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New emojis have arrived, but should we use them?

by Alexandra Samuel

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You’re forgiven if you think I’m smiling while asking you to ban your cat from pooping like the devil.

What I was actually saying is that I want to ban emojis, because they make me feel crappy, tearful and angry about how we communicate today.

Let me put on my old geezer hat while I tell you about the olden days. I’m not talking about the olden days when people actually got together with their friends, or wrote letters or (in the less-old olden days) talked on the phone. Those olden days sound terrible, and I’m glad that I’m young enough to largely forget them.

No, I’m talking about the olden days of six or seven years ago, when people were willing to share their thoughts in up to 140 characters of actual text. Some of us would even go longer, writing down our ideas in lengthy blog posts—I’m talking 600 or 700 words!—and other people would visit the blog posts, and read them (mostly), and then leave actual comments in actual text. The internet liberated us by making writing and publishing easier than Gutenberg ever imagined, so that the written word could flourish as a global, instant and intimate form of communication.

Then came 💩.

Emoji-speak contributes to a generational disorientation with an internet culture in which images are rapidly overtaking words.

💩 was part of the library of emojis—images that can be inserted into text messages, or increasingly, used to replace them—that made their way onto the world’s keyboards with the formal 2010 adoption of emojis by the Unicode Consortium, which sets industry standards for character sets. Unlike emoticons, which can be made up of standard Western typographic elements to simulate faces and feelings, emojis are actually tiny images designed to be typed and texted.

Like emoticons, emojis are an imperfect solution to a persistent flaw in digital communication: by separating communication from body language, we lose a lot of the cues and context that help us make sense of the intention and meaning of what somebody is saying. It’s this “thin-ness” of digital communication, as communication scholars call it, that leads to so many online misunderstandings and even flame wars. By providing signals about the mood of the sender, and adding a little whimsy to our messages, emojis help fill in the gaps and provide some context.

The problem is that what started as context has now become the message itself. It’s not uncommon to see people texting messages that consist entirely of emojis, or to leave a Facebook comment that consists of a single emoji-like sticker. Why stop and think about what I actually want to say to you, in my own original words, when some graphic designer has a reaction ready and waiting?

Quite apart from the accessibility issues (think about navigating emojis as a blind, or even color blind, internet user), emoji-speak contributes to a generational disorientation with an internet culture in which images are rapidly overtaking words. Those of us who grew up on printed software manuals that could double as doorstops have struggled with a new wave of software tools that are documented only through how-to videos. Where people once shared newspaper clippings, we now circulate 2-minute video clips. And Snapchat guides for the baffled over-30 set are proliferating so rapidly that they’ll soon qualify as their own literary genre.

I recognize that for many people, visual communication is more intuitive than text. For these visual learners and thinkers, the shift towards a visual communication culture makes relationship, learning and connection much easier, and enriches their interactions in ways that text alone cannot satisfy. To them, I say 👏🏼 👏🏼 👏🏼.  I’m delighted if emojis make them feel more at home online.

But I’m not as eager to embrace emojis as the new norm for human communication. When we give up the effort and complexity of the actual written word, we also forfeit the complexity of ideas that require actual explanation. We impoverish our communications by replacing content with whimsy, and by reducing our conversation to ideas that can be captured by a single face, kitten, or poop.

An inclusive online culture is one that makes room for visual flourishes and memes that help enliven our communications and fill in the gaps in our text. But if we give up actual writing in favor of an image-filled keyboard, we’re letting the sideshow take over the main event.

Alexandra Samuel

Alexandra Samuel is a technology speaker and writer, and the author of Work Smarter with Social Media: A Guide to Managing Evernote, Twitter, LinkedIn and Your Email (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). Her work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal, the Harvard Business Review and JSTOR Daily. Follow her on Twitter @awsamuel.