Magazine article The Spectator

The Rise of Emoji

Magazine article The Spectator

The Rise of Emoji

Article excerpt

Why my generation has fallen for the smiley-face cult

On the way home from dinner with girlfriends I composed my usual thank-you text. Smashing company, delicious food, must see you all again. A couple of kisses. Feeling this wasn't enough, I added a line of coloured pictures: an ice cream in a cone, a slice of cake with a strawberry on top, a bar of chocolate, a cup of steaming coffee -- near enough representations of the puddings we had shared.

The replies came back: smiley faces, rows of hearts, bowls of spaghetti (it had been an Italian), martini glasses.

My friends and I are in our late twenties and early thirties, yet we communicate using emoji: the sort of cute, pastel-coloured symbols that we'd have been embarrassed to have in our primary school sticker albums. What has possessed otherwise articulate, professional women -- barristers, solicitors, doctors, English teachers, financial journalists, all with degrees -- to end their text messages and social media posts with pink hearts, sparkly diamonds and glossy apples?

Until a few months ago, I rolled my eyes at smiley faces and bunny rabbits. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s I had resisted emoticons -- punctuation marks combined to give an expressive smiley or sad face. I winced at the texts sent by one boyfriend full of grinning parentheses and winking semicolons. He spoke four languages and he had a doctorate -- why did he type like a toddler?

A couple of years ago, everyone I knew bought iPhones, which have more than 700 emoji symbols in bright, cartoon colours. I still had a five-year-old non-smart phone that registered any emoji it received as a series of black rectangles and dots -- about as cute as Morse code. But at my computer, on Twitter, I could see them: little can-can lines of sweeties, balloons, hearts and stars. I decided that anyone who used them was an imbecile, an infantilised kidult.

Then, three months ago, my battered old phone with its dodgy battery gave up the ghost. I was persuaded by the persistent assistant in Vodafone to upgrade to an iPhone -- and within a fortnight I was suckered.

I joined the photo-sharing site Instagram, where emoji are the lingua franca. I started posting pictures of spring flowers accompanied by little tulip emojis and of lunchtime frittatas with tiny emoji frying pans and tinier emoji eggs.

Emoji were dreamt up in the mid-1990s by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese tech developer, as a way of making unfashionable corporate pagers appeal to teenagers. The name combines the Japanese word for picture, 'e', with character, 'moji'. It wasn't until the advent of the colour-screen smartphone that the idea began its march to world domination. …

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