In the world of texting, tweeting and status updating, few things get your point across like a well-chosen emoji.
I’m talking about the smiley faces and quirky hand gestures, the cute little cartoons that so perfectly illustrate our emotions. And this month, we get 250 new characters in our emoji libraries.
The Unicode Consortium, the regulators of these animated emoters, announced that the new icons will include everything from a chipmunk to a rolled-up newspaper to — wait for it — a middle finger. And to think I once thought the smiling poop was scandalous.
Call it silly. Go ahead. I know it reeks of middle-school notes with hand-drawn hearts and overzealous smiles.
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But as we move further and further into shorter conversations, an expanded emoji library helps us say more in the 140-character world of Twitter or fast-paced text messages. Having a good day? Just send a smiley face. Want to flirt? That’s what those heart-shaped eyes are for. They are so much more nuanced than the old punctuation mark emoticons. :(
GIFs, the animated graphics often borrowed from favorite TV shows, movies and music videos, are even more expressive. Just last month, Twitter finally made it possible to tweet GIFs, so when 140 characters aren’t enough, a GIF, like a scene of Harry Potter casting off the Dementors, can say it all for you. Sometimes, I text exclusively in GIF images for laughs.
There’s no denying it. Emojis and GIFs have earned their keep as integral parts of everyday communication. According to the research organization YouGov, half of people ages 18-29 use emojis, and more than a quarter of all Americans do.
The game “Guess the Emoji: Emoji Pops” is the top-selling free app on iTunes. Throwboy.com carries a line of emoji pillows, and Beyoncé’s latest tour merchandise includes the surfer emoji on the sleeves of the “Drunk in Love” surfboard shirt. Speaking of Queen Bey, MTV recently summed up her “On the Run Tour” with Jay Z in a series of emojis.
And remember that episode of HBO’s “Girls,” when Ray chastises Shoshana over her abuse of emojis? “A panda next to a gun next to a wrapped gift,” he says. “It makes no sense.”
To which she responds, “You make no sense.”
Like Ray, not everyone loves the rise of emoticons and GIFs. People worry that emotional connections are lost in the keyboards.
“Both emoticons and GIFs are imperfect substitutes for the sorts of emotional expressions that occur in face-to-face communication,” says Steven Melling, a lecturer in communication studies at UMKC.
He says people can use smiley faces to blanket how they really feel. Another problem? Not everyone perceives images the same way. GIFs often use movie scenes and celebrity images. One person’s Kardashian is another person’s Krueger.
“This is what scholars call polysemy,” says Melling. “Or the tendency for audience members to assign different meanings to the same message.”
He’s right, that definitely happens. But the more common miscommunication might come from the emoji gap: Not all smartphone brands speak the same emotive language. A smiley face with heart-shaped eyes sent from an iPhone might show up as a green Android logo on another phone. One phone’s dancing lady in a red dress is another phone’s dancing boy in a T-shirt.
Claire Iwai Reagan, an Overland Park AP English teacher, says that because emojis are typically used among loved ones and close friends, people are speaking the same language. She’s looking forward to the emoji expansion.
“Overall, I don’t think communication is suffering in any way that is worrisome,” says Reagan, 30. “It is just changing and evolving the way it always has. I like using the pictures to enhance what I am trying to say. Emoji can actually be used really cleverly. My husband and I send funny, witty messages to each other that only we would understand. It’s fun to figure it out, kind of like vanity license plates.
“Emoji are like a puzzle. I’m glad they are adding more. I am not so sure I will ever use the middle finger one, though.”
That’s all right, Claire. There’s always the old smiling poop. Call it a happy soft-serve. That always makes me feel better.