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The History of Emoticons and Emojis

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Have you ever wondered what emoticons and emojis have in common, or how they even came to be? Well, since we love empowering our readers with knowledge, we took the time and put together this in-depth article which should break down these two modern ways of communication that have changed our lives so greatly.

From the early days of humanity, our ability to communicate has played a key factor in completely shaping the way we as members of the same species interact with each other, allowing us to elevate not only our minds but also the world that we live in.

This all began when our early ancestors figured out ways of exchanging pieces of information between different members of a group, through a common system of symbols, signs, and eventually words. These slowly but surely formed the tools that we now refer to as language, which the Britannica Encyclopedia defines as:

"Language, a system of conventional spoken or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release."

As the human population started growing and covering different geographical areas, the number of languages grew exponentially. SIL International (originally known as the Summer Institute of Linguistics) reported that in 2018 it identified and cataloged roughly 7,097 spoken languages: 2,300 in Asia alone, 2,143 in Africa, 1,306 in the Pacific, 1,060 in the Americas, and 288 in Europe.

spoken languages around the world

Just imagine, 7,097 languages and your average person speaks roughly two or three out of all of them. So what happens when two foreigners try to engage in the act of communication?

In 1948, Claude Elwood Shannon and Warren Weaver developed the Shannon-Weaver Model of Communication in which they postulated that for a successful exchange of information to occur, a sender (the source) needs to encode a message (the information) that will then be passed down a channel (the medium) to the receiver which will then decode it.

shannon-weaver model of communication

Even though the model was introduced as a way of improving technical communication for telephone lines, it was later applied to all kinds of communications since it helped develop effective communication.

This all sounds pretty straightforward, but what happens when the receiver can’t decode the message due to the fact that it was encoded using a different set of words, or more precisely a different language?

Well, nothing much really, since the information simply won’t be able to make its way across, creating what is commonly known as a language barrier, which can be a great source of frustration.

Imagine going to your local food market and trying to buy a few apples. Easy, right? Now let’s say that there’s only one farmer that sells apples, and this particular person speaks another language, a foreign one that you don’t know at all.

At first, without knowing it, you’ll open the conversation and send your message across by telling him the number of apples that you’d like to buy, but after a few moments you’ll notice that he doesn’t seem to understand you.

At this point, you could easily fix the problem by changing the encoding of your message from spoken words to visual signs, and indicating the product and quantity using your fingers.

Now let’s take a slightly different example, where the entire conversation takes place outside of a face-to-face scenario, where the message is encoded using written text, such as an instant messaging app.

We've all been in that situation when we've had a huge crush on a person, but we've never had the courage to let her/him know how we truly feel. We would start writing long sentences, and then quickly delete them one word at a time, since we couldn't find the exact words, or we would be frightened of the other person's reaction.

As with the previous example, a quick and easy solution would be to change the encoding from letters to emoticons or emojis which have a powerful impact on their own. Not only will this engage the other person into partaking in the conversation, but it will also force you to take a shot and express your feelings.

While these might not be the best examples that I could have come up with, the idea is that sometimes words, whether spoken or written, are not the best solution to a communication problem created by language barriers or social inhibitions. Sometimes, we need to adapt our message to the situation, and try and make it as clear and succinct as possible using the easiest way of getting our thoughts across without losing too much information.

Whether to express love or to communicate things like the weather or your current state of mind (sadness, happiness, etc.), symbols have become powerful means of expression that we intertwine more and more with our other ways of communication.

This is where emoticons and emojis come in play, since they allow you to adapt to almost any conversation, giving you the ability to communicate your inner emotions more quickly and easily using visual symbols that the other person can relate to.

1. Definition and Point of Origin

Most of the time, when people start thinking of emoticons or emojis, for some reason they end up portraying the same visual entity, since both of them are used with the purpose of enhancing an ongoing conversation.

While the latter is true, the two are quite distinct forms of visual representations, as we will get to see in the following moments.

1. Emoticon

The term emoticon (i-ˈmō-ti-ˌkän / plural emoticons) was created by blending together the words emotion and icon, and is commonly defined as a typographic representation composed of punctuation marks, numbers and letters meant to illustrate a facial expression capable of conveying emotions in a text-only medium.

example of basic emoticons

The first documented use of the modern concept dates back to the year 1982, in a message published by computer scientist Scott Elliott Fahlman within the bulletin boards of the Carnegie Mellon University.

