Communication beyond emoticons: the power of Emojis

In a previous post we have shown that written communication has changed a lot over the last years thanks to the new technologies: when we write emails and chat we tend now to use a lot of punctuation to clarify the tone of the text and avoid misunderstandings. We also resort to emoticons and, for some time, also to emojis: the latter are ideograms and smileys used in Japanese electronic mobile messages since the late 1990s and recently adopted by Apple, Android and various social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. The word Emoji (絵文字) in japanese means “picture character”.

The great success of emojis is mainly due to three factors: they are more visually appealing than emoticons (which are composed of punctuation marks, numbers and letters), they are easier to insert into the text (they consist of a single character) and furthermore for some years they have been incorporated into Unicode, the international standard system for indexing characters and standardizing them across different electronic platforms. This means that the emojis that join Unicode standard can be used and displayed without problems on the major operating systems and instant messaging softwares that adhere to Unicode consortium.

emojis different platforms

Those who want to propose the adoption of a new emoji must submit its proposal to Unicode Consortium, which may take many months to approve or reject a request. On average, the Consortium approves no more than 60/70 new emojis every year: the last “release” took place June 6 2016, and involved 72 new emojis. The reason for such caution is both technical and cultural: since the consortium does not draw directly emoji (it provides only a draft and a description) it is important that the proposed symbols are simple enough to be drawn with no big differences – an example is offered by the “gun” emoji, almost the same in all platforms except on Microsoft operating systems, where he instead looks like an unreal space gun.

Moreover, every image is carefully evaluated on the basis of possible meanings that it could take in different cultures: for example a risk that is difficult to eliminate is linked to the “sexual” interpretations of certain images, a feature that varies a lot from culture to culture. Mark Davis, co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, admits there’s no broadly shared way to interpret the emojis, despite their widespread use. “You can express yourself in emojis and you get a series of symbols that people could interpret in a thousand different ways”.

Indeed, in a recent study, researchers at the University of Minnesota found that 25% of people see the exact same emoji faces in very different ways, even on the same device. The confusion increases when versions of the same emojis are rendered by different operating systems. However, the same authors recognize that the fault is not necessarily with the emojis: “People miscommunicate all the time, it’s not about emoji” says one of the study author Jacob Thebault-Spieker. No doubt the various companies could do more to further standardize the graphics of emojis: this would increase the understanding between users of different platforms, although it will never eliminate the risk of misunderstandings, result of individual sensitivity differences and consolidated cultural patterns.