"The work of the past accumulates and is made again"
In the early days of the internet, attempts at humor online (sarcasm, irony, parody, etc.) were sometimes mistaken as serious which created a frenzy of denouncements on your favorite BBS that sparked more arguments. (The internet really hasn’t changed much in 40 years has it?) In pursuit of wanting to reduce miscommunication a digital smiley face was born September 19, 1982 :-)
Though there is plenty of evidence of emoticons existing in a pre-digital world dating as far back as 1881, Scott Fahlman, a research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon has his own receipts:
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 :-(
You haven’t aged one bit, smiley face :-)
This is when you’d expect me to start talking about emoji
Nope. That’s not where this bloggy-letter is headed. I mean sure, I’m gonna talk about the Unicode Standard. And sure, the Unicode Consortium has brought us such hits as “😃” and “🤡” but while everyone has been panning for gold in the great Emoji Rush, behind the scenes Unicode has been working hard in the Unicode mines, digitizing the world’s languages for over thirty years. As a result they have gifted the world with the most precious of all tiny smiley characters: emoticons.
That’s right, without Unicode we’d never have the global phenomenon that is shruggie ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
What does Shruggie have to do with encoding alphabets? Well, let’s take a look. What even is ¯\_(ツ)_/¯? It is a mish-mash of different written languages: A Japanese katakana ツ (tsu) to represent a pair of eyes and smirking mouth alongside a few basic Latin characters to create shapely shrugging appendages. This emote wouldn’t render if Unicode wasn't building and maintaining a universal character set.
For those less familiar with Unicode: What is Unicode? Basically, Unicode, is as close as we get to Universal Digital Encoding. Unicode says these are characters on a list and this is what they mean and what their names are and they map between legacy encodings and a universal character set.
Shruggie isn’t an outlier! A dramatic table flip leverages not one not two not three not four but five Unicode blocks. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
(If you realize things are gonna be fine and you wanna place the table back, Unicode has you covered.) ┬─┬ノ( º _ ºノ)
Look of Disapproval, ಠ_ಠ, is a combination of an underscore and the letter “tha” in Kannada, one of the major Dravidian languages of India.
Your favorite spammer, Lenny Face ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°), is a little bit Latin, a tad IPA, a dash of diacritics with a splash of a degree symbol.
Imagine, a world without ヽ༼ຈل͜ຈ༽ﾉ.
Expressive Building blocks 🏗️
There’s this WHOLE THING in linguistics that language is special because you use smaller units that don’t mean anything to build up meaningful concepts when combined. Language is *powerful* because a finite number of glyphs can Do It All (very naughty conflating language and writing here, don’t tell the linguists).
You got your classic shruggie
Throw in some dingbats and now you have a putting on a brave face shruggie
╮(. ❛ ᴗ ❛.)╭
A couple geometric shapes and suddenly we have a cute animal shruggie
乁[ ◕ ᴥ ◕ ]ㄏ
To great effect, emoji can be slipped in for an exceptional I’m gonna lose my ding dang mind shruggie
This phenomenon is not unique to Japanese style emoticons (they tend to emote through eye expression). Western smileys are in on the fun too (generally these are read horizontally and most of the emotion is conveyed in the mouth area).
Replace the colon with an eight to represent sunglasses→ Hello 8-)
Swap the parenthesis for a P to convey a tongue → Hello :-P
Dash nose not doing it for you? Look no further than designer Susan Kare who is fond of the lowercase-n nose → Hello :n)
The 40th anniversary of the smiley emoticon doesn’t put :-) behind us but instead firmly in front of us, teaching us whipper snappers how to it’s done.
Emoticons may look primitive but their low-tech weakness is also their strength. They are easy to type (but just enough extra effort to make them special), are really flexible, and I’d go so far to argue as more universally relatable. After all, we are hardwired to find faces in just about everything from a slightly burnt piece of toast to a parenthesis and colon. Notable comics theorist Scott McCloud has written extensively about how it is a lot easier to identify with a more simple abstraction than a more realistic face.
Ok, Now I’ll start talking about emoji 🥺👉👈
Tearing a page out of the emoticon hand book, emoji characters are also composed to create entirely new concepts on the fly. 👁️👄👁️ No need for the Unicode Consortium to encode a new emoji for “hand-washing” (this could take two years!) — just add a little soap and water 🧼🖐️🚰. Care to express your inner turtle in a field of four leaf clovers? Beep bop boop, voila:
We have found all kinds of inventive ways to hack language and do interesting things with it. Language is a low bandwidth technology to convey our infinitely prismatic emotions and the internet comes with it’s own set of limitations but as famed mathematician Dr. Ian Malcom has noted, "life finds a way”.
It should go without saying but be sure to use emoji and emoticons responsibly — consider your audience when you’re repurposing unicode symbols (◍•ᴗ•◍)✧*。. Is it 𝒸𝓊𝓉ℯ to 𝘄𝗿𝗶𝘁𝗲 your tweets 𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖘 𝖜𝖆𝖞? Have you 𝙡𝙞𝙨𝙩𝙚𝙣𝙚𝙙 to what it 𝘴𝘰𝘶𝘯𝘥𝘴 𝘭𝘪𝘬𝘦 with assistive technologies like 𝓥𝓸𝓲𝓬𝓮𝓞𝓿𝓮𝓻? (⊙_◎)
Artist Osamu Sato’s book, “The Art of Computer Designing: A Black and White Approach” beautifully acknowledges, “The work of the past accumulates and is made again' which is a poetic way of thinking about where we are today expressing ourselves online where our visual vocabulary is vast: We have gifs, stickers, memes, short form video, emoticons and ofc emoji. The beautiful thing about the proliferation of digital expression is that it is created by the people, for the people. Want to invent a new word? Just start saying it. See something unique about the world that everyone has seen but not articulated in a particular way? Make a meme. Want to indicate you are a friendly face? Make an emoticon.