Emojis: The Lingua Franca of the Digital Age and Communication

Emojis. They are everywhere today, changing the way we communicate. You probably used a few of them today. These colourful and cute symbols are more than just smiling faces-they have evolved into a language of their own. Used with growing frequency in network communication, emojis are the lingua franca of the digital age and communication. It’s not just the frequency of their use that is growing, but the way in which they are used is growing to be more and more diversified as well. Other than the unique emotional and semantic features, there are now emojis related to law, marketing, health care and a dozen other areas.

Emojis and their use have become a hot topic in the research and academic field. An increasing number of scholars from the fields of communication, computing, behavioural science, marketing, to name a few, are studying them. Yes, it is safe to say that emojis have crossed the boundaries of the digital realm and firmly taken root in today’s popular culture. Nowadays, we can’t really interact on any device or platform without sending or receiving an emoji.

So how did the world become obsessed with these yellow symbols? Who came up with the idea of emojis and how did they take hold of our lives? Let’s explore the developmental history of emojis and why they are so popular.

The development of emoji

Shigetaka Kurita: The man who invented the emoji.
Shigetaka Kurita: The man who invented the emoji. credit@ CNN

It was in 1999 that Shigetaka Kurita, the Japanese originator of the emojis, created and released the first set of emojis. Emojis are graphic symbols that have a predefined name and code (Unicode). And it’s not just facial expressions, emotions, feelings or abstract concepts that are represented by emojis. Gestures, body parts, animals, plants and objects are also represented. According to researchers, emojis possess similar neural responses to face-to-face communication. Hence, using them can add contextual meaning or extra emotional meaning to communication. They enhance the attractiveness of the message for those who receive them.

Emojis’ roots lie in smileys. The smileys first evolved into emoticons, which then changed into emojis and, in recent years, stickers. Smileys, which first started appearing in the 1960s, are considered the first symbols of expression. The smiley, which is a yellow face with two dots for eyes and a huge grin, soon emerged as a permanent feature of western popular culture. By the early 1980s, it was printed on t-shirts, buttons and brooches.

Before emojis came into existence, emoticons were used in Instant Messaging (IM). When emoticons were first introduced, ordinary punctuation marks on a standard keyboard were used to build up a representation of a face with specific expressions. Just like the non-verbal clues while interacting face-to-face with someone, emoticons clarify intentions of ambiguous contexts. Through the expression of emotions, they improve the efficiency of communication. Emoticons are an effective way of conveying nonverbal clues while communicating with someone. Receiving emoticons helps us understand the sender’s feelings, attitude and emotions.

More than two decades after their first appearance, the meaning and value of emojis have only increased exponentially. Due to their universally recognizable nature, they are believed to be the fastest-growing language in the history of humankind.

Are emojis and emoticons the same thing?

Emojis and emoticons aren’t the same things, although most of us use them interchangeably. Both of them are used for spicing up digital conversations and adding some emotion to them. But they are two different things. The difference between the two is simple: while emojis are pictures, emoticons are combinations of symbols available on our keyboards, such as letters and punctuation marks. Let’s dwell on this in detail.

Emoticons. credit@ ABC News

As mentioned just now, emoticons are symbols created by combining letters, numbers and punctuation marks. They are arranged to look like human faces. Emoticons, which are more or less understood universally, denote certain emotions and, at times, objects. For example, 😀 denotes a huge grin or laugh, :-O denotes surprise and <3 denotes a heart.

Western and Eastern cultures have completely different sets of emoticons. While the Western ones are read sideways (left to right), Eastern emoticons need not be rotated. They can sometimes use non-Latin characters too.

Emojis. credit@ Business Insider

So, what are emojis then? Emojis are pictograms. They are tiny pictures that can denote anything, ranging from emotional faces, animals, objects, food items, vehicles to flags, numbers and hearts of different colours. Smartphone users know that with almost every Whatsapp update, you get new emojis. Just when we think there’s nothing more to be added, there’s more! New emojis appear every year.

Thousands of emojis have corresponding codes in Unicode. Social media apps, messengers and browsers read the code and show us a graphic that matches them. Different software may have tiny differences in these graphics, which is why an emoji sent from an iPhone isn’t quite the same when it’s viewed from an Android phone. 

Signs of the time

How managers and teams use emojis at work - TechRepublic
The use of emojis has increased exponentially over the years. Credit@ TechRepublic

While the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, lockdowns and social distancing have taken a serious toll on every aspect of our lives, emojis have thrived in the current situation. According to Google, the use of emojis on Android phones has shot up by more than 60% since the start of the pandemic. As we have shifted from our physical offices to phone calls and Zoom meetings, the way we communicate has evolved too. Emojis became the answer to convey our thoughts and feelings to someone we could no longer see face-to-face. When living in a time when physical conversations have to be limited, emojis are a great way of expressing how we feel.

According to studies, body language comprises more than half of human communication. More than one third is conveyed through the speaker’s voice. While traditional language is a medium adapted to convey ideas, it is too nuanced to convey our feelings. Hence, the emoji language came to our rescue, enhancing our messages.

Where words fall short, emojis have the ability to fill in. Sometimes emojis are enough to land a message. They are often better alternatives to difficult wordy synonyms. And sometimes, it even transcends language. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year wasn’t even a word at all! It was the ‘tears of joy’ or ‘crying from laughing’ emoji.

