Emoji are a hot topic in the Middle East. The first movie to be shown at a cinema in Saudi Arabia after a ban of 35 years was The Emoji Movie, screened in 2018. In 2017 the introduction of Halla Walla, an app depicting emoji relevant to the Arab world, highlighted the lack of diversity in the emoji alphabet. What might have once been considered a fad is clearly here to stay.
As the use of emoji icons like smiley faces increases, debates arise about representation, emotion, expression and even gender. As is often the case, new technologies can promote moral panics, as evidenced in this article in The New Republic, which claims that emoji are making us less emotionally expressive.
Although emoji may be new, humans have long been inclined to use symbols and metaphors to express or evoke certain feelings. In an age of new technologies, people respond with alarm to something new and different. But should we really be so worried about emoji having a negative effect on our communications?
“Like the written word, emoji are constantly changing, and can increase the ways we express ourselves.”Marc Owen Jones
Some would say yes, suggesting that emoji blunt emotions. Others fear that young people are losing the grasp of their primary language due to a reliance on emoji to communicate. People have even questioned whether emoji will one day replace language.
Such debates assume that language is unmoveable and unchangeable. This is, of course, not true. Language changes. For example, the Oxford English dictionary is constantly updated to include new terms that have come into fashion. It acknowledges that language changes.
Technology and Language
What is true is that technology changes how we use language. Inventions like the printing press and information media have encouraged the standardization of languages and vocabulary sets. The spread of technology, the rise of nationalism, the growth of broadcasting, combined with migration, can all contribute to either standardization or change in a language.
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This can bring with it prejudice or the rejection of nuance, and a battle between prescriptive and descriptive grammarians. Descriptive grammarians are those more interested in how language is actually spoken and written by real people. Prescriptive grammarians are more interested in how they think it should be used.
This can lead to snobbery and elitism. In the United Kingdom, regional British accents were frowned upon by the British Broadcasting Corporation in favor of Received Pronunciation until relatively recently. In the Arab World, much formal communication across news and in the media is in Modern Standard Arabic. Deviation from this would provoke heated debate.
So the question of whether emoji are an acceptable alternative to language is not new in principle, only in terms of form. The question extends to the academic sphere. For example, a colleague challenged me a while back for using a smiley in correspondence with a student.
Freedom of How to Express
How does this affect the way we express ourselves? We all have different accents, inflections and mannerisms, yet we all often use the Calibri typeface. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, as anyone who has attempted to decipher my handwriting can attest. However, it also removes some of the evocative and emotional richness of handwriting.
While typing can potentially remove so much of the character and expression that can be seen in handwriting, so emoji may restore some of this lost communicative nuance.
There are limits too. Facebook’s ‘like’ function, for example, only allows a limited repertoire of responses. It has changed now, but we all remember wondering how to respond to someone’s bad news, or an obituary. Emoji have also caused debates on representation, race and gender. But things change, and now you can often choose skin color when sending certain emoji.
Halla Walla has exposed the need for more region-specific emoji. Like the written word, emoji are constantly changing, and can increase the ways we express ourselves. However, for the aesthetics of the emoji to not be simply the product of the vision of big tech, the Middle East needs to expand its presence in the industry to ensure relevant and culturally significant content.
Non-verbal communication is older than writing itself. For someone struggling with some of the normative legacies of traditional masculinity, I value the emoji, even if used hyperbolically. If I am feeling sad or upset, I actually do find it easier to throw in a crying emoji. Sure, I am not actually crying, but it may add nuance or openness to a conversation.
Emoji enable a new playfulness with thoughts. The almost ubiquitous emoji of a monkey covering its eyes is a vehicle for informality, joy and digital cosplay. Similarly, someone sending me a sharwarma emoji will instantly cheer me up. Most of all, though, emoji are a new kind of freedom for how we choose to express ourselves.
Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor of digital humanities in the Middle East studies department at Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. His interests lie in the promotion of social justice using virtual mediums and tools.