Revisiting Meaningful Glyphs: Emoji

A few years ago, I wrote a surprisingly popular post on language as a series of meaningful glyphs, citing a cartoon that employed this in a subtle way. At the time, I compared it to learning any language with an alphabet different from yours, because alphabets are a set of glyphs that really only hold meaning or significance to those familiar with the alphabet.

I’ve also written about the more visual (less text-based) language more and more companies are starting to use on their websites and apps that often force the user to determine what the company meant with a particular image. (My favorite to this day is the Archive button in Gmail, which didn’t read as “archive” at all until a mouseover tool tip was added.)

These days, we have the ability to speak entirely in images (if your phone supports it. Mine doesn’t, which may be a good thing.) Once nothing more than a few keystrokes cleverly strung together to look like something (@-,-‘—), emoticons have now graduated to a growing series of little images. Emoticons are still in use and have their place, but they’re often rendered into little graphical faces. It’s now all about the emoji.

As I mentioned, my phone doesn’t natively support emojis, and that’s probably for the best. Because for all my love of staring at foreign alphabets, emoji often don’t translate for me. A friend posts a row of images containing a car, a tree, and a wine glass, and I have no idea if she’s off on a wine-tasting trip in a nearby town in the woods, or if she is trying to relax with a glass of wine after wrapping her car around a tree.

Emoji aren’t just an alphabet; they’re a graphical language. It becomes more difficult to understand what the person leaving the message wanted people to know, because an emoji may mean one thing to one person and something else to a different person, or a person may use the emoji to mean one thing in one context and another in a different context.

It’s a whole new level of language that opens itself to more creative expression while at the same time failing to simplify communication between speakers. And it’s a bit too much for this girl. Sorry. But it is interesting to watch it it play out.


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