I was texting a college friend when I first smacked into the power contained in a little yellow face.
We were moderately close in college, and since then we’d had that peculiar kind of long distance friendship wherein we’d grown closer despite seeing each other only a few times in six years. Texts and emails bridged the yawning gaps in between. I don’t remember the context now—I was no doubt bemoaning some disappointing aspect of my personal or professional life, as I am wont, for I am a brat—but my attempt to send her the flush smiling face, indicative of a great relieving happiness, augured into embarrassment and dismay: I accidentally sent the kissing face.
I quickly dashed off an asterisked addendum, pleading my case and apologizing profusely. “I Trumped you!” I texted her, and she, in good humor, shook off the inadvertent advance and found the incident highly amusing. We were good enough friends that she knew the emoji in question was an accidental one. But still, the hot horror that swept through me made one thing irrevocably clear.
Vyvyan Evans, an internationally renowned expert on communication and language, highlights these little images’ importance in The Emoji Code. Far from being the harbinger of literary doom, he argues that emojis actually enhance our language and our ability to wield it.
To Evans, today’s wildly popular form of textspeak is woefully lacking as a form of communication. While it can link people and disseminate information more quickly than ever, digital textspeak (e.g. SMS messages, emails, Facebook posts) have no way to communicate emotion. How many times have you misinterpreted a message, which in turn led to arguments with loved ones? Enter the emoji! Add an eye roll or a smile, and one’s intentions become clear. The emoji is our face and vocal inflections, the human glyph.
I was slow to embrace emojis, fearing they would make me look foolish or adolescent, a concern compounded by my career as a writer. As someone who makes his (barely solvent) living via the written word, I despaired at the idea of hieroglyphs usurping me! But as I texted with more frequent emoji users, I came around to their ease of use and, yes, emotional resonance.
An artist friend who is gloriously unafraid to pepper her communiqués with starry nights, percussive flashes and black hearts inspired me to speak in a visual vocabulary as robust as hers. I’ve failed so far—never compete with an artist in a pictorial palaver!— but the joy I get from speaking with her in a kind of code makes us feel closer. We can send each other jeweled strings, prismatic and trucked with feeling, which only we can fully comprehend. A simple pictogram expresses more than can be said in words.
When someone instantly recognizes the flush smile and the teardrop faces as “waving-your-hands-in-front-of-your-face-to-arrest-happy-tears,” it gives them a distinct image which can only be expressed otherwise via a hyphenated hydra. Or consider the aesthetic simplicity of the purple heart, which I use to express “friend love,” the kind of platonic but very deep and indescribable love one can have for another. It has gotten to the point where I have an emoji signature and emoji pet names, like a descendent of Egyptian hieroglyphs’ original purpose, which was to immortalize the names of rulers and gods.
The emoji, as Evans writes, is fleshing out our digital relationships, and it has unequivocally improved my own. Emojis are not to be feared, but embraced; not mocked, but studied. They represent a new addendum to the human capacity to communicate, and it is the most catholic addition yet.
B. David Zarley is a freelance journalist, essayis, and book/art critic based in Chicago. A former book critic for The Myrtle Beach Sun News, his work can be seen in The Atlantic, Hazlitt, Jezebel, Sports Illustrated, VICE Sports, Creators, Sports on Earth and New American Paintings, among numerous other publications. You can find him on Twitter or at his website.