:: State of tech

Emoji: communication with a smile :-)

The expression of emotion in the written word is quite an art. But it’s not very efficient: it takes time and energy to do it right. In the last decades, we’ve iterated through several ways to optimize communicating our emotions. What steps did we go through?

It’s all smileys

The pace of (digital) communication has increased dramatically over the last decades. In the same time it would’ve cost a 1900’s British duke to write a love letter to his (hopefully) future partner, the average user of social media today has declared unconditional love to at least a couple dozen tweets, Instagrams, or instant messages.

Conveying emotion in written communication used to be a case of simply finding the right words. But finding the right words isn’t always easy: even simple emotions can be difficult to express in a way that isn’t open to interpretation, particularly since it’s easy for someone else’s sarcasm to fly under your irony radar. For example, the sentence “The mother-in-law is visiting today. Great!” can be interpreted in more than just one way, and the first interpretation that comes to mind very likely depends on your own experience(s).


When scientist Scott Fahlman suggested using :-) and :-( in 1982, his goal was to make sure it was easy for everyone to tell jokes from serious remarks. The idea got picked up by readers very quickly, and as a result, the predecessor of the internet (ARPANET) was full of similar smiley faces only a couple of months later.

The proposed smiley faces fit perfectly with technology at the time, since computers didn’t have a lot of processing power and could only display text characters, no pixel graphics. On top of that, connections were all (very) low bandwidth. In other words: it was important to make every bit on the line count.

Many were inspired by this addition to traditional text communication, and suggested clever and funny additions to the theme. Not all of them became as popular as :-) but here are some you are likely to encounter in the wild:

  • ;-) Don’t take this too seriously, wink!
  • :'-( Sad, crying
  • :-P Naughty laugh
  • :-9 Delicious! Licking lips
  • <>< Fish
  • @= Mushroom cloud
  • *<<<- Christmas tree

Is a smile universal?

The :-) gained popularity on ARPANET fast, but the network was only available to a limited set of people living in the US, making it a relatively local trend. Several years after Fahlman introduced the idea of the smiley, a different type of emoticon started to get noticed on the other side of the globe.

  • ^_^ The Japanese equivalent of the :-) with the carets representing the eyes.

These type of smileys are called kaomoji, which is Japanese for “face characters”, and they were initially used in the signatures of messages on the Japanese online service called ASCII-NET. When the service started growing in the late 80’s, users started using them as a less formal and clearer way of communicating.

Kaomoji exist in a great variety of ways, with different styles trending in China, Korea and other Asian countries, each including characters from their respective languages. What kaomoji all have in common is that they can be read without turning your head sideways. This approach made for a whole new level of creativity when it came to creating new faces, and the possibilities got even bigger with the introduction of new text characters:

  • (T_T) Crying
  • (^*^') Sweating
  • *(~*^) Wink
  • ♪┏(・o・)┛♪┗ ( ・o・) ┓♪┏ ( ) ┛♪┗ (・o・ ) ┓♪┏(・o・)┛♪ Dancing
  • お(^o^)や(^O^)す(^。^)みぃ(^-^)ノ゙ Good night!
  • (╯°□°)╯ ︵ ┻━┻ Table flip
  • Ƹ̵̡Ӝ̵̨̄Ʒ Butterfly

The usage of emoticons grew enormously after the internet was introduced and instant (text-only) messaging became mainstream in de 90’s with AIM, MSN and ICQ. However, there was one problem — with Eastern countries mostly using kaomoji, and Western countries mainly using smileys, a smile from Japan or a wink from the US were still not universally understood.

The right idea, at the right time

In the second half of the 90’s, the Japanese interface designer Shigetaka Kurita was part of a team designing one of the very first mobile communication services, called i-mode. With mobile phone screens still being tiny at the time, and mobile data being expensive and paid per byte sent and received, a decision was made to limit the length of email messages to 250 text characters. In a sense, mobile text communications at that time faced challenges similar to those 15 years earlier.

Kurita realised it was difficult to express yourself with just words in only 250 characters and subsequently started designing symbols to allow users to make the best use of the available space. The result was a set of about 200 symbols representing not just facial expressions, but also multiple red hearts, several animals, weather icons and everyday objects such as cars, cutlery and electronics. Kurita had created the very first set of emoji, which roughly translates to “picture characters”.

Image of the first set of emoji

Setting the standard for digital emotions

The 12×12 pixels emoji became a selling point for i-mode, and competitors rushed to implement similar symbols in their messaging systems. This created a whole new problem; with every competitor implementing their own set of symbols and different technical implementations, using emoji was not cross-platform compatible.

Some services created emoji translation tables to provide better compatibility, but the real solution to the problem came when in 2007, several Google employees submitted a request to include emoji in The Unicode Standard. Unicode is a standard for indexing characters from all over the world and describes how computers should encode them for worldwide compatibility. The request was honoured and thousands of emoji have been added since.

Unicode is so well adopted these days, you can copy a sentence including emoji on Facebook and seamlessly paste it in iMessage, WhatsApp or a new tweet without losing the meaning of the message!

I <3 it when a plan comes together

Smileys, kaomoji, emoji. They are very similar ideas, beautifully developed within the restrictions of the technology of the time they were invented in. All of them are a huge success, most likely because they help people express themselves better, with less effort.

That doesn’t mean to say that emoji have eliminated the problem of miscommunication. A message challenging friends to a refreshing water battle using (what looks to be) the water pistol emoji might turn up on their screens as a real looking pistol or revolver. Imagine a gangster getting a text with the water pistol emoji in there. Better check which brand of phone the opponent has before leaving the house.



Regularly breaking stuff before our customers do, together with my amazing co-workers ;-)

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