When I saw the news that Apple was about to bring 217 new emojis to the world, I did what I always did: I asked my students what it meant to them. “We hardly use them anymore,” they scoffed. For them, many emojis are like over-excited dance moves at weddings: reserved for clumsy millennials. “And they are all misusing them anyway,” added my Gen Z cohort gravely.
My work focuses on how people use technology, and I’ve followed the rise of emoji for a decade. With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion characters sent daily, emojis are a major language system today.
When the emoji database is updated it usually reflects the demands of the time. For example, this latest update includes a new vaccine syringe and more same-sex couples.
But when my students have something to offer, emojis are also a battlefield of generations. Like skinny jeans and side parting, the “laughing, crying emoji,” better known as iet, fell into disrepute among young people in 2020 – just five years after it was voted Word of the Year 2015 in the Oxford Dictionaries. For Gen Z TikTok users, unsuspecting Millennials are responsible for rendering many emojis completely unusable – to the point that some in Gen Z barely use emojis anymore.
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Research can help explain these leggings about emojis. Because their meaning is interpreted by users who are not dictated from above, emojis have a long history of creative use and coded messaging. Apple’s 217 new emojis undergo the same creative process of interpretation: accepted, rejected, or used for other purposes by different generations, based on pop culture currents and digital trends.
Previously, the syringe emoji suggested drawing blood. The new, updated emoji is more like a vaccine. Apple / Emojipedia
Face the facts
When Shigetaka Kurita designed emojis in 1999, they were specifically intended for the Japanese market. But a little over a decade later, the Unicode Consortium, sometimes referred to as the “UN for Technology,” revealed these symbols to the entire world.
In 2011, Instagram tracked the ingestion of emojis through user messages and watched how 🙂 was eclipsed in just a few years :-). Old-style punctuated smileys now look just as dated on our LED screens as Shakespeare English: a mark of fogeyness in baby boomers (people born between 1946 and 1964) or an ironic throwback for Generation Z hipsters.
The Unicode Consortium now meets every year to review new types of emoji, including emojis that support inclusivity. In 2015, a new range of skin tones was added to existing emojis. In 2021, the Apple operating system update will include mixed and same-sex couples, and men and women with beards.
Not everyone was excited about the rise of the emoji. In 2018, a Daily Mail headline complained that “Emojis are ruining the English language,” citing research by Google that found 94% of respondents felt that English is deteriorating in part because of emoji use.
But such criticisms, sometimes voiced by boomers, tend to misinterpret emojis which, after all, are informal and talkative, not formal and oratory. Studies haven’t found any evidence that emojis have reduced overall literacy.
On the contrary, it seems that emojis actually improve our communication skills, including language acquisition. Studies have shown that emojis are an effective substitute for gestures in non-verbal communication and add a new dimension to text.
A 2013 study suggested that emojis connect to the area of the brain associated with recognizing facial expressions and make a 😀 as nutritious as a human smile. Given these results, it is likely that those who reject emojis are actually impoverishing their language skills.
The conflict between Gen Z and Millennials, meanwhile, arises from confused meanings. Although the Unicode Consortium has a definition for every symbol, including the 217 Apple to be released, they are often given new meanings in the wild. Many emojis have more than one meaning: a literal and a suggested meaning. Subversive, rebellious meanings are often created by young people: today’s Generation Z.
The eggplant 🍆 is a classic example of how the meaning of an innocent vegetable has been creatively reshaped by young people. The brain 🧠 is an emerging example of the emoji canon that has become innocent and dirty and which already has a large corpus.
These three emojis will also hit iPhones with Apple’s latest update. Their meaning has yet to be decided. Emojipedia / Apple
And it doesn’t stop there. With Gen Z at the forefront of digital culture, the emoji encyclopedia is developing new ironic and sarcastic double meanings. It’s no wonder millennials can’t keep up and keep causing outrage among younger people who consider themselves highly emoji-literate.
Emojis remain powerful means of emotional and creative expression, even if some in Gen Z claim they have become obsolete through abuse. This new batch of 217 emojis will be used across generations and communities, each claiming different meanings and combinations. The stage is set for another round of intergenerational ridicule.
This article, by Mark Brill, lecturer at the School of Games, Film and Animation at Birmingham City University, is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.