(Photo by Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

Smiley Poop, Unicorns, Middle Fingers: What We Talk About When We Emoji

(Photo by Helen Jane Hearn/TueNight)

“Look at my taco emoji,” my friend said last week. “Look at it!”

“I can’t see it. I’d have to upgrade my phone. The last time I did that, the battery life on the device I use to do every important task in my life dropped to nothing and I’m scared to try it again.”

“A taco emoji, Laurie. And a unicorn. A middle finger.”

And this is how I came to spend last Monday night watching the Apple 9.1 upgrade fail twice, appear to turn my phone into a terrifying brick and then, suddenly, magically work five hours before my alarm was due to go off.

Tiny text tacos and unicorns and profane hand gestures – such are my priorities today. It’s fine. I can own it, along with the truth that the first emoji I sent when the phone came back to life in the morning was a unicorn. And it was very, very satisfying.

I was a relatively late adopter of emojis, Japanese symbols that are meant to clarify meaning in text. They’ve been in use in Japan since the 1990s but really only took off in the U.S. a few years ago. I saw my friends using them – or, rather, saw the blobs where they were supposed to be on my screen – but like many things I don’t grab hold of right away, they just seemed like another thing to learn to use and then to monitor. Why choose from a sea of smiley/frowny/ambivalent faces and hearts when I can make them myself with colons and parentheses? Never mind that I can’t make those fancy flowers and plates of pasta and animals (including that very cool turtle). Go away with your innovations.

Also, to be honest, I didn’t know how to find them on my phone, and I either didn’t think or want to ask. When I finally located and pressed on the smiley on my text message keyboard and the entire emoji menu opened up, I knew I had a problem. Swiping through the myriad options for holidays, activities, food and feelings – oh, super mega hearts-for-eyes feelings! – I knew I was in deep. Now, several hundred thumbs up, high fives, praise hands and purple exploding hearts later, I don’t consider it a problem so much as a really fun communications solution. It’s textual enhancement, if you will — that I use all the time, enhancement needed or not.

“Wait. There’s a middle finger now? I’ve been waiting for this for years.”

Emoji use varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. I have rainbow heart friends and fist bump friends.  My mom loves the aforementioned heart-eyes smiley face. My sensible friends are thumbs-uppers and fans of the simple smiley. The sarcastic crowd now has a variety of winky faces to indicate a comment’s smartass quotient and tone — a critical innovation, if you ask me. My two smartest friends — an actual rocket scientist and a digital strategist who could be one if she wanted to but definitely doesn’t — send perfect genius strings of tiny images, much like those old-school rebus puzzles but way better; delightful arrays of tiny pictures that make a point and evoke feelings and make me think, basically all of the things that excellent communication does. Put it this way: I’ve never been congratulated or wished a happy birthday like this.

I even had my freshman comp students analyze articles about emojis this spring. This new building block of daily discourse seemed like a timely thing to discuss with 18-year-olds who are as likely to send and receive visual messages as they are words. I considered it a success; not only did no one fall asleep in class, but we had fascinating discussion about the evolution of language that we hold in our hands, via our phones. They grasp that words still matter,,but pictures are in the ring too, so we need to pay attention to when and with whom we use them — and, most importantly, how.

“I text so much,” one student said. “Sometimes it’s just easier to send someone a smile and a thumbs up when I get what they’re saying. And the fancier ones are fun. Sometimes my friend sends me a random camel or whatever, and I send one back. It’s cool.”

Random, cool and sometimes intentional and effective. Sometimes annoying. Like anything else, even the right emoji from the wrong person? Meh. But the daily minutiae with my nearest and dearest is sometimes all I need to get me through the day. My best friend asked me today on the actual telephone — a rare occurrence these days — what piece I was working on. I told her it was about my love of emojis and how I use them.

“Um, I almost just bought a smiley poop pillow because it’s my favorite emoji,” she said. “I would…not have considered buying that before.”

“Of course you did. Did you find the middle finger yet?”

“Wait. There’s a middle finger now? I’ve been waiting for this for years.”

“Yes. You can go send me one now.”

“I’ll probably send you 50 of them.”

Unfailingly true to her word, she did send me a number of middle fingers, mixed in with some grinning piles of poo, the cry-laugh smileys that I’m embarrassed to admit how much I love, several Santa Clauses and a random police officer. This is the stuff I save on my phone now to remind me that I’m loved and that my favorite people make me laugh.

I have not responded to her text yet, but I know it will lack my first middle finger emoji. I’m saving that one for a very special, as-yet-undetermined occasion.

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3 Responses

  1. Gerry

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