Translating the cultural significance of Emoji

29 November 2016 | By Sign Salad

“a stylized, pictographic script… in which many of the symbols are conventionalized, recognizable pictures of the things represented.”

The above is a dictionary definition of Egyptian hieroglyphs (used c. 3200 BC – 300 AD): but might well read as a description of Emoji, which we tend to celebrate as a thoroughly novel communication system. Emoji icons have technically been a semiotic marvel for over a decade now, gaining their strongest cultural traction when brought to our phone keyboards in 2013, resonating with millennials like 🐤 to water. Whereas Emoji were once primarily designed in order to represent objects, Emoji has now become an object. You can buy Emoji cushions. The Emoji movie hits screens next year. Taken together, the medium says far more about modern culture than each character says alone.

Baby boomers, along with Generation X and millennials, grew up in a world in which English was the dominant global language. From the rapidly growing number of Emoji characters, and their sprawling rate of usage, we might seem to be entering an age in which English sits alongside a ‘universal language’ composed of digital pictograms. Of course, we are not post-literature. This article could not have been written using only ideograms and miniature caricatures. But Emoji icons are not about straightforward signification. From a semiotic perspective, Emoji operate on multiple levels, and their sheer existence on the keyboard says more than each character. This has proven the case for branded Emoji keyboards. Whilst brands from Dove to Mastercard have found their Emoji alphabets and campaigns derided as ‘useless,’ they are far from it, for their creation itself signals the brand as a part of contemporary conversation, expressing that the brand is able to literally ‘speak the language’ of millennials and Generation Z.

Why, then, have branded Emoji so often failed to strike a chord with communicating consumers? A semiotic study of digital culture will quickly establish that Emoji excites, in large part, because of its ability to rearrange conventional signification systems. The most engaging Emoji have been those which offer themselves more incongruously – e.g. the curious fish cake – which delight us because they offer more than one level of meaning. This helps explain the shortcomings of branded emoji, when they fail to offer enigmatic, semiotic playfulness. We don’t find an ideogram of a branded soda bottle that simply says ‘listen up guys, I like this soda brand!’ particularly enthralling. The most memorable, effective brand uses of Emoji are those that do not employ straightforward signification. Take House of Fraser’s much-loved Valentine’s Day quiz, which played on the inscrutability of many Emoji combinations. Or, Durex’s recent campaign, with which the brand uses the aubergine icon – Freudian symbol of 2016- to signal, ultimately, the company’s own playful wit. In the case of Taco Bell, the taco Emoji doesn’t so much refer to tacos, as to the power of a major brand’s online following to sway Apple and Unicode. When devout Taco Bell fans use the [insert taco emoji], they do so as empowered consumers.

Emoji occupies a strange place between democratising and directing communication. On the one hand, it’s a universally accessible language, with a democratic bent (see recent news in crowd-sourced character requests). The medium is inherently populist, in that our lives and values dictate the icons that achieve representation. However, does Emoji not also narrow us? Certain forms of sport, food, and feeling are permitted. Emoji will never be as pliable as the written word.

Time and time again, the pictorial keyboard has proven the fierce cultural battleground that acts as a reflection and barometer of our deepest values and principles. The cessation of the gun symbol, the on-going move to gender parity, the choice of skintones, all signal our era’s prevailing aspiration to be (or, to be reflected as) an inclusive one. At the same time, we typically describe Emoji as a ‘trend.’ If it is a passing craze, there’s no doubt it taps into our most enduring values.

As the name suggests, Emoji are designed to express emotion, and might seem to represent a cultural exasperation with words. However, it would appear we tire of Emoji relatively quickly. Its rapid growth, after all, points to its shortcomings. We constantly need new Emoji characters because each one is inevitably narrowed in its representation, and as such is an affront to our egalitarian age. We are fast realising that Emoji cannot be as inclusive or original as combinations of words. And whilst nostalgic cynics might bemoan the imagined death of the written word, it’s a safe bet that for many of us, the light-hearted ease of those playful icons means any text composed without Emoji instantly reads as more considered, sincere, and personal.

What next? Will we go truly post-gender, by returning to one, androgynous series of smiley icons? The complex significance of Emoji means that while any brand can create their own keyboard, a delicate understanding of both digital semiotics and cultural shifts is vital to ensuring the right message is met with this tricky medium.

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