How emojis act as language

Language is something that changes according to the time and age we live in, and one evidence for that evolution is emojis. They have become a substitute for gestures, expressions, emotions and tone of voice. When using emojis, there aren’t really any grammatical rules that bind their use. What matters is the context.

Words can easily be misinterpreted through text, but emojis help to make the distinction of the intent clearer. For example, emojis can indicate whether a text is sarcastic or not. Repeating the same emojis can also show emphasis.

Emojis have been adapted to include people from different diversities.
Emojis have been adapted to include people from different diversities. credit@ The Guardian

The meaning of certain emojis has also been transformed by users. Inferred or metaphorical meanings are allocated to them, which are culturally understood. For example, the skull emoji may be used when responding to something embarrassing. The flame emoji is used when something is thought to be cool or great. But there lies a generation gap in the use of emojis too. For example, while Gen-Z can identify what the eggplant or peach emoji means, the older generation may not know the meaning allocated to them.

Some emojis have come to be adapted in line with sensitivities. For example, the gun emoji was once represented by a handgun. Later, it was changed to a kid’s toy gun, conveying a more harmless meaning. Emojis are also now more inclusive. They no longer exclude the diverse range of people using them. Today, they are being used for features on social media platforms, business emails and annotations in professional online meetings.

The Impact of Emoji

Emojis have a widespread effect on multiple human science areas, like psychology, linguistics, sociology and business. However, based on different contexts and on the platforms they appear, emojis may be translated into different meanings. Thus, it is often important that emojis have texts attached to the context they appear in.

Psychological Impact

While communicating face-to-face, people create relationships and share empathy through a phenomenon called Emotional Contagion. It is when people interact face-to-face, and similar emotions and corresponding behaviours are triggered directly from one person to the other.  So what happens when people communicate digitally? Emojis play the role of translating emotions into facial expressions. Studies conducted show that, when an individual sees an emoji, the same parts of the brain are activated as when they see actual human facial expressions. Hence, emojis solve the inability to convey emotions and gestures by allowing individuals to communicate through many picture characters to express feelings, personality and opinions.

Sociological Impact

It was in 2015 that the Unicode Consortium introduced many emoji skin tone modifiers. This gives the users the ability to express diversity in various forms, like gender, race and ethnicity. This ability to express diversity through emojis is vital in digital communication when people want to establish a sense of identity and a confidential uniqueness in a business-related or personal relationship.

Linguistics Impact

As mentioned before, emojis help represent facial expressions, voice tones and human gestures in digital communication. People read emojis as emotional information. They help articulate the meaning of digital messages, which may at times differ, depending on the social context and individual personality. And moreover, according to some researchers, emojis have three linguistic functions: emotional indicators (directly related to facial expressions), non-emotional indicators (correlated to facial expressions), and indicators (unrelated to facial expressions, but related to deep intention).

Why are emojis so popular?

Emojis are popular because they are the digital equivalent of body language. In face-to-face communication, only 30% of our communication relies on actual words. The rest is made up of our body language.

Emojis, now that they are replicating and catching up with real communication, are more than a technical language. Contrary to the belief, emojis aren’t dumbing down communication. They’re actually enhancing digital communication by replicating what we do when we communicate in person: our gestures, voice and body language.

Is there a disadvantage to emojis?

The leading cause of people using emojis is that they accurately express what the user has in mind. But while this may be true, emojis, like everything else under the sun, do have certain negative aspects to them.

After a millennium of human development and improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and more, some feel that humanity is now moving backwards with the use of emojis. It is known that during ancient times, communication mainly consisted of speaking in pictures or gestures. And since emojis emulate exactly that, some are of the opinion that human communication is moving backwards, throwing away all the progress made.

Are we moving backwards in regards to communication?
Are we moving backwards in regards to communication? credit@ ThoughtCo

As time passes, simplifying emotions to pictures can render people less articulate, which makes them less accustomed and not well equipped for communicating in the real world. The more frequently emojis are used, the more it waters down the value of communication. Emojis are progressively used more, especially during the present time when communication is limited to texts and Zoom meetings. It is claimed that their increased use lessens the effect of real emotions. Completely relying on emojis can reduce our efficiency in communicating with others in person.

It takes very little time for an individual to process their emotions and thoughts when using emojis. Merely tapping on a picture when sending a message eliminates social interaction. It trains the user not to accurately express their feelings.

Another negative aspect of emojis is that they can be used to fake emotions. Whatever our true feelings are, we can keep them hidden by sending emojis of the opposite feelings. For example, when someone has any malicious intent, they can send a happy or smiling emoji that tricks the other person of the sender’s true feeling. Hence, emojis can be used by people not to be true to others or themselves.

While communicating with emojis is a lot more entertaining than traditional methods, it would do well to keep the above points in mind. But while emojis do have their negative aspects, it cannot be denied that they are here to stay.


Emojis and their popularity are only growing with the passing of each day. They are meant to be light-hearted and fun and convey a large range of emotions. It’s not just the way we communicate that is being changed by their use, but also the way we express ourselves through digital communication. They can also be understood by everyone, no matter what their linguistic background is. Hence, emojis are also known as the language that transcends boundaries.

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