As a white man whose identity is often the standard in emoji, let me explicitly say that increasing diversity in the world's favorite imagery is a good thing. But together the emoji become more specific and less flexible as more icons appear. This shift not only adds more choice to emoji, it also changes their semiotic function. Over time, the visual language has shifted from abstract, ideographic use to specific, illustrative practices.


A selection of the original emoji (NTT DOCOMO, Inc.)

The original emoji were made in 1999 by the telecom NTT DOCOMO for Japanese mobile phones. Those emoji worked as icons or ideograms. iconslike the train or cigarette in the original set, work as international signs – they convey meaning by looking like an object. ideograms are symbols that represent ideas or concepts instead of objects themselves – a circle with a line through it (🚫) to indicate, for example, a prohibition. Many emoji are hybrids of ideograms and icons. The heart or snowman, for example, is usually not used to display cardiac organs or winter garden sculptures. Instead, they indicate love or coldness respectively. The emoji of 1999 were also small and had a low resolution: 12 pixels in the square, in a single color. That helped them to work as airport signs rather than as avatars.

Icons (including ideogrammatic ones) are powerful because they are specific but flexible. The train can represent a light rail line, a metro, a toy, and so on. A snowman can mean a literal snowman, or a warning that it is cold, or even a complaint about the office thermostat. The pleasure and power of emoji stems from the ambiguity inherent in picto-ideographic writing.

That strength continues with the versions with a higher resolution today. A skull (💀) almost never means that the speaker has a brain cheese in his hand, Hamlet-like, but rather offers a meager response or lol, I'm dead sentiment. An emoji originally designed to indicate an eastern arc of greeting or politeness (🙇♂️) acquires the more abstract meaning of mild submission or psychic deflation in the West. Fire (🔥) can mean a camp or house fire, but more often enthusiasm, cruelty or even spices are suggested. Eggplant (🍆) can indicate a nightshade, but more likely it suggests, well, something else. These and other meanings are possible because the emoji mainly function as ideograms.

But because emoji have become more specific in both their appearance and meaning, their ideographic flexibility has been eroded. Consider two versions of the cocktail emoji shown below:

NTT DOCOMO & # 39; s cocktail emoji from 1999 (left) and current view of Apple (right).

The 1999 version usually has an ideographic meaning. It suggests "cocktail" & # 39; in the abstract, and you can imagine using it to suggest that it is time for a drink, or to indicate that you are waiting at the bar, or to say that you have drunk a few drinks depending on the context. It works as a sign, not a work of art.