The world of emoji: the language of the web between the human and the digital
Emoji, emoticons, “smilies” or whatever are now part of our everyday life and we use them very easily, without even paying too much attention to them. Employed as a communication vector, they allow us to relate to people of any nationality and understand them, beyond language barriers.
Initially made up of lines and dots, emoji have since progressed to the classic round yellow face, expressing a wide range of emotions, such as anger or sadness, to the most recent ones, which include categories of all kinds, with a focus on avoiding racial discrimination or related to physical disabilities. The word “emoji” comes from Japanese and literally translates as “picture” (e) and “character” (moji), meaning the image that speaks, that communicates something. In effect, these smilies act precisely as a substitute for body language, restoring an emotional dimension that text messages alone would not communicate.
Introduced in the West by Apple, emoji are becoming so popular that they even deserve an international holiday exclusively dedicated to them: World Emoji Day. Establishing this day was Australian Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia, the site that catalogs emoji and is always creating new ones.
The variety of emoticons is truly endless, and everyone can choose to send the ones they prefer. In this regard, it is very interesting to note that each nation uses emoji differently: for example, Italians use emoticons from the “food and drink” category a lot, while Americans are more used to using those related to sports, such as cricket and basketball.
Just as each country presents its own range of favorite smilies, there also seems to be a clear gap in usage between generations. In particular, at the moment there seems to be a real challenge, in terms of smilies, between what we call Generation Z (young people born between 1995 and 2010) and Millennials (those born between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s). According to surveys conducted in Britain by the research and education agency Perspectus Global, the emoticon we use reveals a great deal about our personality, but before that, our age. The thumbs up, the red heart, the kiss emoticon are all expressions that under-20s say “only an old man would use.” Today’s young people are more used to using, for example, the heart-eyed emoticon and the flame emoticon.
But have you ever wondered how it is possible for these smilies to be visible on every type of platform and from every device? This can occur thanks to the “Unicode encoding system,” which allows each letter, number or symbol to be traced back to a unique code recognized by all devices. In charge of coordinating the work to create common coding rules is the Unicode Consortium, which not only develops new emoji and introduces them to the Web, but also works to modernize existing ones.
Emoji have made their way so far into our lives that now every sentence we write is modified by them. A concrete example of this is the addition of hearts in messages that on the surface may seem rude. But a smiley face can also markedly change the meaning of a sentence, even to the point of relevance in the judicial arena. Indeed, there are multiple examples of cases in which emoticons have been instrumental in determining the final judgments of trials. One curious example involves a young couple visiting Israel who wished to rent an apartment. After visiting, they allegedly sent happy emoticons to the landlord, who interpreted the satisfied faces as confirmation of the reservation, although the two had stopped responding to his messages. As a result of this affair, the two young men were charged by the Israeli court and ordered to pay compensation for conduct contrary to good faith!
Ultimately, then, as much as they may seem merely a silly symbol to add to text messages to give color to one’s sentences, emoticons are a real vehicle of communication, sometimes merely a side dish, but other times dangerous enough to become a real “communication weapon.”
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