Visual Culture
Why Emoji Matter

Last month, when news broke that MoMA had added the original set of emoji to its permanent collection, the museum swiftly elevated 176 pixelated glyphs from the realm of millennial nostalgia to the art-historical canon. While this case is testament to our increasingly visual world—where the boundaries between art, tech, and design are fuzzy at best—even art institutions must contend with the proliferation of images generated by users of digital media. MoMA’s nod to emoji shines a light on the widening role they play in present-day communications.

We all know emoji to be the standardized illustrations that add flair to our iMessages, email threads, and social media posts. Today, there are almost 2,000 of them. But visual communication is nothing new. The earliest alphabetic writing systems go back over 5,000 years and translated human speech into visual imagery. Yet their origins can be traced even further back, to pictographic cave drawings dating to as early as the Stone Age. Even the pairing of image and text is not novel. Medieval illuminators incorporated pictures into their manuscripts to guide readers through a sea of words on a page, developing a complementary visual system to transmit meaning.

Digital communication has taken this coupling of text and image to a whole new level of complexity. In the greater context of visual history, our contemporary lexicon of emoji, like digital communication itself, is relatively young. Formed using combinations of letters and symbols on a keyboard, emoticons, the precursors to emoji, were first developed in 1982 by computer scientist Scott Fahlman of Carnegie Mellon University. Fahlman had noticed that jokes written on the university’s online message board oftentimes failed to communicate their humor, so he devised a system of rudimentary symbols to indicate sarcasm and other implied levels of meaning that did not easily translate in text alone.

Shigetaka Kurita, Emoji (original set of 176), 1999. © 2016 NTT DOCOMO.

Shigetaka Kurita, Emoji (original set of 176), 1999. © 2016 NTT DOCOMO.

The set of emoji now held by MoMA represents the significant shift towards the widespread use of mobile phones that came about at the turn of the millennium. Designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, the first emoji set was meant to fit into a 12x12 pixel grid and was developed for the Japanese mobile provider NTT DoCoMo. Users were limited to messages of just 250 characters, and thus were restricted in terms of the content they could express (particularly since the system of honorifics built into the Japanese language requires certain codified phrasing). Using pictures instead of full words allowed users to express themselves without running up the character count, and also provided the opportunity to transcend the constraints of language itself. What began as a simple arrangement of symbols on a keyboard to create a tech-y, face-like image, has in the past decade and a half become a visual language in its own right.

In Kurita’s emoji set, images of food, drink, weather conditions, and facial expressions were originally rendered in black and white but were later given one of six colors: black, red, orange, bright green, electric blue, or lilac. Kurita’s original emoji set a precedent for digital imagery that can be seen both in our text messages and in culture at large even today. “These 12x12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language,” wrote Paul Galloway, MoMA collection specialist in the department of architecture and design, in a statement following the museum’s acquisition of these emoji.

This original set barely resembles the cropping of cartoonish yellow orbs we have come to associate with the term emoji. These were popularized by Apple in 2011, when they were released to iPhone users. The year before, Apple’s emoji had been translated into Unicode, the computing industry’s system of standardized encoding, thus allowing users across the globe to send and receive the same basic images. Today there is even a Unicode Emoji Subcommittee which is responsible for updating emoji as well as reviewing requests for new emoji to be inscribed into Unicode.

Though they have an undeniable visual character, it is important to keep in mind that Kurita’s emoji are considered to be design rather than art (the original emoji now find themselves in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design). Unlike traditional art forms, the significance of emoji in our culture stems from their design, their built-in purpose to effectively communicate. When looking at art, we’re accustomed to the idea that the viewer is at least partially, if not totally, responsible for the making of meaning. Emoji, on the other hand, were expressly designed to lack this degree of ambiguity, instead filling in the gaps left by text’s lack of efficiency (DoCoMo emoji were used to deliver weather reports and drive attention to businesses, for example), as well as intonation and gestures. When we select an emoji on a touchscreen keyboard, we know that the receiver will understand the image’s meaning. (This is not to say that all emoji have a single, literal meaning all the time.) In this way, emoji take on the character of a language—albeit one that exists exclusively in visual form—yet they’re able to communicate outside of the specificities of spoken languages.

The ability of emoji to be understood across devices, platforms, or spoken languages makes them an especially useful tool in this age of global communication. For example, Sara Dean, a professor in the graduate design program at California College of the Arts, is working on a project to develop emoji for disaster and emergency response. She notes that social media channels have become go-to platforms for reporting and discussing natural disaster and emergency situations—as forums where communities can have real-time discussions and individuals can report their statuses with a geo-tag—and yet despite this, there are no standard icons or a lexicon for communities and emergency responders to use in the wake of a disaster.

Earthquakes, in particular, are one of the three natural disasters Dean feels should be developed into a Unicode emoji as soon as possible. “The hashtag earthquake in Japanese was one of the top used hashtags of 2015. There was just an earthquake in New Zealand, there was also a very large earthquake in Italy, and all of those three conversations are happening locally in the language of their country or translated to English,” Dean explains. “We don’t have a way currently to have a global conversation about the impact of earthquakes.” Designing an emoji that can translate the word “earthquake” in all its linguistic forms to a single, universal symbol, Dean believes, would facilitate both more efficient on-the-ground responses to emergencies as well as clearer communication surrounding these emergencies. “As our climate is changing, these are conversations we should be able to have globally through social media without being hindered by the many languages that we speak,” Dean says. “The emoji that we’re developing are meant to cultivate that conversation.”

As part of our daily lives, emoji have been updated various times to reflect the vast array of social and political issues in culture at large. With iPhone’s iOS 10 update, the gun emoji was replaced with a water gun in response to national debates around gun violence taking place in the United States. Conversations around diversity have also found their way into the world of emoji. For its part, Apple recently developed a wider set of inclusive emoji which include images of women in more athletic and professional roles, a gay pride flag, and expanded representations of families. The company wrote on its website that it “is working closely with the Unicode Consortium to ensure that popular emoji characters reflect the diversity of people everywhere.” Calls for emoji featuring a person in hijab and a woman breastfeeding have also gained traction recently, and both are now being considered for inclusion in the next Unicode emoji update. Though we may often write emoji off as just another byproduct of the digital age, their universal appeal and ability to transcend languages and locales places them in a unique position to transform the way we communicate.    


Nora Landes