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.