When I saw the news that Apple would be releasing 217 new emojis to the world, I did what I always do: I asked my undergraduates what it meant to them. “We hardly use them anymore,” they scoff. To them, many emojis are like over-enthusiastic dance moves at weddings: only for awkward millennials. “And they’re all misusing them anyway,” my Gen Z cohort added sincerely.
My work focuses on how people use technology, and I’ve been following the rise of emojis for a decade. With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion sent every day, emojis are now an important language system.
When the emoji database is updated, it usually reflects the needs of the time. This latest update, for example, features a new vaccine syringe and more same-sex couples.
But if my undergraduates have something to do, emojis are also a generational battleground. Like skinny jeans and side dividers, the ‘laughing crying emoji’, better known as 😂, fell into disrepute among young people in 2020 – just five years after being chosen as the word of the year. 2015 Oxford Dictionaries. For Gen Z TikTok users, clueless millennials are responsible for rendering many emojis completely unusable – to the point that some in Gen Z barely use emojis.
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Research can help explain these bursts on emojis. Because their meaning is interpreted by users and not dictated from above, emojis have a rich history of creative use and coded messaging. Apple’s 217 new emojis will go through the same process of creative interpretation: accepted, rejected, or reused by different generations depending on pop culture currents and digital trends.
Face the facts
When emojis were first designed by Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, they were specifically intended for the Japanese market. But a little over a decade later, the Unicode Consortium, sometimes described as “the UN for technology,” unveiled these icons to the world.
In 2011, Instagram tracked emoji adoption through user posts, observing how ed has slipped away 🙂 in just a few short years. Old-fashioned smileys, using punctuation marks, now look as outdated as Shakespearean English on our LED screens: a sign of fog in baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) or a throwback ironic for Gen Z hipsters.
The Unicode Consortium now meets annually to review new types of emojis, including emojis that support inclusiveness. In 2015, a new range of skin colors were added to the existing emojis. In 2021, the Apple operating system update will include mixed-race and same-sex couples, as well as bearded men and women.
Not everyone has been thrilled by the rise of emoji. In 2018, a Daily Mail headline lamented that “emojis are ruining the English language,” citing a Google study in which 94% of respondents believed English was deteriorating, in part due to the use of emojis.
But such critiques, which are sometimes leveled by baby boomers, tend to misinterpret emojis, which are after all informal and conversational, non-formal and oratory. Studies have found no evidence that emojis reduced overall literacy.
On the contrary, it seems that emojis actually improve our communication skills, including language acquisition. Studies have shown how emojis are an effective substitute for gestures in non-verbal communication, bringing a new dimension to text.
A 2013 study, meanwhile, suggested that emojis connect to the area of the brain associated with recognizing facial expressions, making one as nourishing as a human smile. Given these results, it is likely that those who reject emojis impoverish their language skills.
The conflict between Gen Z and Gen Y, meanwhile, emerges from confusing meanings. While the Unicode Consortium has a definition for every icon, including the 217 Apple’s that are due out, in the wild they often take on new meanings. Many emojis have more than one meaning: a literal meaning and a suggestion, for example. Subversive and rebellious meanings are often created by young people: today’s Generation Z.
Eggplant 🍆 is a classic example of how an innocent vegetable has had its meaning creatively pieced together by young people. The brain 🧠 is an emerging example of the innocent cannon-turned-dirty emoji that already has a large body of work.
And it does not stop there. With Generation Z now at the forefront of digital culture, the emoji encyclopedia is developing new ironic and sarcastic dual meanings. It’s no wonder millennials can’t keep pace and continue to provoke outrage among young people who consider themselves highly emoji literate.
Emojis remain powerful means of emotional and creative expression, although some Gen Z members claim they have been made redundant by misuse. This new bundle of 217 emojis will be adopted across generations and communities, each claiming different meanings and combinations. The stage is set for a new round of intergenerational teasing.
This article by Mark Brill, Senior Lecturer, School of Games, Film and Animation, Birmingham City University is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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