When Words Fail, Emojis Speak
Linguistic evolution from the SMS-era
The tragic irony about phones becoming smarter, and people becoming dumber has taken an interesting trajectory through the information age. With SMS-lingo out of vogue the fear is no longer the derailment of the English Language. What we mean to say is ‘no1 txts lyk dis.’ Of course that is a function of evolved messaging systems that do not require multiple presses on a small keypad to generate each letter, or charge you based on the number of characters.
But while the Whatsapp generation may have the luxury to write full words, and spell them correctly (read: at the mercy of autocorrect), as tragic irony would have it, words have become rather superfluous in our communication. No we’re not talking about the latest abbreviations, but the absence of the words themselves: we’re talking about Emojis.
Back in the SMS-era, emojis were nothing more than intuitive combinations of punctuation marks. : and ) represented a smiley face, : and (a sad face, because that’s what you see if you tilt your head to the left. In the Whatsapp era, emojis are a more complex phenomenon that convey a spectrum of emotions, actions, and even objects. In fact, the evolution of emoji day is due to the iOS calendar emoji, which happens to display the date of 17 July (📅).
Here’s a range of emojis (and our interpretations of them) that can be used to express variations of sadness:
Emojis add colour to a conversation, or your Facebook status, but their centrality in our daily communication is something that we often take for granted. A few months ago, we tried an unusual experiment: not using emojis in our conversations for one day. What may sound like a sad excuse for a digital detox ended up being an interesting exercise for our emotional psyches.
The emoji-tox experiment
The first thing you miss in an emoji-less world is their practicality. For a generation that multitasks and has low attention spans on account of way too many digital devices and social media platforms, there’s an inherent convenience in having a one-click methods to convey thoughts and emotions. The unique language that we curate with digital icons underscores some interesting dimensions of our identities. For Saanya, there was a compulsive need to add a smiley face after every message. Without using it, my messages felt cold and impersonal. For Digant, the (😂), or the laughing-crying emoji was an instantaneous reaction to anything he found amusing, an emotion that a “hahaha” or a “loool” just can’t accurately substitute.
But beneath the superficial convenience of a seemingly benign exercise, lies the potential to suppress cerebral creativity, or more worrying, one’s emotions altogether. For example, Digant’s constant use of the (👌), the okay hand symbol, was substituted with a series of “OKs” when unable to use emojis. However, it also resulted in his coming up with more creative, and often more elaborate, ways of expressing the same words: “Yes, I’m in,” “Yes Ma’am,” “Aye Aye Captain,” “Sure, that sounds good.”
Consider the same problem when expressing emotions. How do you replace the use of the angry (😠) or the flushed (😳) face? The answer is simple: you have to confront your emotions. (example: That wasn’t a very nice thing to say, I’m kind of annoyed/oops, I’m kind of embarrassed). On some level it almost felt unnatural to even have to think about how we felt, let alone spell it out.
In a world where interactions are becoming increasingly mediated, and communication behind screens has become the norm (honestly, how often have you hesitated to actually pick up the phone and call someone, because it doesn’t feels socially acceptable?) we couldn’t help but wonder: could emojis render an entire generation emotionally handicapped? That “lol” has somehow become an acceptable part of spoken conversation is already telling of this trend. After all, wouldn’t it be easier to actually laugh out loud?
Convenience, but at a cost
It is true that words may not always capture the intensity and variety of our emotions – especially when we’re overwhelmed by our feelings. There’s a reason the word ‘speechless’ exists after all. But there’s an increasingly delicate balance between the convenience of digital icons at our disposal and having our emotional dictionary defined for us.
Consider Facebook’s reaction (pun intended) to the emoji evolution, where from the days of a simple ‘like’ we can now be wow-ed in disbelief, sad, angry, amused, or enamoured. It’s one thing that the expansion of this emotional toolkit is purely profit driven. After all, it isn’t the first time that the corporation has tried to monetize its users’ emotions to improve analytics. But from a user’s perspective even the new reactions can feel limiting or confusing at times. What about those times you feel angry and sad? Or the ever so frequently posted comment “I wish I could like this post a thousand times,” a stark reminder of who writes the rules.
This post was co-authored with Digant Raj Kapoor, of The Inquisitive Indian