Culture Vulture: I heart emoji

A single pictograph can replace a tedious explanation and not offend

When the news came late last year, I did not immediately (heart) the announcement.

The Global Language Monitor in its annual survey of English words had ranked the heart-shaped emoji the world's most popular word, used billions of times a day. The Texas-based media company arrived at the result by analysing the frequency and usage of English words across the Internet, including sources such as Twitter.

Yes, I make a living stringing letters into words, sentences and thoughts but, no, I did not wring my hands because a pictograph had edged out the tools of my trade in the battle of words. To say the result portends the death of the written form is a gross exaggeration and one only has to read Emoji Dick, a crowd-sourced translation of Herman Melville's Moby Dick into emoji, in lieu of the original to know. To the book's credit, it is in the collection of the United States national library, the Library of Congress.

What left me flummoxed was that a personal favourite, the smiling-face-with-smiling-eyes emoji - as named by emojipedia, the online encyclopaedia of emoji - did not beat the heart emoji to the top of the list.

Yes, I use and consume enough emoji to care about which of its more than 700 pictorial symbols, from a smiling pile of poop and flexed bicep to a bouquet of flowers and steaming mug of coffee comes in first in the popularity stakes.

My affinity with emoji began around 2008 when it was taking off on the Google-owned e-mail service Gmail. I mostly used the pictorial symbols when sending instant messages on the e-mail browser. I imagine my glee at flashing the rock-out emoji - index finger and little finger sticking out of a clenched fist - to friends at the end of an online chat then was similar to the delight cellphone users in Japan felt a decade earlier in the late 1990s when emoji came into use there.

Emoji, which means "picture character" in Japanese, was created by an employee at the Japanese telco company NTT Docomo to beat the competition in a tight market. The simple cartoonish images injected fun into text messages and e-mail messages and appealed to the baby boomers of a digital age. It quickly caught on among users and telco carriers in Japan, then overseas, and it has since become a part of the zeitgeist.

It was the star in the lyric video of pop singer Katy Perry's 2013 hit song Roar, and more recently, it was used by American science educator Bill Nye in an online video to explain evolution.

A social network, Emoj.li, that uses only emoji has also sprung up and there is now a blog, Emojinalysis, that offers to analyse, tongue-in- cheek, what is wrong with an emoji user's life, based on his recently used emoji.

Emoji enthusiasts with a love for art also came up with #EmojiArtHistory on Twitter, a meme that renders famous works of art in emoji such as Damien Hirst's For The Love Of God, a platinum cast of a human skull encrusted with diamonds, as a skull emoji followed by a diamond emoji.

Another emoji-art coupling, Emoji.ink, is a new interactive website that lets users apply emoji in the manner of ink stamps to create pictures on the site.

It is hard not to embrace emoji for the creativity it inspires and the amusement it brings (nothing tickles like a spontaneous round of emoji charades with friends when you are in a silly mood). But beyond fun and laughter, the cute pictographs have proven practical in the art of communicating via instant messages.

For one, they offer time-strapped, multi-tasking urbanites convenience. A single pictograph used appropriately can speak volumes. An example is the scream emoji, a rounder, more yellow version of Edvard Munch's famed painting, The Scream, which can be used to replace sentences such as "I can't believe this!" or "Horrors!".

Emoji also helps to convey tone and mood in the absence of vocal cues and textual indications. Stick a contented face emoji at the end of a sentence and the utterance "It is okay", which may sound curt on its own, gains an empathetic note.

The fluid meaning of emoji can, however, sometimes lead to confusion. Last year, an American broadcast channel stirred controversy when it suggested the person-with-folded-hands emoji, contrary to its popular meaning as a praying gesture in the West, actually shows people exchanging high-fives. The answer from emojipedia: It can mean both, as well as please or thank you in Japanese and some other Eastern cultures.

Indeed, it is this flux in the meaning of emoji that makes me a fan of it, especially the smiling- face-with-smiling-eyes emoji, which I use when I need to be misunderstood in the best way possible.

When I find myself stuck in a conversation where I am expected to reply yet I do not know how to respond, that emoji with a gentle mien becomes my emissary against faux pas. With its round, yellow smiling face and rosy cheeks, it smooths over replies that might otherwise come out clumsy when spelt explicitly with words.

How, for example, do you say, "I don't understand some parts of your earlier comments and I disagree with other points you raised, but it doesn't really matter because they are your views and I respect you; I want to agree to disagree and still remain on close terms", without worrying about offending the recipient or fear getting dragged into a tedious explanation?

The smiling-face-with-smiling-eyes emoji lets you remain both candid and cryptic, precisely saying that which cannot be said. The heart emoji has a long way to go to match its open nuances.

lijie@sph.com.sg