarify the emotional intentions behind my quirky facial expressions, and emojis, I realized, were doing something similar for normal people. These tiny cartoonish faces and glyphs were deployed as digital masks. Millions were grasping at them to elucidate their feelings because their addiction to faceless communication modes had put them at a comparable disadvantage to mine.

At first I set out simply to learn whether this apparent similarity was more than superficial. What I discovered was that almost nothing about these silly little glyphs is truly simple or merely childish.

Emoji means “picture character” in Japanese. Americans are quick to compare them to the round yellow smiley-faces that swept American pop culture in the 1960s and ’70s, which some emojis resemble. But the origins of these pictures are deeply and distinctly Japanese, and that cultural coding still matters. In 1999, the Japanese telecom company NTT DoCoMo introduced a set of 176 12-by-12-pixel pictograms as a bonus feature for its mobile phone texting service—not yet the lushly colorful and expressive cartoons we now use but rather very basic and spare drawings (recollecting kanji characters and the simplest manga animation) of popular emoticons, body parts, hand gestures, astrological signs, moon phases, weather indicators, vehicles, arts symbols, sports symbols, international road and travel signs, punctuation marks, and numbers.

The most lucrative mobile market at the time was teenagers, and DoCoMo hoped these fun, sticker-like glyphs would help increase its market share. A major Japanese teen fad of the 1990s was purikura: photo-decoration stickers purchased from booths in arcades and shopping malls that allowed kids to alter their faces, particularly enlarging their eyes to resemble anime and manga characters. Purikura was a quintessential kawaii phenomenon, as are emojis. Kawaii, which means cuteness or lovability, is the defiantly kitschy style of infantile playfulness that has pervaded Japanese culture for decades and tends to baffle outsiders. More on that in a moment.

At first only DoCoMo phones could read emojis, which would appear as garbage characters on other phones, but they proved so popular that competing companies adjusted their systems to accommodate them, and they became more numerous and elaborate. In 2009 the Unicode Consortium (responding to requests from Apple and Google, both eager to compete in Japan) standardized the digital codes for 722 emojis, making them recognizable across international platforms and opening a path to their global use. Not all operating systems display emojis in the same way but the Unicode standard has given every company the chance to offer them.

Emojis are very much a product of Japan’s unique mobile culture. In the splendid book she co-edited on the subject, Personal, Portable, Pedestrian (2005), Mizuko Ito explains that the Japanese mobile industry developed as it did largely due to market pressure from teenage girls and young women, who “hijacked” pager technology in the 1990s, transforming it from a sober business tool into a playful means of affirming their social bonds with private codes, and then did the same with cell phones and texting. The Japanese word for cell phone is keitai, which means “something you carry with you,” and Ito says this became a socially transformative technology because of the ways young people pushed it toward play rather than practicality and adopted it as an indispensable accessory.

Even today, teenagers cosset their keitai like kawaii pets, decorating them with cartoon appliqués, sparkles, beads, and pendants; adults, too, customize them with fashion straps, screen wallpaper, designer cases, and more. These devices have come to represent a form of quiet resistance to Japanese culture’s strong expectation of normative, group-minded behavior. Romance novels called keitai shosetsu are written and read entirely on them, mostly by women and girls. Video games are played on their keyboards with astonishing dexterity. Keitai—which still outsold smartphones in Japan in 2014—are cherished as a means of resisting grinding work routines, relieving loneliness and stress, and expressing individuality. Emojis grew out of the heavy demand for new keitai apps for individual expression.

Foreigners shake their heads at Japan’s unseemly attachment to cute, intimate, personal tech devices, which begins in childhood with toys like the Tamagotchi and Game Boy. But we are obviously no longer strangers to gadget fetishism, if we ever were. The basic Marxist theory of all commodity fetishism is that attributing extraordinary or magical power to a commercial product blinds you to the material economic relations surrounding it. Thus you easily take for granted, for instance, that a phone company deserves a steep monthly fee to facilitate your individual expression.

Or, in the West, you easily overlook that the pleasures of emoji as a marvelous new social lubricant and enchanting picture language may come at the price of forfeiting privacy to Big Data. In a harsh 2014 essay, the media scholars Kate Crawford and Luke Stark say emojis will be a major accessory to mass privacy violations. This is “a restricted, top-down language, controlled by the Unicode Consortium” that companies will inevitably use to profile us and analyze our consumer desires. Whatever benefits emojis might confer as emotional coping mechanisms they will eventually nullify by commercializing our feelings: “the road to the bottom line runs through the instrumentalization and commodification of emotion.” The critique is chilling. When I mentioned it recently to the head of an Australian Big Data company I happened to sit beside at a dinner party, though, he brushed it off. Companies like his would certainly track and analyze emojis if asked, but he doubted the results could ever be very useful because the meanings of emojis were too various and culture-bound. One man’s lucky pile of poop is another man’s disgusting piece of crap.

