Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year isn’t really a word at all. It’s an emoji. TIME magazine reports:
Caspar Grathwohl, the president of Oxford Dictionaries, explained that their choice reflects the walls-down world that we live in. “Emoji are becoming an increasingly rich form of communication, one that transcends linguistic borders,” he said in a statement. And their choice for the word of the year, he added, embodies the “playfulness and intimacy” that characterizes emoji-using culture.
It’s true that emojis have begun to dominate our national—and global—conversations over the past year. They’ve inspired a book. Some have tried to communicate entirely through their medium. I even found an “Emojisaurus.”
For the less practiced (or obsessed?) emoji user, the little symbols are a fun way to explain ourselves further when space and time are both short, and when we cannot see the face of the person communicating with us. Emojis help to further explain our mood, to add a touch of humor to a text or post, to bring a glimmer of creativity or personality to our online communication.
On the other hand, emojis can also quickly dominate our conversations, making it even more difficult to communicate. They may become a stand-in for details, feelings, or expressions that we could (or even perhaps should) use words to describe. They may become a crutch we use to display emotive feeling. And for those who do not use them, their absence may result in misunderstandings and hurt feelings: in her book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle notes that her daughter thought her text messages were terse or angry, because they lacked the punctuation and emoticons she’d come to expect from her peers:
Why does my daughter think I am angry with her when I text? She explains: ‘Mom, your texts are always, like, “Great.” And I know it’s not great. What’s happening? What are you really thinking?’ There is no convincing her. When I texted her ‘Great,’ it was because that really was what I meant. If she were with me in person, that is what I would have said. But “Great” as a text message is cold. At the very least, it needs a lot of explanation points. … I add emojis to my iPhone. Emojis are little pictures of cats, hearts, buildings, lightning bolts, many hundreds of little things, and I feel ridiculous when I use them. I use them anyway. I ask my daughter if they are helping. She makes it clear that she knows I am trying.
The anecdote is humorous, in part because probably all of us know someone who’s struggled to communicate their real emotions or mood via text. But in a larger sense, what does this move to the emoji exemplify? What does it communicate about our current state of communication?
My generation in particular seems to love emojis—along with other forms of image-based communication, such as the gif or meme. Such images often convey the color and wit we want to bring to our conversations. They encapsulate the feeling of a sitcom one-liner or Youtube video punch line—for the millennials, who grew up watching television and viral videos online, they’re a lingua franca of pop culture references and humor we can call upon.
But what happens when such image-based communication becomes a replacement for dialogue—when an emoji becomes the “word of the year” in 2015, even though it isn’t really a word at all?
This seems to be a further conquering of the image over the word—the typographic being subsumed into the visual. This isn’t a new trend, but it definitely has picked up steam in the internet and smartphone age. One of the greatest concerns Neil Postman had with this trend (as he explains in Amusing Ourselves to Death) was that it influenced not just the way we communicated, but also the content of our communication. He believed the television age was also, because of its medium, the age of entertainment. And it seems that the internet age hasn’t changed its focus all that much: the subject of all our emojis, memes, and gifs is usually humor and light-heartedness. They keep us in the realm of the happy or silly—turning the corner in a conversation that begins to grow “too serious,” offering a note of flippant humor in the midst of a debate.
There’s nothing wrong with humor or light-heartedness; but it is wrong if our conversations continue to stay there, ever at the simmering point, never allowed to boil. It’s when we convey deep emotions or strongly-held views through dialogue that we learn more about each other, and about ourselves. We need words in order to express the entirety of our character, souls, thoughts. Emojis are fun—but they can’t do that. Not in the same way, with the same depth.
I write all this as someone who enjoys using emoji. It’s fun and light-hearted. I send my running friend pictures of cheetahs and lightning bolts and flexed muscles before her marathons. But if emojis take over our conversations, we could lose something priceless: the ability to go deeper, past the (literally) cartoonish, and into the realm of the real—where earnest and meaningful conversations reside.