The Story of Emoji
Talking to Gavin Lucas, who wrote the book on the characters that transformed the way we communicate. Presented by O2.
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Staying ahead in the modern world, with all its attendant noise, fads and distractions, is all about finding shortcuts. Shortcuts through life. Shortcuts in travel, brought to us courtesy of Sky Scanner, Uber and Citymapper; shortcuts to food, served up by Deliveroo and Ocado; shortcuts to love, via Grindr and Bumble; shortcuts to cultural authority, found by users of Shazam, Discogs and Netflix. Underpinning all of these are shortcuts in communication, which allow us to joke, flirt, fight and fuck with ever greater frequency and abandon, as our lives grow ever busier, the demands on our time ever more pressing. Strange, then, that the key to unlocking the modern world is a collection of tiny digital cartoon images, spearheaded by the grand ringmaster of them all: little yellow smiley face man.
In many senses, he is the king of the world now, little yellow smiley face man . He and his merry band of emoji – for that is the word used, in both singular and plural form, to describe the 1,851 or so characters currently trapped inside most of the devices you use on a daily basis – have completely transformed the way that we talk to each other. This isn't a shocking thing to say at all; it's already an established truth: it has long been the new normal to proclaim emoji as the lingua franca of the day. However, less is known about their past, about where they come from – pisstaking ghost guy, disembodied floating sex lips, dubious moon, inert aubergine dildo, horrified monkey, ubiquitous turd, jazz dolphin, Kardashian peach, worrying-who's-actually-using-this syringe. Let's not forget paedo frog.
Where on earth did you come from? You are our generation's real-life X-Men, popping up to save us whenever our social lives are in peril. It haunts me that we don't know more about your provenance.
Gavin Lucas is a man with answers. Gavin wrote a book called The Story of Emoji, digging deep into their genesis, slow burn progress and subsequent explosion into the popular consciousness. If emoji could write, this book would be their autobiography. But they can't. Because ultimately they are a collection of inanimate glyphs. So Gavin wrote it instead, presumably making himself filthy rich in the process .
In his book, Gavin explains the surprisingly deep-rooted and circuitous evolution of emoji, following their path to prominence back from the paging habits of Japanese schoolkids in the mid 90s, to stupid and essentially useless "dingbat font" Wingdings, to an American university professor named Scott Fahlman who claimed to be the first person ever to type, :), all the way to the expressive punctuation – the interrobang, the ironieteken, the snark mark – which were developed as alternatives to full-stops and exclamation marks as long ago as the 1600s. It's quite a complex history, which is why Gavin wrote a whole book about it, but where do they really come from, Gavin? Give us it in a nutshell.
"They come from Japan. They come from a time, the late 1990s, when it was just becoming possible to host and navigate the internet on mobile phones with shit one-colour screens. And they come from the mind of a man named Shigetaka Kurita."
Kurita, who was working for the predominant Japanese mobile networking firm NTT DoCoMo at the time, wanted to make the internet a "better, more engaging place" when viewed on one of those early mobile phones. He realised the "potency" – as Gavin puts it – "that simple symbols and images could have in a world of low resolution textual exchanges."
And even though technology has moved on significantly since those days, the emoji has endured and abided, not changing all that much. The key OGs from the early emoji days still dominate the attentions of our thumbs even now in 2016, when you can put on a pair of VR goggles and be transported to your lover in China whilst in your nan's house. In fact, it is their cross-generational appeal that has taken emoji this far: the fact that you can use them to find out if that someone special would like to come over at 5AM on a Sunday morning, at the same time as your mum sends you a text message over breakfast telling you she loves you and asking why you haven't called in a while. The ability of emoji to transcend language barriers should be obvious, too. As the ancient proverb goes, an inert aubergine dildo means the same thing in any language.
While their current supremacy cannot be denied, it's interesting to think about where emoji could go next. Could this "body language for the web", as tech writer Jeff Blagdon put it, ever come to replace words entirely?
"I think emoji need to be used alongside written language to be used in any kind of sophisticated way," says Gavin, pouring cold water on any burning emoji desire to take over the world. "On their own they make for a pretty crude language system."
While I'm sure you'll have friends who could articulately dispute this in a text message solely through the use of emoji, it makes sense. The power of emoji comes in their ability to cut through words, to undermine the need for their use, to boil down a sentiment, thought process or argument to a single image. But without words in the first place, their terse simplicity would lose its referent – there would be nothing for them to defeat, no linguistic equation for them to reduce to their microworld of cheery conversational algebra. Little yellow smiley face man would be cast adrift in a wordless, glyph-flooded nonsense-ocean of his own making.
And isn't that a good thing? Isn't all this quite infantile? What about those people who'd decry emoji and our reliance on them as the downfall of human civilisation? What would you say to them, Gavin?
"If you insist on sending turd emoji-based messages to people, then that's infantile. But who can begrudge anyone the ability to order a beer anywhere in the world AND find a bathroom without having to speak every single language known to man? People who decry anything that makes modern life more fun and communication more powerful as the 'downfall of civilisation' are gonna die sad and lonely, probably with cobwebs and dust all over their *aubergine emoji*."
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