Back in the day, faculty staff and students alike constantly created posts in which they discussed different topics of the day.

As one would expect, many of these posts were intended to be serious, while others were meant to be humorous. The problem was that often the reader would fail to catch sarcastic remarks due to the nature of written language, which lacks tone and body language.

Such was the case with a specific post, in which during a physics riddle, one Neil Swartz mentioned a mercury leak within one of the faculty’s elevators.

“16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question

This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:

There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to  the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls.

What happens to the candle and the mercury?”

What happened was that other users that read the post either hadn’t followed the entire conversation or they didn’t catch his subtlety, so they ended up assuming that there was indeed a mercury spill, causing a wave of terror among the other students.

Of course, Neil quickly pointed out that people had gotten it wrong, and was the first to propose that they use a convention where all subjects that were to be taken as jokes were marked using a star (*).

“17-Sep-82 10:58    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Elevator posts

Apparently there has been some confusion about elevators and such.  After talking to Rudy, I have discovered that there is no mercury spill in any of the Wean hall elevators.  Many people seem to have taken the notice about the physics department seriously.

Maybe we should adopt a convention of putting a star (*) in the subject field of any notice which is to be taken as a joke.”

This started a whole debate on what symbol should be used, to which Professor Fahlman found an elegant solution by suggesting that people should explicitly mark the posts that were not to be taken serious using the :-) character sequence, while using :-( for those that were.

“19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman :-)

From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>

I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:

:-)

Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use

:-(“

As we now know, this convention quickly became a norm spreading out to other universities, giving birth to what we now call emoticons.

2. Emoji

The etymology of the term emoji (ē-ˈmō-jē / plural emoji, emojis) comes from within the Japanese language, where e stands for picture/illustration and moji for character. An emoji is defined as a pictographic depiction of any small image, symbol or icon used within a digital text conversation in order to express the emotional state of the writer, enabling the writer to succinctly convey information in a playful manner.

simple emoji example

The concept was invented back in the year 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita while working on i-mode, the early mobile internet platform of the Japanese Carrier NTT DoCoMo, which encompassed a wide variety of internet standards including web access and email.

While the system allowed the use of emails, they were limited to 250 characters, which he strongly believed could impair the users’ ability to express themselves, since they were forced to use words in such a small message.

Kurita sought to ease the communication by conveying information in a simple, succinct manner using pictograms instead of typographic characters. Taking inspiration from marks used in weather forecasts, manga, and other sources, he designed a total of 176 icons, created on a 12 x 12 px grid that incorporated not just facial expressions, but other symbols (hearts, fist bumps, peace signs, etc.) capable of adding emotional subtext to a message.

example of original emoji icons

While the model was instantly replicated by other Japanese telecom companies, it took almost 11 years (1999–2010) for the symbols to be standardized and incorporated into Unicode, which is a computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world's writing systems.

In 2011, Apple started officially supporting emojis within iOS by adding a dedicated set of icons within its own keyboard, and it was followed by Google two years after.

With the official adoption of Unicode and the support of these two tech giants, emoji was finally going to become its own universal language.

2. Similar but Different: A Quick Comparison

Now that we have a better understanding of the two notions, let's take a couple of moments and see what they have in common and what sets them apart.

2.1. Form

As we already pointed out, emoticons are typographical representations, meaning they are usually built using keyboard characters (punctuation marks, letters and/or numbers) that are positioned in such a way that they end up depicting a sideways facial expression or in some cases a simple real-world object.

example of building an emoticon icon

The complexity of the design is directly influenced by the person creating them and how they choose to use its different composing characters, which means that the person doesn't necessarily have to be a designer.

complex emoticons example

Emojis, on the other hand, are characters in themselves, which means that instead of having to create them from scratch, you can simply open up your keyboard and find one that suits your needs, or copy them from another source if you're using an application that doesn't already have them built in.

