Our culture is saturated with pictorial representations of words and concepts, which have been dubbed “emoticons” or, in Japanese, “emoji.” Sometimes, entire conversations are expressed exclusively by emoticons. What implications does this popular form of communication have for our culture? Are we approaching what some call an image-based culture, or are these emoticons simply supplemental means of expression? Do they say things that words cannot, or are they a crutch for our inability to articulate our thoughts?
I do not think the use of emoticons is shifting our communication to one that is “dumbed-down” and image-based; I think it is silly to think that it would. The earliest civilizations used picture-based communication before written communication was not as developed and complex as it is today. Written language has evolved to a point at which we can express ourselves and the complexities of our psyches in very detailed and precise ways. It is crazy to think society would degenerate in this respect, while universal knowledge in all fields of thought continues to expand every day. One should expect written language only to become more and more complex.
Moreover, I think the use of emoticons and emojis is a supplemental tool to our traditional forms of expression. I believe it is a natural evolution of language based on the advancement of technology that we have experienced over the past several decades. Global connectedness is a direct result of the invention and success of the Internet, which is largely image-based.
Emoticons can communicate ideas in ways that words sometimes cannot, for one reason or another. Emoticons, smiley faces and other shapes and symbols have the advantage of being, for the most part, universal. The feelings and emotions associated with emoticons are understood across different cultures and languages. Because of this, it is much easier for people of different cultures to communicate and connect to others from different geographical locations.
Also, so many aspects of popular culture are based on imagery and symbolism. Emoticons have had a connection to popular culture since they first began showing up. With the popularity of instant messaging services like AOL Instant Messenger, MSN Messenger, Yahoo! Messenger and ICQ about 15 years ago, the emoticons began spreading all throughout popular culture. Stores like Hot Topic began selling T-shirts and other products that incorporate emoticons, movies began using emoticons to depict the culture of the web and people began fully embracing the new expansion of written language.
Social media websites have also obviously contributed to the use of emoticons. In particular, I believe that Twitter has made emoticons a more important part of modern communication. Twitter’s “tweet” limit of 140 characters makes the use of smiley faces and text-based symbols much more significant. In some cases, a single emoticon can add complete context to a statement and summarize what otherwise would have lengthy wording.
Recently, Japanese-style emoticons have become especially popular, as Japanese popular culture, including anime and manga, has gained recognition by media consumers in the United States and the West in general. I think television shows like “Dragon Ball Z” and “Pokémon” ignited a large interest in Japanese culture, and I think social media is a big part of the culture’s expansion into the west. Discussion forums about anime and gaming often include the Japanese-style emoticons, which are often very complex ASCII “drawings” depicting whole faces with more detailed facial expressions. Emoticons will occasionally feature attached arms and legs to a face. I think these are gaining popularity because of their ability to express deeper emotions and circumstances; I would not be surprised if they became the norm in a few years, or if a more complex system of emoticons is developed and eased into popular culture.
I think it is too critical to refer to emoticons as crutches for our inability to express ourselves. While I do think that the way by which we express ourselves has changed and is changing, and although communication has gone more from face-to-face to digital, I do not think we have lost the ability to express ourselves. If anything, I think we are getting better at it, especially across cultures. The use of emoticons is a big factor in the progression of language. Emoticons are the future of our written communication, but that does not mean that words are not. Words and emoticons have a mutually beneficial relationship, and I do not see that changing soon.