(Despic-Emoji t-shirt on sale at the NeatoShop)
In Book I of his Confessions, Saint Augustine of Hippo explained how he as a child acquired language:
When they named any thing, and as they spoke turned towards it, I saw and remembered that they called what they would point out by the name they uttered. And that they meant this thing and no other was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all nations, expressed by the countenance, glances of the eye, gestures of the limbs, and tones of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind, as it pursues, possesses, rejects, or shuns. And thus by constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I collected gradually for what they stood; and having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me these current signs of our wills, and so launched deeper into the stormy intercourse of human life, yet depending on parental authority and the beck of elders.
And thus the individual was able to contribute to the "stormy intercourse of human life," as well as partake of the greatest works that resulted from the collected discourse of human civilization.
Emoji are small visual symbols that some people use to express their inner wills. They are acts of communication in the sense that a barking dog is communicating. They are, according to scholars at the University of Minnesota, dangerously imprecise tools to use instead of actual, you know, words. Hannah Miller and her colleagues summarize their findings:
Emoji are commonly used in modern text communication. However, as graphics with nuanced details, emoji may be open to interpretation. Emoji also render differently on different viewing platforms (e.g., Apple’s iPhone vs. Google’s Nexus phone), potentially leading to communication errors.
We explore whether emoji renderings or differences across platforms give rise to diverse interpretations of emoji. Through an online survey, we solicit people’s interpretations of a sample of the most popular emoji characters, each rendered for multiple platforms. Both in terms of sentiment and semantics, we analyze the variance in interpretation of the emoji, quantifying which emoji are most (and least) likely to be misinterpreted. In cases in which participants rated the same emoji rendering, they disagreed on whether the sentiment was positive, neutral, or negative 25% of the time.
When considering renderings across platforms, these disagreements only increase. Overall, we find significant potential for miscommunication, both for individual emoji renderings and for different emoji renderings across platforms.