by Clive Thompson
TYLER SCHNOEBELEN HAS discovered something curious about why people use the skull emoji. Schnoebelen is a linguist and the chief analyst for Idibon, a firm that interprets linguistic data. So recently he got interested in emoji. He analyzed a million social media posts containing those familiar little pictograms and found that when people talk about their phones they’re 11 times more likely to use the skull.
Weird, right? But Schnoebelen thinks it makes sense. Our phones, he points out, are social lifelines, and when they malfunction—a weak signal, short battery life—we’re distraught. “When you don’t have access to your phone, or when nobody’s texting you, you’re socially dead,” he says. So we reach for an emoji that’s pregnant with that metaphor: the skull.
Fully 92 percent of all people online use emoji now, and one-third of them do so daily. On Instagram, nearly half of the posts contain emoji, a trend that began in 2011 when iOS added an emoji keyboard. Rates soared higher when Android followed suit two years later. Emoji are so popular they’re killing off netspeak. The more we use , the less we use LOL and OMG.
In essence, we’re watching the birth of a new type of language. Emoji assist in a peculiarly modern task: conveying emotional nuance in short, online utterances. “They’re trying to solve one of the big problems of writing online, which is that you have the words but you don’t have the tone of voice,” as my friend Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist and author, says.
Purists sniff. What have we become, children with crayons? Surely words alone can convey emotional tone? Maybe—if you’re a novelist with years of experience in the patient forging and editing of prose, McCulloch says. But we thumbfolk are writing speedily and conversationally, in bursts on SMS or Facebook. Of the 20 most frequently used emoji, nearly all are hearts, smilies, or hand gestures—the ones that emote. In an age of rapid chatter, emoji prevent miscommunication by adding an emotional tenor to cold copy.
We also use emoji to convey a sort of ambient presence, when words aren’t appropriate. Ryan Kelly, a computer scientist at the University of Bath, has found that when texters finish a conversation, they often trade a few emoji as nonverbal denouement. “You might not have anything else left to say,” Kelly says, “but you want to let the person know that you’re thinking of them.” So you send a couple of pandas. Or telescopes! Or some other symbol that seems witty. This is another aspect of emoji—many are open-ended. You’d think that would make them less language-like, but in fact friends use that malleability to invest specific emoji with their own private meanings. (My wife and I use the Easter Island head to connote absurdity.)
Indeed, people are even developing syntax and rules of use for emoji. Schnoebelen found that when we use face emoji, we tend to put them before other objects. If you text about a late flight, you’ll put an unhappy face followed by a plane, not the reverse. In linguistic terms, this is called conveying “stance.” Just as with in-person talk, the expression illustrates our stance before we’ve spoken a word.
All you social dystopians can unclutch your pearls; no linguist thinks this bodes the end of writing. Text is our most powerful, go-to communication tool. For most people, these ideograms are an upgrade. And what an unusual one! Language always changes, of course; slang is born, prances, and dies. But it’s exceedingly rare—maybe unprecedented—for a phonetic alphabet to suddenly acquire a big expansion pack of ideograms. In an age where we write more than ever, emoji is the new language of the heart.
Originally published in Wired.