The consumerist illusion that emojis probably foster most strongly is sham abundance, the perception of limited choice as boundlessly empowering. The media theorist Laura Marks, whom Crawford and Stark quote, calls this phenomenon “lame infinity,” referring to situations where “digital technology seems infinite but is used to produce a dispiriting kind of sameness.” No reasonable person would claim, for instance, that the few dozen face emojis on the standard Apple keyboard fully encompass the vast range and subtlety of human facial expression. Yet millions of Apple users celebrate these glyphs for their remarkable communicative power and versatility, playfully forgetting that they usually fit their feelings to the available icons, not the other way round.

The cartoonist Barry Blitt gave this illusion a pointed political spin in his New Yorker cover for March 30, 2015, which depicted a grid of absurd Hillary Clinton emojis, many corresponding to media clichés about her (angelic, angry, shrill, upbeat, phony, tired, a Bill-shill). The illustration’s sting lay in its implication that Clinton, on the cusp of her second presidential campaign, was already a congealed commodity, her public image circumscribed by a small set of reductive masks defined by those bent on selling or disparaging her.

For all that, emojis do seem innocuous. My sense, though, is that theirs is a sly sort of innocuousness rooted in the oddities of kawaii culture. The German critic Thorsten Botz-Bornstein, who lived in Japan for three years, has written perceptively about this long-lived pop culture movement. “Things kawaii,” he says, “are usually small, round, warm, soft, and fluffy, and radiate something childlike, sweet, innocent, pure, and weak.” Kawaii is a feminine form of “cool” that refuses adult seriousness and, adopting an apathetic-excited, haughty-submissive front, commands a paradoxical soft power. The concept embraces not only emojis, purikura booths, and squealing girls with big eyes and Lolita dresses, but also Nippon Airways 747s painted as Pokemon cartoons, male truck drivers flaunting Pikachu dashboard baubles, and salarymen in suits sporting Hello Kitty backpacks. Kawaii is kitsch writ so unapologetically large that its softness acquires an edge. Its sickly sweet appearance will always be alien to many Westerners, but certain aspects of it turn out to be exportable.

Botz-Bornstein observes that Japan’s attitude toward kitsch is different from the West’s. Kitsch is tricky to define but it usually involves exaggerated sentimentality, banality, triteness, and immersion in a consumerist fantasy. The Western variety is generally understood as a tasteless imitation of an existing style, icon, or high-culture object that mass-culture “bad taste” has misperceived. Thus, Western highbrows deplore Eiffel Tower key chains, Statue of Liberty coffee mugs, and Mona Lisa tea cozies as a coarsening of refined things. Japanese kitsch, however, “does not result from the embarrassing imitation of items of high culture by a misled consciousness but is produced as kitsch, so to speak, from scratch,” says Botz-Bornstein. Bunny-rabbit construction barricades, kitten-shaped sushi: such things are not debasements of any hallowed, refined, or elite objects in traditional culture. They have an “innocent existence” and are accepted without embarrassment as one mode of aesthetic production among many.

This distinction helped me understand the boons and bungles of several kawaii incursions into Western culture, including the absurd case of Emoji Dick. In 2010, a retrospective by the internationally renowned Takashi Murakami at the Palace of Versailles caused a public scandal in France. Murakami, whose loudly colored, toy-like, manga-inspired art is thoroughly kawaii, has been called the Japanese Andy Warhol because he both exhibits work as high art in galleries and museums and sells it as branded merchandise to ordinary consumers. Some felt his Versailles exhibition degraded French culture because it juxtaposed his extravagantly puerile, primary-colored, fiberglass-and-resin sculptures with intricate rococo architecture, Renaissance stone statuary of revered aristocrats, and paintings by the likes of Veronese and Le Moine. A descendant of Louis XIV sought a court order to stop the show.

Yet to me Murakami provided a fascinating foil for the Sun King’s baroque ostentation. His style might have been obnoxiously “tasteless” from a classical viewpoint, but he amplified and aggrandized the tastelessness so innocently and exuberantly that it vibrated with bombastic pride and in that way cast mischievous light on Louis’s flamboyant public profile and excessive approach to political stagecraft.

Viewed beside Murakami, Emoji Dick was a squandered opportunity, as its marriage of kawaii silliness and a Western cultural icon might have been equally exciting and illuminating. The root source of its failing was that Fred Benenson, a data engineer at Kickstarter, had no real interest in Moby-Dick as literature or any developed artistic views about emojis. He was concerned, as he told the New Yorker online, with investigating “our shared anxieties about the future of human expression [. . .] by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter.” He chose Melville’s book more or less at random and hired more than 800 Amazon Mechanical Turks—people who do online piecework for pennies—to do the translating. Small wonder the result had no unifying sensibility. Enlisting the capricious ingenuity of one teenage girl would have been vastly more fruitful.

