Emojis: Adding a touch of humanity to remote communications

From messaging to self-representation and social movements. Culture is changing how we use emojis.

In a remote world, intensified by the global pandemic, we are reliant on technology to communicate with one another. People with different national languages, from different cultures are conversing online. Could it be that emojis are an enabler of comprehension and context? A new visual language that we can all understand, irrespective of where we are in the world.

Not only that, but could emojis provide a small touch of humanity in a world where, currently, we are finding ourselves detached from relationships and face-to-face interactions? Allowing us to represent ourselves online and show what we stand for by simply including emojis in our bios.

These are big considerations to put on such small and humble symbols. Agreed. But emoji’s are a powerful communication tool, helping us to fulfil our human desire to be understood. If nothing else, they’re an indication of how far writing and literacy has evolved.

The rise of emojis

Back in 2015 something extraordinary happened. An emoji was selected by the Oxford Dictionary as Word of the Year. Extraordinary, yes, when you consider that an emoji is not technically a word; it is a symbol. The reason the emoji won was because it captured the ethos and mood of the year, and depicted the increase in global popularity of emojis in 2015. Something interesting happened here; changes in human behaviour directly impacted culture. Let’s delve a little deeper.

Semiotics of emojis   

Emojis at their simplest form are signs and symbols. If we look at one of the most recognised and understood symbols, the smiley face, we can all understand it to mean happiness. It’s interesting to see this simple smiley now part of a much wider collection of far more complex human emotions and gestures. For example, a shrug. A physical gesture we use to suggest apathy or an unknowing, depicted beautifully in 16x16px pictogram🤷.Emojis have become an intrinsic part to the culture of sending and receiving. Think how we attach a small icon to soften the blow of passive aggressive message.

Since 2015, as emojis have become embedded in visual communications, we can better understand the culture we are in and how it is changing. The original emoji is rooted in Japanese culture, with the first known use in 1997, by mobile phone operators. The initial intention was to use symbols within text messages, and due to popularity it was soon widely adopted through the use of emoji keyboards in apple iphones by 2011. They have the ability to communicate feelings and expressions that we would naturally give and receive during face-to-face conversations.

What we are seeing now is that they’re no longer limited to text messaging. We see emojis across marketing, websites, advertising and social media. One particular example that stood out was the adoption of emoji in this UK Government advertisement. Rather unexpected for such a serious business and topic.

UK Government Social Media Ad for the NHS

Why are they so important in the world we live in today? 

  • They provide meaning at a glance. If you were to remove the words in the ad above, you would still be able to gather a good understanding of what’s being said. Emojis are great for getting your message across quickly. They can‘t promise to make you be 100% understood. But they can stop you from being glaringly obviously misunderstood.
  • They add a layer of empathy.  Many reviews and reflection tools use emojis as a quick and easy way for people to convey how they’re feeling. Choosing an emoji to summarise emotions is often easier than trying to communicate with words alone. We are familiar with seeing the simple ‘thumbs up/thumbs down’ symbols. As great as they are, they don’t reflect the wider range of emotions we feel. Are we satisfied? Happy? Confused? Anxious? Adding a wider range of human emotions lets people reflect on how they’re really feeling in a slightly more mature way.  Reflectly App is a great example of this.
  • They help to represent us and our beliefs. There are several obvious emojis that help us represent ourselves better, but people are getting more creative with how they use emojis to tell their stories better. A multicultural collection of 6 skin tones are a small step in the right direction for helping us to represent ourselves. Culture has shown the Rainbow Flag to be associated with LGBTQ+ community and the Pride Flag.  Arguably the biggest change in the way we use emojis is their adoption for social and political movements. More recently the raised first emoji with a darker skin tone has been used to commonly support the Black Lives Matter activist movement. Associating ourselves with relevant emojis speaks volumes about ourselves and what we stand for. We can communicate our beliefs and show that we are part of a community. Take for example the simple Blue Heart. Now trending across social media as a symbol for support for our NHS frontline staff. The idea started with one tweet. The idea grew quickly and popularity was show by the hashtag trending at number one in the UK on Twitter. The call for support clearly resonated with people. At a time where many feel helpless and also outraged by abuse NHS staff were receiving online, this small act gave people a way to show their support. It meant they felt they were doing something, albeit something small. And although an emoji can’t alleviate the pressures the NHS are facing, it could help to lift spirits and show they have the support and admiration from the public.


A final note

We know that words alone do not convey tone. Nor do they fully capture the spirit of what you’re trying to say. In a digital world, we often rely on visual cues to help get across the nonverbal communications we would naturally rely on in face-to-face. Emojis are a great modern expression of human gestures and emotions.  In emulating these human behaviours, they help us express emotion, personality and opinions.

In short, they help us tell our stories better.