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A film about emoticons and their ubiquitous descendants, emojis, explores the question of where the revolution of small emotion signs is leading and how images are changing our culture.

By Thomas Wagner

The design of the emojis looks different at Google than here at Apple, © Apple

Great emotions packed into simple pictorial characters: Circular smiley faces that wink, smirk, cry, grimace, or stick out their tongues. Hearts of various colours, red lips, multiple hand signs, fruit, food, animals, and an almost infinite number of other symbols. Emojis have dominated electronic communication since their debut in Japan in the 1990s. Without a sign for a gesture, a smiley greeting, or a nice gesture of comfort, no chat, text message, or email is complete.

For Erik Spiekermann, the country’s typography pope, the issue is simple: “I believe that emojis make communication neither simpler nor more complex, but simply dumber.” Or, as Gala Rebane, a digital culture expert, asserts, is the competent use of emojis, on the contrary, “high art”? Are emojis a return to the Stone Age or the era of Egyptian hieroglyphics? What are the misunderstandings caused by the use of colourful pictorial symbols? Who creates them, and who decides what they mean? Who do emojis include and exclude? Are they neo-colonialist and propagate a Western viewpoint?

From Emoticons to Kimojis

Lilly Schlagnitweit explains the most diverse aspects of the little pictorial characters in her film, which is as informative as it is thought-provoking – be it the precursors of emojis, emoticons that originated as a creative game with punctuation marks, alternative designs, inside jokes (like a chair emoji on TikTok instead of the laugh emoji) or celebrity emojis. It is estimated that over 3500 emoticons exist. It is said that 92% of all internet users worldwide use emotion symbols, with many returning to their favourite emojis repeatedly.

It’s no surprise that “stars” like Kim Kardashian like to play along here and offer their own “kimojis” in these times of hysterical attention economy and ubiquitous labelling. How could it be otherwise in this instance, where hearts and donuts refer to herself and her sexualised body? (When it first became available in late 2015, the app was downloaded 9,000 times per second and made $1 million per minute. The Kimoji brand led to a merchandise campaign, and other celebrities such as Justin Bieber quickly followed suit (Hillary Clinton even released “Hillarymojis”).

Emojis Hillary Clinton Kim Kardashian
Fitting in the times of hysterical attention economy and ubiquitous labelling: Hillary Clinton’s “Hillarymojis” and Kim Kardashian’s “Kimojis”, © Hillarymoji, Kimoji

The Emergence of Emoticons

On 19 September 1982, the scientist and later computer science professor Scott E. Fahlman proposed in a bulletin board of Carnegie Mellon University, after misunderstandings and jokes, to use the signet of a sideways imitated laugh out of ASCII characters. His suggestion spread via the Arpanet to the Xerox research centre PARC (California). The post, long thought lost, was recovered in 2002:

19-Sep-82 11:44 Scott E Fahlman :-)
From: Scott E Fahlman .
I suggest the following string to indicate banter:
Read it sideways. Actually, with the current trend, it's
probably more rational to mark things that are NOT jokes.
Use for this

Emojis have their origins in Japanese culture, specifically in manga symbols and pictograms (emoji simply means picture-writing sign in Japanese). Shigetaka Kurita created the first 176 original emojis in 1998/99 (they now hang in the MoMA). Since 2010, the Unicode Consortium has acted as the emoji world’s central committee, deciding which emojis can be used officially, which new ones are accepted, and which are rejected. Unicode is supported by major technology firms such as Google, Microsoft, and Apple, and the voting process is opaque. Despite being officially prohibited, emojis are used in advertising: Why does the French fries emoji resemble McDonald’s, the film asks?

It turns out that the design is then determined by the respective providers, which is why emojis appear different on Google and Apple. According to Jennifer Daniel, chair of the Unicode Emoji Committee, it is not possible to accommodate all requests. Not only would it take up too much space on the devices, but emojis should be as versatile as possible. Instead of adding an infinite number of new emojis to the Unicode standard, Daniel wants users to mix and match emojis and be creative.