Since learning that I had leaped down this rabbit hole, my friends have peppered my inbox with newsflashes about exciting emoji developments. A recent item concerned a novelist-artist named Joe Hale who translated all of Alice in Wonderland into emoji and posted it online as a shimmering lattice made of more than 25,000 glyphs. At least he did the work himself. It looks like a meticulous mosaic viewed from a mile away, more design than storytelling achievement. Also, because its emojis are much too small to see without magnification, the lattice deprives them of their value-neutral innocence, rekitschifying them, as it were, by hewing to the old Western model of trivializing reduction.

A designer named Hyo Hong repurposed twenty of Cindy Sherman’s famous “Celebrity” and “Society” photo self-portraits as emojis and posted them for download on Tumblr, claiming they were emotionally “more subtle and nuanced” than standard emojis and hence bound to be more appealing to grownups. To me they’re ghoulish and creepy. I can’t understand why anyone would want to use such disembodied, histrionic heads as alter egos. Their photorealism also misconstrues another basic attraction of emojis: everyone can identify with them precisely because they’re cartoons.

A National Public Radio producer named Alex Goldmark conducted an experiment with his girlfriend Liz in which they texted each other exclusively in emoji for thirty days. The game was amusing for a while but grew frustrating when life served them up serious or complicated events. One day Liz needed to say, “I’m with a friend and she’s had a death in the family, don’t come to drinks with us,” and texted the following to Alex, which left him baffled.

You have to wonder who on Earth might have been surprised by this result. Like the pointlessness of Emoji Dick, Alex and Liz’s frustration was the real goal of their experiment, the expected byproduct of their playful overreach. One strange aspect of digital-age acceleration is that it makes such people feel obligated to subject interesting digital innovations to breakneck appropriation and indiscriminate experimentation. They are helpless before the seductions of “lame infinity.”

Surely we all understand on some level that emoji isn’t (yet) a language and can’t be summarily pressed into service as one. It’s a grid array of symbolic images that has no generative grammar to make causal and contextual relationships between the images clear to people who don’t know one another. Emoji is sometimes used as a pidgin, a pictographic and computer-based pidgin, and that is interesting. Teenagers who employ emojis as private codes, families who assign them special meanings, emoji-only social networks that establish their own conventions to better connect people: they are all cultivating pidgins. They’re doing it under vastly different conditions from, say, slaves and medieval merchants who spoke different languages and had to figure out how to communicate in a hurry, but the underlying principle is the same: creative adaptation to overcome communicative handicaps.

And that brings me back to the question of corrective masks that launched my investigation. It seems to me, looking over all these examples, that the basic nature of emoji is indeed compensatory, though not always in the same way. The richest stories circulating on the Web about stretching the emoji idiom all bear this out. Book from the Ground by the Chinese-born artist Xu Bing, for instance, is a remarkably lucid and complex 112-page rebus-novel about twenty-four hours in the life of a hapless, somewhat adolescent-minded, urban office worker. The book is written without a single word, only pictures, even on its title and copyright pages. Xu says it grew out of his frustration with his flawed English. He developed his own pictorial vocabulary for it, devoting seven years to gathering, revising, and arranging hundreds of emojis, logos, and other glyphs that he felt could be universally understood.

Niki Selken—who heads an organization called The World Translation Foundation dedicated to compiling a crowd-sourced Emoji Dictionary—attributes her love of emoji to her dyslexia, which she says makes her process language on the right (visual) hemisphere of her brain more than on the left. Leonard Shlain, a surgeon turned bestselling author, speculated in the 1990s that the media age might eventually force such a right-brain adjustment on all of us.

The writer Phoebe Connolly reflects in a Womanzine article about why she began using more emojis than usual after she became engaged.

I’m beyond happy about my forthcoming union, and yet a part of me still isn’t sure how to talk about it. I consider happiness of the long-term variety a saccharine, if pleasant, fiction. I want to celebrate my engagement and plan my wedding like a giant party, but sharing the news has at times made me feel like an uncomfortably heteronormative 1950s housewife. And so I use a lot of emoji to talk about it. Emoji allow me an ironic space within the dreaded cheery sincerity of being engaged.

Connolly describes a dilemma curiously akin to my experience of facial deformity, using emojis as masks to resolve feelings of expressive discomfort and inadequacy. Cartoon diamond rings, hearts, and cakes became important emotional inflections and complications for her because she couldn’t find them in language, the usual agent of her social face.

The most provocative emoji post I know of is a Web template inviting users to “write your own gravestone inscription in emojis.” When I saw this, the compensatory irony behind it left me speechless, outflanking even Murakami’s innocent tastelessness. I believe in laughing in graveyards and wondered what enthusiastic Anne would say about this. For my part, I plan to stick with the pithy Latin of the anonymous wise guy who launched a Stoic trend in ancient Rome by carving on his tomb, non fui, fui, non sum, non curo: “I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care.” Lame infinity here we all come.


Jonathan Kalb

Jonathan Kalb teaches theater at Hunter College. His most recent book is Great Lengths: Seven Works of Marathon Theater.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2015

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