How Emojis Work

Emojis have been around since the 1990s and are now spreading like wildfire. Karol Serewis/Gallo Images Poland/Getty Images

In electronic communications, particularly text-driven messages like email and SMS, sometimes words just aren't enough. What you really need is a way to express the softer side of your message, a splash of emotion or humor to convey subtle intent or allude to romantic feelings or abject disappointment. You need, perhaps, a little cartoon picture of a pile of poop. You need an emoji.

Emojis are the graphic symbols and smiley faces that grace so many of today's smartphone-driven conversations. They're used in texts, splashed on web pages and seep into the analog world all around us, too. Emojis offer a counterbalance to pure text communications, injecting personality, humor and context into messages that otherwise might be lacking in clarity or humanity.


We aren't talking about the little sideways smiley (or frowny) faces pieced together with a colon and parentheses. We mean the full-fledged cartoon faces that you see everywhere from Facebook to Walmart and everywhere in between, from your smartphone screen to your desktop computer to movie screens all over the world.

Emojis aren't some strange, passing fad. They've been in use since the late '90s and are still spreading like [insert wildfire emojis here]. By some estimates, about three-quarters of Americans use emojis every day. Some 6 billion emojis are used every day [sources: Lien, Emojipedia].

A trend that started as a few expressive cartoon faces is now a full-blown phenomenon in which users can choose from thousands of tiny emojis to express all sorts of complex feelings and ideas. Emojis aren't just cutesy texting for teens – they are a style of language all their own.


The ABCs of Emojis

This keyboard shows examples of emoticons, pictures made by using keyboard characters or letters :-) KEIJIRO KOMINE/Getty Images

Emojis are not the first human effort to add emotion to text. That honor goes to emoticons, which blend a variety of the characters found on your keyboard to create a visual representation of a facial expression such as :-) or :-( for a for a happy face or sad face, respectively. Emoticons have been around in the computer world for decades, alerting message recipients to the presence of sarcasm or sadness or irony.

Emoticons have an actual start date. On Sept. 19, 1982, a computer scientist named Scott Fahlman proposed on Carnegie Mellon University's electronic bulletin board that posters put a smiley face with a colon, dash and parenthesis if their comment was humorous. This was to prevent some all-too-common misunderstandings and ensuing arguments. The practice soon spread to other colleges and then to the wider world [source: Steinmetz].


Of course, people were scrawling smiley faces in hand-written letters way before that. Some historians even point to a 1648 Robert Herrick poem titled "To Fortune," in which the writer seems to have purposely included an emoticon in one line: "Upon my ruins, (smiling yet :)." If that's not a clever bit of technological divination, we don't know what is [source: Madrigal].

Emojis are simply an evolution of the emoticon. They're icons in place of ASCII or alphanumeric characters or punctuation, colorful pictograms standing in for older, boring monochrome manifestations.

It all started in 1995, when a Japanese company called NTT DoCoMo introduced two little icons — a phone and a heart— that users could send via its fabulously popular Pocket Bell pagers. The phone icon indicated that you wanted to talk on the phone, and the heart, of course (hopefully) denoted affection of some type [source: Ford].

Later in the '90s, DoCoMo streamlined its pager offering, ditching the cutesy icons, which were a distraction from its business-centric product. Japanese teenagers fled DoCoMo for a competitor, Tokyo Messaging, which did offer icons. It didn't take long for DoCoMo to realize it'd driven off one of its vital customer bases [source: Blagdon].


From DoCoMo To Unicode

Shigetaka Kurita, first emoji
Japanese engineer Shigetaka Kurita shows a picture of the very first emoji he created, a clunky-looking thing with a box mouth, inverted 'V's' for eyes, crude weather symbols, and a rudimentary heart. Kurita coined the term 'emoji.' BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Fortunately for DoCoMo, one of the company's engineers, Shigetaka Kurita, was working on an early mobile internet platform called "i-mode," which was meant to share information like news and stock market data. He realized that it would be easier to communicate certain types of information, like weather, via tiny graphic symbols (like clouds for overcast days or a sun symbol for clear days), especially because i-mode restricted messages to a maximum of 250 characters [source: Kageyama].

In 1999, inspired by necessity and deadlines, Kurita developed a series of 176 initial icons for the new i-mode platform. The library of teensy icons featured simple symbols for food, drink, weather, sports, love and a lot more. Kurita called his little pictograms "emoji," derived from the Japanese words "e" (picture) and "moji" (character). Then, it was just a matter of figuring out how to transmit the symbols without bogging down phones [source: Galloway].


Data networks in the late '90s and early 2000s were too slow to send emojis as individual image files. So instead, the 12 x 12-pixel images were preloaded onto DoCoMo phones. When senders created new messages, the data for emoji were represented by just 2 bytes, which corresponded to the appropriate icon on the recipient's phone. The result was a picture-driven conversation that didn't require a lot of slow and expensive data usage [source: Blagdon].

As years passed, more icons emerged, but they didn't work properly between different devices and cell service providers. When a sender meant to send a thumbs-up symbol, the recipient might instead receive a thumbs-down. What emojis really needed was some form of standardization.

In 2010, in stepped the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit group of technology companies and tech-savvy volunteers who have a vast understanding of linguistics. It created a standardized library of picture characters available for Android and iOS devices, as well as Windows and Apple computer operating systems. The exact artwork for particular icons differs depending on the platform, but the meaning is similar. The end result was a nearly universal system for communicating via tiny cartoon images [sources: Warren, Emojipedia].


