The first modern-day emoticon was used in 1982 by the American computer science student, Scott Fahlman. He used the symbol “:-)” purely for fun to indicate humorous remarks in written conversations. Today, emoticons – the smiley faces with an expression for every occasion – and emoji – similar ideograms – are used everywhere and by everyone. And the latest trend to hit social networks is Emoji Art, namely artwork revisited and represented by smileys.
An example is the angst-ridden face with its pale blue forehead and hands on cheeks, which is none other than Munch’s famous masterpiece, The Scream.
The Brit James Marshall has collected more than two thousand emoticons in his online dictionary. Marshall began in the ‘90s and by 2008 had already compiled a list of 2231 smileys, covering a whole gamut of expressions: from happy to sad faces.
Today smileys are gradually replacing non-verbal language in “digital” conversations, to the point that some exchanges are made up purely of pictograms; it is further proof of the social-oriented world we live in this millennium, where our smartphones talk to each other rather than us!
However, a recent study by the British psychologist Linda Kaye, published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science, explains how these symbols reveal the identity of the user, so can potentially lead to ambiguity and difficulties. In fact, she claims that emoji and emoticons can even change the perception others have of us. The use of emoji is not dependent on our age, or other economic or cultural factors, it is our personality. This personality can be conveyed by smileys and, this is where the risk comes in, be misunderstood depending on the place or the person we are talking to.
The fact of the matter is that if emoji are universal symbols, it does not follow that the “emotional” value we invest in these symbols is just as “universal”. People often do not know or are not as close to each other as they think and the person at the other end of the phone cannot always interpret the true significance of the “picture” they have been sent.
It is interesting to observe how this increasingly prolific exchange of symbols is actually sending us back in history: back to a time before the alphabet had been invented, when images and symbols were the only form of written communication. One of the best examples of this are ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Some scaremonger scholars are claiming that this trend is threatening the written language as we know it, to the extent that we could end up depending on a kind of para-linguistic communication, like our prehistoric ancestors who communicated using drawings, sounds and gestures. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that more than 2000 emoticons or emoji have already replaced our gestures and tone of voice, rendering verbal expressions “possibly” less colourful.