Why Do We Care So Much About Emoji?

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Two people have explained to me that I’m not all that great at using emoji in text messages. One friend got technical and told me it’s a matter of spacing and balancing the text with the emoji I picked, while the other simply said that my “emoji game is nagl,” without explanation, like they’d dropped some huge stink bomb in the room.

Another perfect example of my supposed emoji failure would be this recent conversation with my wife about possible dinner plans (My texts are in blue):

Whatever my own issue is, I keep soldiering on. I keep sending emoji flowers for birthdays and I still try to make little stories about bear emoji stabbing the emoji kissing couple with the emoji knife to get their emoji beer and burger. So just like nearly every other emoji lover, the news that over 250 new emoji will be available for download on my phone in July made the sunny June day a little bit sunnier. I’m afraid the people I text message will just have to deal with me sending the dove of peace or skull and crossbones no good reason whatsoever.

But asking why I’m not so good at using emoji isn’t really the question that’s important. We should be wondering why people love these little faces and symbols so much. Emoji seem to unite tweens, teens, college students, media people, parents, basketball players, senators, and just about anybody else with an iPhone or Android. Some people, like novelist Emily Gould, even get pretty philosophical about them:

Is it something deep in our being that makes us want to send symbols? Surely some enterprising grad student is already at work on a thesis connecting the emoji we use to Carl Jung’s theories of how symbols manifest themselves in our subconscious and how we find meaning in those symbols. Is it purely aesthetic? Do emoji just spruce up boring text messages? We’re always looking for new things to keep us glued to our phones; emoji just might be the pet rock, slap bracelet, or Beanie Babies for our always connected world. Or do emoji really help us communicate better in a world where you hear, “I don’t talk on the phone because I can just text” on an almost daily basis?

“[W]e use emoticons to help reduce ambiguity and to intensify or tone down our emotional expression,” writes Andrea Ayers in her piece, “Emoji Love: The Science Behind Emoticons.” Is she right? Do emoji make things less awkward for normally awkward situations or people? Is there a chance that emoji are actually beneficiary to us as a culture, helping us converse better by making it so we don’t really have to say anything at all? Or does it go even deeper than that?

After all, before letters we had symbols scraped and carved onto cave walls, a process some historians say took early humans thousands of years to develop. Some of those symbols, beasts, plants, and weapons, are now created in a click, but since we’re talking about symbolism, it does feel symbolic that as we advance in the ways we’re communicating with each other, the symbols we effortlessly add into our text messages might seem more familiar to our ancient ancestors than the letters those symbols sometimes accompany.

All of this talk about emoji’s importance could speak to something larger; or it could be nothing at all. Many of us fill our smart phones with apps we don’t ever use, we watch movies and listen to music on them, we take selfies, and can do everything from hail cabs to find dates with phones; the balance between usefulness and uselessness tips constantly. Some functions and add-ons have purpose, while others are really just mindless self indulgence.

While emoji can’t provide us with directions like Google Maps or document moments in time like Instagram (no matter how pointless or even crass they might be), everybody, no matter what language they speak, understands what pretty much every emoji means. In a world where communication breaks down somewhere probably every second of the day, be it because of bad connection or a language barrier, emoji are universally easy to understand. Ultimately, emoji might signal that we’ve come full circle in how we communicate with each other, and either there’s more to come, or this is as far as we go. But for now, my only hope is that they come up with a taco emoji so I can better convey that’s what I’d like for dinner.