Emojis are important. More important than you'd think. How, when your friend sends you a meme, or a photo of themselves next to a sign they think is funny, would you respond if it weren't for the cry-laugh emoji? "Haha" sounds insincere; "lol" is too half-hearted; "That's funny" makes you sound like an emotionless pretend-human who never learned how to laugh.
The cry-laugh emoji, however, does the job perfectly, and is applicable to any number of scenarios. The same can be said for flamenco lady, heart-kiss guy, embarrassed monkey, A-OK hand, underlined 100, fiyah and many more. You probably don't realise how much you rely on emojis to communicate, but in 2014 6 billion of them were sent every day, and last year the Oxford Dictionary made the cry-laugh guy their "word of the year" – which is obviously dumb, because it's not a word, but illustrates just how significant emojis have become.
To test exactly how much our everyday interactions now depend on little yellow faces and illustrations of bombs, as opposed to actual words, we asked our two editorial interns – Yasmin, 21, and Salma, 24 – to go five days without using any emojis.
Salma: In the immortal words of the human hacky-sack from Counting Crows: "You don't know what you got till it's gone."
I never thought I'd see the day where I missed emojis, as mourning the loss of some pixels is a pretty sure sign that your life is going extremely badly. But there I was, on WhatsApp, realising how tough the task ahead of me was. Talking to a friend, it struck me how difficult it is to sustain a text-based conversation when you're sending short, humourless sentences and not just half-arseing your response with a pray-hands emoji.
Yasmin: This was, without a doubt, the hardest day of the whole challenge. I was, after all, setting myself up for five long days without sending a single person the thinking-face emoji when I couldn't be bothered to reply to them. Without being able to bless my boyfriend's life with the kissing face or the pink glitter heart. Not using emojis doesn't just affect you, but also the ones you love.
A couple of hours in I found I'd had to delete more than one emoji. I don't smoke, but I'd guess that giving up emojis is exactly as challenging as giving up cigarettes; your finger instinctively flicks back to them before your brain can process what you're doing, before you've even realised you've hit the A-OK hand 17 times in a row.
Within a couple of hours, my boyfriend knew something was up. He sent me a text: "Is there a reason you haven't sent me any emojis today? Are you mad?" Which, I suppose, shows how out of character the whole thing was for me. But I blew off his concern, insisting I just really love the words now and wanted to be faithful to the words.
Salma: I was at Wilderness Festival, feeling smug about not using emojis for precisely one solitary day, and decided to give a full-on digital detox a whirl. I didn't need my phone anyway – not when I had booze and a literary tent and the knowledge I wasn't at work but the majority of my friends definitely were.
Two hours later, I was stressing. How could I post Instagram pics with emojis? How could I send irritating "I'm here skinny dipping in the lake / fire-walking / drinking lots of cider and you're at the office" messages to my friends without the help of the smiley devil face to make it clear that I'm not actually a huge dickhead? It was like having a meal and not being able to taste anything.
Yasmin: By this point I'd decided to compensate for the visible lack of emotion in all my messages by using loads of exclamation marks, because people who use loads of exclamation marks come across as happy, right!!?!?!?! Turns out: no. You just look like you really, really need to up your Xanax dose. That, or people think you're being sarcastic. I got a message while planning an evening out with my friend Cherish, for instance, that read: "Why do you sound so bored?" Even the addition of extra exclamation marks didn't have her convinced.
Salma: My phone had run out of battery at this point, which, yes, is kind of cheating in the whole "don't use emojis challenge", but also an act of God and something that was completely out of my control.
Yasmin: It was Friday and I was actually getting used to living an emoji-free life. I had grand plans to do absolutely nothing with my evening, bar ignore all incoming messages and watch Netflix, but then something happened: I found out that Iris Apfel – the 94-year-old businesswoman and fashion icon – had released her own line of emojis. I am a massive Iris Apfel fan. I follow her on Instagram; I periodically make my friends re-watch the documentary that was released about her in 2014; I plan to buy all of her belongings at auction and become her in later life. So naturally, my first reaction upon hearing about her emoji line was to download it from the app store. Problem was, I couldn't actually use any of the emojis yet, so I just called it an early night, turned all the lights off and went to sleep, because seriously what's the point.
Salma: I gave in and blew £10 to charge my phone, and then I gave in again. One of my closest friends was leaving for China for good, and our Whatsapp conversation felt flat – like I couldn't care less about our 15 years of friendship. So I used an emoji. Or, actually, three emojis: the China flag, cocktails and my favourite, the aubergine. I regret nothing, but I was slightly shocked at how I had to resort to emojis to lift the mood.
Yasmin: From the outset, I knew the weekend would be hard; Saturday is a key day for making plans, and it's near-impossible to make a plan without using emojis, because without them there are zero ways to convey your excitement / joy / apprehension, etc, etc, etc. Because of this, I actually typed "thumbs up" when a friend messaged me to confirm our plans for the evening, which seemed absolutely fine at the time, but – in retrospect – does not. I was very much looking forward to using emojis again.
Salma: Going emoji free is harder than giving up drink during Ramadan; at least with that you know there's something nice in a glass waiting for you right at the very end. With this, the reward is being able to send your friend an instantly forgettable illustration of a pizza slice. Day five sucked.
Yasmin: Hungover and feeling incredibly sorry myself, I didn't feel the need to message too many friends to complain, because looking at a screen was painful and overwhelming. So that worked in my favour, I guess, and as I eventually watched the clock tick over past midnight, I felt some kind of sense of accomplishment. I had gone five whole days without using any emojis, and was maybe better for it?
A TIME FOR REFLECTION
Salma: The most unexpected aspect of the experiment was that I felt that my personality had been compromised. It's hard to convey any real emotion with words alone; you just sound miserable the entire time. I'm sure people managed it on SMS before emojis existed, but I – like many of my friends – really must now be conditioned to rely on them to communicate certain things.
Yasmin: If this experiment proved anything it's that I, totally unconsciously, use emojis way more than I thought I did at the beginning of this week. Don't bother hating me; I already despise myself for what I've become.
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