I sent one this morning. My pal texted to say that she was in that most invidious of contemporary social tangles: someone was offering her a Kate Bush spare but she had already committed herself elsewhere. Me, I was busy thinking about emoji. I didn’t have time to deal with someone else’s heartache or their moral scruples vis-a-vis ditching an apparently iron-clad prior engagement. I scanned quickly through the available faces: there was one, all scrunched up in dismay about something or other. I decided it would do to convey a mixture of can-you-believe-it crossness and wrenching disappointment, selected it, added zilch and pressed send.
Obviously, I could have replied simply: “AAAARGH!!!”. That would have been quick and done the job. But being a wordy sort of person and also much given to fruitless rumination, I would have been more likely to spend 20 minutes and several paras (yes: even in a txt msg) trying to convey perfectly my empathetic rage at her thwarted desire and suggest half-a-dozen doomed compromises (“Perhaps if you left after the first course your great aunt wouldn’t be too hurt?”).
But my timid scrunch-face puts me so behind the curve that I might as well start training carrier pigeons. A single emoji just doesn’t cut the mustard any more, no matter how vigorous its expression; not when you can get cats with hearts for eyes, Roswell aliens, flamenco dancers, lavatories and cable cars (my favourite food item is something that looks very much like a deep-fried prawn. Why?). These more highly developed and extensive version of early emoticons – the :-) and :-( built from ASCII characters and used in texts and emails – have opened up serious new possibilities. The savvy and inventive are now sending entire communications, both public and private and on multiple platforms, in emoji, artfully stringing together expressive little yellow heads with pictures of dancing girls, umbrellas, snowmen, saxophones and aubergines (this probably means something like “signal failure at Thornton Heath. Don’t put the moussaka on until after Emmerdale”). And all in 144 pixels per symbol.
Want to make yourself feel slightly nauseous and utterly baffled? Go to emojitracker.com (take note of the warning to epilepsy sufferers) and watch a screenful of pictograms and numbers tell you exactly how many and exactly which emoji are being used on Twitter at this very moment. Quite what you’d do with that information is another matter, but hey, knowledge is power.
All of which brings us a very long way from the end of the last millennium, when Japanese teenagers started using emoji on their pagers (the word itself consists of e-, picture, mo-, writing, ji, character). By 2010, the Unicode Consortium, a software industry body whose 10 full members include Google, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo, had approved a set of internationally standardised emoji; the following year, Apple incorporated them into iOS5. Now there are more than 800, with new characters added at regular intervals (the process to add one of your own devising, Unicode warns, is a long and formal one; essentially, you’d have to demonstrate it fulfilled a genuine communication gap). Their nature has begun to spark intense debate, most recently about the lack of diversity in available human pictograms; why, for example, are there numerous images of a white woman in a pink sweater in a variety of poses, but a single image of a brown-faced man in a turban?
If we are beginning to construct and communicate in a new alphabet, one that transcends existing language even if it is still culturally specific, we surely wouldn’t want it to begin by excluding vast swaths of humanity. We might also ponder what other uses it could be put to, given that a quick glance at Twitter suggests that it is currently deployed largely to compress fleeting social experiences and imbue them with a humorous, semi-ironised edge, or, rather poignantly, to suggest what you might rather be doing (dancing, drinking, getting a manicure) than what you actually are (working, hanging out the washing, clearing crap out of the gutter).
They are, though, already popping up in our shared culture; just think back to March for Jesse Hill’s unofficial video accompaniment to Beyoncé’s Drunk in Love (lots of symbols of Martinis, lips, cigarettes, diamonds and lightning strikes). “It’s funny,” the video producer told Vogue. “I’ve never been asked about how much I’m using emoji, and now all of a sudden people are calling me an emoji artist.” And one even grander project has already taken place: the “translation” of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick – all 10,000 or so sentences of it – into emoji, a feat masterminded by data engineer Fred Benenson, funded by Kickstarter and undertaken by more than 800 Amazon Mechanical Turks (workers who perform laborious “human intelligence tasks” for a fee per task, so called because their labour is organised through an Amazon site).
After they had turned 19th-century American epic prose into little pictures three times over, more workers voted on their favourite versions of each sentence, which is why I don’t understand why the book’s famous opening sentence, “Call me Ishmael”, becomes, to my eyes at least, “telephone/man-with-moustache/yacht/whale/OK-sign”. But I am undoubtedly missing something. Modernity, perhaps.
On the bright side, we might wonder whether emoji represent a chance to be free, however temporarily, of the constraints and treacheries of language. Words give us the opportunity to express doubt, ambiguity, the finer gradations of thought, of course, but they can also act as multipliers of misunderstanding, as blunt weapons for banishing dissent, as vehicles for forked-tongue political rhetoric.
Follow the way of the emoji and you will mourn the moment when you finally open your heart to the person who has meant the most to you. But you will also learn how much easier it is to get out of an unwanted date (flames + person running + heart broken in two), resign from a rubbish job (paper and pencil + briefcase + lit bomb + pink-sweater-girl waving goodbye + wine) or arrange to go out on the town (multiple possibilities, suggesting that this is what it’s all about). Roland Barthes would have had a field day.