Compared to emoticons, emojis are usually created by an experienced designer within a dedicated vector software program, using basic geometric shapes and paths that are then exported and encoded in order to be used with Unicode.

example of modern emoji

Even though many people tend to think that emojis are usually round, today we have a huge variation in terms of form, which allows designers to paint different images of the same concept.

flo emoji icon pack by graphicriver
Flo Emojis Icon Pack by GraphicRiver

Some go to such an extent that they end up anthropomorphizing simple objects or even symbols with human emotion, sometimes managing to bring a bigger emphasis to the message.

pink heart emoji icon pack
Pink Heart Emoji Icon Pack by GraphicRiver

On the other hand, if you need to create a library of emojis, but you're not a fully fledged designer yourself, you can always head over to Envato Elements, where you can find a great selection of editable vector packs such as these that might help you out.

emoji icon pack example
Emoji Icon Pack by Envato Elements
flat design emoji set
Flat Design Emoji Set by Envato Elements

Another key difference between the two has to do with the use of colors within their different composing elements. In this regard, emoticons suffer a huge disadvantage, since they only come as flat monochromatic symbols, which is understandable if we take a look at their typographic nature.

example of use of colors with emoticons

Emojis usually come with a larger set of colors, due to their more complex nature, yellow usually being the base color used for the character's skin tone.

While we're not absolutely sure why, many including myself tend to believe that the design decision was inspired from Harvey Ball, who back in 1963 invented the smiley or smiley face, using out of all the possible colors yellow as the main one to represent the human face.

recreation of harvey balls original smiley face

That being said, a few slimmed-down versions called smileys were popular on older phones that used monochromatic displays. 

Now, while some might jump in and say that these were in fact emoticons, I tend to look at them as being a more primitive version of emojis that were created by converting typographic symbols into pictographic images, so kind of a bridge between the two.

example of smiley icons
Smiley Line Icons by Envato Elements

2.2. Content

As we saw at the beginning, the ability to correctly send a message across can make or break a conversation, which is why the content that's being depicted needs to be easily understandable.

When using a specific emoticon, the sender needs to be certain that the receiver will be able to decipher its intended meaning, which can sometimes be hard to accomplish since not everybody has the same level of imagination.

This implies that both the sender and receiver need to get good at using them, which is usually done by adding the symbols to their personal lingo through the process of memorization.

example of hard to understand emoticons

Emojis, on the other hand, are designed in such a way that their idea is clearly portrayed at a first glance, which is one of the primary reasons why they've been adopted so rapidly.

2.4. Function

When it comes to function, both emoticons and emojis fulfill the same role of enabling users to express themselves in a manner that is more humane than regular plain text, by creating a deeper impact in the reader's mind when it comes to understanding the intensity and direction of an emotion or attitude. 

As we've seen, this is accomplished through the use of lesser or more complex imagery which helps convey not only emotions, but ideas and actual intents from one user to another. By adding these type of symbols within a conversation, the user is able to increase or decrease its tone, thus influencing the other person's mood and state of mind.

Let's take a quick and easy example, in which we want to communicate our feelings of love for another person.

If we were to send out a simple text message saying "I love you", the intensity of the feeling may not be perceived as intended due to the lack of other stimulants.

"I love you"

Of course, we could finish the sentence by adding an exclamation mark, which should give the words more depth and move the love meter a few lines.

"I love you!"

Now, watch what happens if we add a simple heart at the end.

"I love you❤️"

By adding a visual symbol that we are all too familiar with, our brain gets stimulated in a way that allows us to visualize the face of our loved one and experience different feelings that text alone can't produce.

Let's take another example in which two people are talking about their current mood and one of them responds by simply saying:

"I'm OK"

Now, if the entire scenario were taking place within a face-to-face environment, one could observe the facial expression and conclude if indeed that person is feeling okay.

If we take the same context and put it within a text-based communication environment, words alone would make it far harder to grasp the true state of the sender.

But what happens if we add a simple sad face at the end of the same sentence?

"I'm OK :("

If the receiver is familiar with the symbol (which shouldn't be a problem in this case), it should be easy to understand that the sender is in fact sad and engage in a series of questions aimed towards understanding the root of the problem, which should then be followed by a period of comforting.

Compared to written text, emojis are easier to decipher because their representations are less abstract, which takes away the tinkering process and produces an immediate understanding of the signified intent and language itself.

Due to this fact, emojis will always create a more profound effect than emoticons, allowing the human brain to be stimulated more profoundly.

At the end of the day, it doesn't really matter what form you end up using, since when introduced to a conversation, both will end up enhancing it by adding substance to what would otherwise be a plain piece of text.

3. Evolution and Cultural Impact

Whether we see it or not, technology is constantly interfering with our day-to-day lives, slowly shaping who we are and what we choose to become, giving us new tools to overcome what was once thought impossible.