They Call It 'Crying With Laughter'

variety of emojis
A variety of emojis are on display, including the ever-popular 'crying while laughing.' Dimitri Otis/Getty Images

As of 2018, there are more than 2,800 emoji listed in the Unicode Standard. Each year, though, the Unicode Consortium reviews about 100 proposals for new icons. Promising symbols are uploaded to the Unicode Web site for public review, to weed out any that may be inappropriate or too specific. The consortium always rejects emojis based on living people, deities and business logos. The few that survive the procedure are released to the emoji library and are available to software programmers and hardware vendors [sources: Lien, Lieu, Emojipedia].

Emojis are standardized by the consortium, but they aren't trademarked or copyrighted in anyway. Emojis are open-source and free for anyone to use for any purpose, though some ideas, such as the critically skewered "The Emoji Movie," were probably best left on the "drawing board" instead making it into reality [source: Fortune].


Not all emojis get much use. Those floppy diskette and analog telephone emojis probably weren't necessary.

But others have become incredibly popular, leaving a mark on our collective cultural consciousness. In 2017, the "crying with laughter" face was the world's most popular emoji for the third straight year, followed by the basic heart symbol. The crying-with-laughter icon is so common that in 2015 Oxford Dictionary chose it as the word of the year.


The Scoop on Peaches and Poop

iPhone, poop emoji
A member of Apple's staff poses with the iPhone X smartphone showing new emoji features, including the poop emoji, in Apple's Regent Street store in London. CHRIS J RATCLIFFE/AFP/Getty Images

From 100 miles away, it's tough to wink via text message. It's also difficult to inject innuendo and subtlety. That's why some 92 percent of folks online deploy emojis at one point or other – to provide some sort of emotional context to otherwise ambiguous text. But a basic grasp of online slang will greatly buoy your emoji communications [sources: Bramhill, Thompson].

Take the popular peach emoji. To the uninitiated, it's just fruit. To digital veterans, however, the peach is a sly stand-in for human private parts, a way to be silly, sexy, or perhaps both. Pair the peach with an eggplant and things get real suggestive in a hurry [source: Amatulli].


But we're just starting to get weird. Outside of faces and hand gestures, one of the most famous emojis is the superstar of oddball icons – the ubiquitous poop icon. In the early 2000s, the poop emoji was incredibly popular in Japan, a flexible way to convey a large range of emotions and ideas with one little brown symbol.

The little poop pile can be a way to express dislike, suffering, vulgarity, hilarity or obscenity without resorting more explicit language. In 2007, once Google finally adopted the poop emoji (complete with circling flies, for effect) for its Gmail email service, the icon became even more prevalent. Now the little poo, often complete with googly eyes, is everywhere online and off. You can buy everything from poop hats, to Bluetooth speakers, slippers, toys and much more [source: Schwartzberg].

Poop aside, avid emoji users are fanatical about their favorite little cartoon pictures. So perhaps it's no surprise that subtle tweaks to specific symbols can spark a firestorm of anger and reprisals.

Because each vendor is allowed to create their own interpretations of the Unicode Consortium's standards, some emojis are better than others. In 2017, Google's new "cheeseburger" icon portrayed the sandwich with the cheese placed under the meat patty ... and the internet erupted in protest. The kerfuffle caused Google CEO Sundar Pichai to state that Google would "drop everything else we are doing" until a team could figure out a more appropriate burger icon. In other words, emojis don't just express emotions, they can inspire them, too [sources: Griffin, Twitter].


Emoji Controversies

Emojis are powerful storytelling tools. But those little symbols may say more about you than you realize. One survey by the dating site claimed that people who used emojis had sex more frequently that those who didn't. Meanwhile, Britain's The Telegraph reported that in the U.K., the wine emoji was the one most frequently used, while Americans favored the crown and Australians loved drug-related emojis [sources: Miller, Levy Gale].

On a less light-hearted note, there is the issue of emoji skin tones. Initially, all emoji skin tones (such as in the "thumbs up" or "praying hands" emojis) were white. But in 2015, the Unicode Consortium changed the default to Simpsons yellow, but allowed people to tint them in one of five skin tones. These were an immediate hit. Interestingly, the "pale skin tone" emoji seems to have fallen out of favor in the U.S., even among whites, according to an Atlantic article. The default yellow seems to have taken over, although African-Americans and others will use the darker skin tones on their emojis.


In some circles, the overuse of emojis may mark you as immature depending on your age and your circle of friends. Misuse may also demonstrate that you're hopelessly out-of-touch with the implied meanings of certain symbols [sources: Webster, Donnelly].

And employing too many smiley faces might cause your co-workers to question your intelligence. One study on emoji use found that "contrary to actual smiles, smileys do not increase perceptions of warmth and actually decrease perceptions of competence. Perceptions of low competence in turn undermined information sharing" [source: Glikson, et. al]

Embarrassment and ignorance aside, just as with email and texting, digital emojis can have real consequences in your very analog life. We aren't talking about that eggplant icon you accidentally sent to your mom. Text an ominous little icon to the wrong person and you could be charged with a crime.

Two South Carolina men were arrested in 2015 after using Facebook to send the following emoji: a fist, a hand pointing and an ambulance. Officials interpreted the message as a threat on the recipient's physical safety, a logical conclusion given that the men had already tried to attack the homeowner at his residence [source: Flacy].

In early 2016, a Frenchman was sentenced to three months in prison for sending a handgun emoji to his ex-girlfriend. The court determined his message constituted a death threat [source: Samuel].

In Israel in 2017, after exchanging several days' worth of inquiries from a couple looking to rent, a landlord received excited emojis (including a champagne bottle and a squirrel, among others) which led him to remove the property from the market in anticipation of his new tenants. When the prospective renters later backed out, he sued in small claims court to recoup the money he could've made while the home was off the market. He won about $2,000 in damages [source: Kaser].

The moral of the story? In this case, a picture was worth at least $2,000.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

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