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Emojis are a product of the digital communications revolution. They were designed specifically to help with mobile and online communication, and are also generated by this new technology themselves. So will they adapt to new forms of communication technology on the horizon? Or will we soon be looking back at them as a nostalgic fad tied to a particular era from the past? I spoke to Keith Broni of Emojipedia to discuss what the future might bring.
PS: The worldwide popularity of emojis is a little over a decade old now. On one level they’ve changed a lot in those years – they’ve grown in number, they’re more integrated into operating systems, their designs have become more sophisticated. But in essence, they’re much the same as they were when they first went global. And their future seems likely to depend on these essential qualities and purposes continuing to be relevant as communications technology develops.
KB: There are a number of different ways I approach this question. Firstly, I firmly believe that provided we’re still communicating with each other en masse via text in mediums such as text messaging or social media posting there will be a prominent place for emojis in digital discourse. Judging by our own research at Emojipedia, emojis have never been more popular on social media than they are today, even though certain emojis appear to have passed the peak of their popularity (😂 Face with Tears of Joy, specifically).
PS: Yes, it’s worth thinking of emojis as specifically being a form of writing. They’re digital writing, but with antecedents in handwriting and print. In other words, they may be a relatively ‘new’ system of communication, but they haven’t come out of nowhere. It seems likely, therefore, that as long as writing remains important for human communication, something akin to emojis will remain. So far, of course, they’ve mostly been tied to the keyboard, but some dictation software already includes them, and this may well expand.
KB: It would be remiss of me not to cite different means of digital text creation as potentially having an impact on emoji use. For example, the growth of voice notes as a means of communication may also negatively impact the popularity of emoji use, though we’ve yet to see that be the case.
In terms the future development, one relevant area is the number of emojis we can expect to see added to our emoji keyboards over the next number of years. This year the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee (the body which oversees the codification of emojis) will be recommending a smaller number of emojis than previously. Emojis that do get approved will almost certainly focus on concepts with a broad application to the human experience and how we interact with the world, especially if those can be combined with other emojis to create new concepts.
PS: Related to this is the issue of ‘emoji overload’ – whether there are, or will soon be, simply too many emojis in the lexicon. This has practical considerations (it can take longer to find the emoji you’re after) and conceptual considerations, as a limited system means people need to be creative in how they use what’s available to express the wide range of things they want to communicate. And creativity has always been one of the attractions to using emojis.
KB: With over 3,600 different possible emojis available at the moment, you could argue we would already have reached overload were it not for a search feature being added to most emoji keyboards several years ago. But I think it’s fair to say that while we may be running out of incredibly broad concepts to be added to the smileys and hand gesture categories, there will always be requests for different cultural objects and symbols, different global foods and drinks, and even different professions within the people category.
PS: A related issue is whether more realistic-looking designs are a positive or negative for how people actually use emojis. An argument against a trend towards ever more realistic-looking objects is that they become too specific and are thus less versatile for being used in metaphoric or creative ways.
KB: Realistic-looking designs don’t seem to have negatively impacted emoji popularity as a whole, but more realistic designs have certainly posed complications in terms of how applicable an emoji is in different circumstances. We’ve seen this in the past with gender representation in the people category, but you also have non-people examples such as the Wine Glass emoji being rendered by all platforms as containing red wine rather than white. This general issue has led the developer Jennifer Daniel at Google to produce the Noto Emoji font where gender, skin tone, and colour are all removed from emoji designs, creating more of a prototype of the concepts rather than anything too concrete.
PS: This all relates, of course, to one of the biggest changes that emojis have undergone over the last several years, and that’s the way they represent different communities and how they’ve moved away from cultural stereotypes (e.g. athletes and sportspeople being mostly depicted as men) to try to be more inclusive. Again, there’s an issue of how specific one can be within a constrained system, and what sort of cultural values underpin the sort of representation you’re aiming for. But it seems likely that this will continue to be an important issue for emojis just as it is for language more generally.
KB: Over the next decade, I expect increased representation in the people category of emojis to expand, and that perhaps skin tone emojis may at some stage be elaborated upon. There’ll also be more inclusive emojis, but ultimately the number of new emojis added to the emoji keyboard won’t exceed the 3,600+ that have been recommended since 2010, unless the process is to undergo a dramatic change. I think the most likely development in the short term will be adding further objects and symbols that encapsulate major global cultures or demographic groups.
PS: Of course, when answering questions like this, we’re making the assumption that our communications technologies will develop along roughly the same lines they have since the 1990s. If a completely disruptive technology comes along – AI-assisted telepathy, for example – then pretty much anything could happen.