From rocket-driven spaceships to instant messaging, the human race is on a course of re-inventing itself in ways that our grandparents never dared to dream of, and it’s all happening right now, right here under our very own eyes.

The way we communicate and interact with one another is in a constant state of transformation, as new vehicles of communication are introduced through technology.

That being said, I strongly believe that emoticons can and should be perceived as the first modern digital form of expression, an attempt at a universal language in its one right, that was created out of a need for carrying one’s emotions beyond the barrier of any language, which is exactly what it allowed us to do.

While they haven't changed at all over the years (which is a statement in itself of their efficiency), these little typographic creations have enabled us to bring deeper meaning to our otherwise tone-deaf conversations, making it easier for us to capture the true intent of the message.

Today, emoticons have seen a decrease in use, mainly due to the smaller range of feelings and real-life objects that they can convey, allowing emojis to take the helm of this digital communication revolution. 

Compared to their smaller brothers, emojis have come a long way in terms of both form and function, which can be directly attributed to the ongoing technological advancements (particularly smartphones) and the world population's increasing access to this technology.

If, in the beginning, they only covered a specific portion of the different known cultures, today we have more and more variations added each year, from different skin tone colors to international cuisine and holidays, which results in an ever-growing glossary of symbols that can be used to create comprehensive sentences on their own.

Just imagine the number of things you can express using just a sequence of visual symbols, from I'm sad (😢) to peace (✌️) or even funny things like 📺🤣🤣🤣 without having to send out a specific set of instructions on how to read them.

Common expressions such as lolI love youI like it that were over-saturated with use have quickly been replaced with mind-pleasing symbols such as 😂, ❤️, 👍, creating a culturally understood link between the image and the concept that is being conveyed.

Now, whether or not we realize it, these forms of expression have become an intrinsic part of our ways of communication, as professor Vyvyan Evans pointed out, surpassing the reach of most common languages and demonstrating their global accessibility and function.

The simple fact that we can send a 😍 to any person on the planet, and they immediately understand it for what it is, demonstrates the impact that this visual form of representation has on culture, by creating bridges where previously language barriers did not permit them.

Going beyond that, emojis have become intermediaries for both one's self-identity and a broader, cultural identity due to the fact that they depict real-life objects, traits and values that people can identify with, which are reflected within their use.

For example, people who are extremely friendly and socially confident might be inclined to overuse positive, outgoing emojis such as kisses (😚), hugs (🤗), fist bumps (👊), etc.

On the other hand, people who are tend to shy away from social interaction might tend to use more reserved symbols such as 🙄,  😀, 👍.

By simply observing people's patterns, you can start forming an idea of their personalities, which is something that regular text can't facilitate to the same extent.

On the other hand, emojis can also provide a digital mask, an ego pumper where a person can become something entirely different, thus enabling both positive and negative behaviors.

At this point, I could go on listing new notions and observations, but I won't since I'm pretty confident I've proved my point. Whether we like it or not, emojis are going to continue shaping our ways of communication, transforming both our interactions with one another and our identities.

4. The Future

When it comes to the future, these days it's kind of hard to make an accurate prediction, since things are changing at an alarming rate due to different factors from technological breakthroughs to cultural awareness, trends, and fads.

Considering their current state, I tend to believe that emojis are here to stay, but their form and ability to convey information will probably change a lot during the upcoming years, which is clearly suggested by the appearance of Apple's animoji.

If you don't know what animojis are, well they're a new breed of emojis that are capable of imitating a person's facial expression through the use of powerful face tracking technology.

While I personally haven't used the feature, I'm amazed at the level of craftsmanship that has been put into it, and I'm looking forward to seeing how people will go about adopting it in the near future.

Emoticons, on the other hand, will probably end up being faded out and completely replaced by emoji in a similar way that older phones took the typographic characters entered by the user and automatically converted them to smileys. You'll either won't use them at all, or the app/tool will immediately convert them to similar thought-provoking emojis when used.

Conclusion

While this article started out as a simple guide to what emoticons and emoji are, it slowly but surely ended up becoming a scientific exploration that tries (and for the bigger part of it succeeds) to bring substance to these two visual forms of expression.

That being said, I hope that after reading the piece you've managed to expand your knowledge on the subject and most importantly had fun while doing so.

Want to Learn More?!

So, we've talked about emojis, but how about taking a stab at creating one? Well, in hopes that we've piqued your interest, we've set out and hand-picked a collection of in-depth tutorials that will help you create your own sets:


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