Substitute of Non-Verbal Communication


Digital representatives of non-verbal communication or striking exaggerations? © HiClipart

But how do emoticons work? How do they appear in text? According to the unsurprising theory, emojis are the digital representatives of nonverbal communication, as they clarify statements such as gestures and facial expressions. But don’t emojis (like the face with big tears of laughter) depend on dramatic exaggerations? Is it a artificial body language that differs too much from patterns used in direct interpersonal contact? Are the emotions communicated in this manner fake and easy to misuse for specific purposes? Emojis, according to the film, are not the root of all digital evil, but rather a part of the issue when it comes to learning what a facial expression means in direct communication. The emotion placeholders appear in many situations throughout the film, demonstrating how associative, subjective, and random, if not arbitrary, the emotion comments can appear.

Barrier-Free and Culturally Neutral?

The film additionally addresses the accessibility issue. Emojis are particularly confusing when they are used in a completely different way, according to a young person “who otherwise has no idea about such emojis,” such as her grandparents. Nonetheless, emojis perform better in terms of usability than, say, GIFs. Blind and other people with disabilities have been represented on the emoji keyboard since 2019. Furthermore, in recent years, the range has been extended to include various skin colours and relationship constellations, up to and including a pregnant man, to make it more diverse.

An Imbalance in the Cultural Representation

In terms of cultural representation, Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou Grebet sees an imbalance: most emojis, he claims, portray “the West.” Then there are a few about Japan, because the emojis originate from there: “But all the rest represent Western culture”. Grebet attempts to shift the balance slightly. For a year, he posted an emoji on Instagram every day to attract attention to African cultures. Two have made it into the Unicode standard: one for “pouring liquid” and the lucky and protective symbol “hamsa”. (The others can be downloaded in an app). Lilian Stolk, an artist and historian, has also created her own emojis, particularly those that have been frequently rejected by Unicode for being political, such as a climate change emoji.

Emojis O’Plérou Grebet
Ivorian graphic designer O’Plérou Grebet posted an emoji on Instagram every day for a year to draw attention to African cultures. Among others, the lucky and protective symbol “Hamsa” (centre image) has made it to Unicode standard, © O’Plérou Grebet

A brave new world? Newspeak in the format of an emotionalized micro-image? Reinterpreting emojis definitely has subversive possibilities. Menstruation, sex, and politics, on the other hand, can be written about in a much more differentiated manner in verbal language. Even if intended subversively, an emoji only marks an issue and only briefly discusses and questions it. Even if, when spoken in China, the mixture of two emojis (rice + rabbit) sounds like Mee Too.

Another way of communicating: For a few days now, all requests to press@twitter.com on Twitter have been answered with a very specific emoji.

Is It Creative to Choose an Emoji?

At the end, it is questioned how much room there is for creativity if emojis can be used and reinterpreted but have been defined beforehand. The fact that an artist uses emojis to make detailed portraits is merely a joke. Like an emoji Bible that wants to use stickers to awaken emotions for the Psalms and the New Testament. The sentence “A competent handling of emojis is also high art” appears again. It is not obvious that “everyone who can simply type something on the keyboard or select emojis also uses them skillfully.” “What is creative about clicking on something?” says Erik Spiekermann. It’s work, but it’s not intellectual achievement: “Any monkey can do that, type on a screen.”

For a long time, the commercialization of culture has been ongoing: What will communication look like in the metaverse? Will emojis of the future appear in virtual reality glasses and represent our mood? Will there be even more variation or even more manipulation? What about written culture, then? The film consequently concludes with the question, “With which emoji would you respond?”

The Emojicalypse 🙂

A movie by Lilly Schlagnitweit

available in the 3Sat-Mediathek

until 17.09.2027

Please note that the movie is in German.

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