A smiley face — but nothing more

We all use emojis but there’s little chance they’ll replace real language any time soon

Smiley face
Image Credit: Rex Features
Emojis
Gulf News

Dubai: When the word of 2015 turned out to not be a word at all, people weren’t really sure how to take it.

‘Face with tears of joy’ topped the list of Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year, proving that once and for all, emojis are no longer the domain of texting teens — rather having been embraced as a form of expression that crosses social and language barriers.

But academics who heard the news of an emoji beating both ‘brexit’ and ‘on fleek’ for word of the year weren’t threatened. In fact, they realized the true effect a smiley face and other icons had.

“It’s important because it clearly identifies a new culture,” Professor Luciano Floridian of Oxford University told Gulf News. “This is something previous generations have never seen before.”

Professor Florridi, an expert on the philosophy behind information ethics at the Oxford Internet Institute in the United Kingdom, believes that it’s both good and bad that social media has expanded in such a way that accommodates emojis with our messages.

“It’s good news because we have more expressive power,” he said. “Bad news is that it really reduces our communication to basic elements when we may have many more complicated ways of expressing how we feel.”

In his research, professor Florridi looks at the construction of personal identities and how that effects our sense of self. He noted that in the past people would have done that in their local communities, but now social media plays a huge role in how people define themselves. So he examines what happens to the self when it’s exposed to the online experience.

But a 2015 study by Bangor University linguistics professor Vyv Evans found that 80 per cent of smartphone users in Britain use emojis. And when the research turned to people under 25, virtually 100 per cent of smartphone user’s text with emojis.

“There are estimates that as much as 70 per cent of the meaning we derive from a face-to-face encounter with someone comes from non-verbal cues: facial expressions, intonation, body language, pitch,” Evans said. “Which means words account for only around 30 per cent of what we communicate.”

To prove his point, he noted the difference in meaning between saying “I love you” as a statement with as opposed to “I love you?”

The reality is information philosophers like professor Florridi are more concerned with the fact that we might be moving toward a basic, black-and-white version of communication through our social media presence.

“I think our culture is to be blamed,” he said. “In terms of our objective to find a label in everything, with yes-no, good-bad.”

“It would be a pity to move towards such a basic way of communicating where in fact the feelings we have are much more sophisticated.”

A December 2015 report from Bloomberg found that 8 trillion text messages are sent each year. That leaves a lot of room for emojis to jump in.

So can the argument be made that they really change the way we communicate?

Dr. Grant Blank isn’t so sure.

“There is no direct evidence that it does but you can always speculate,” Dr. Blank said to Gulf News. He’s a sociologist at Oxford University. “The problem with online conversation is that it’s hard to maintain tone and nuance — so an emoji can do that,” he said.

Dr. Blank pointed out that emojis are long vested as a symbolic form of language and has a long history. In fact, there are modern languages such as Chinese and Japanese that use symbols entirely. But he stopped short of calling emojis a new form of language.

“A language is a lot more of a complicated thing,” he said. “It’s a useful adjunct and it’s good for short texting but I doubt it would become a language.”

And as a sociologist who’s been studying the social and cultural impact of the internet at Oxford since 2010, he’s found that what’s changing is not so much the content but the ability to communicate in distance.

“The one thing that’s happening is that long distance communication is much easier than it used to be,” Dr. Blank continued. “At some point there will be a change in content.”

This isn’t far off from professor Florridi’s own thoughts.

“We all grew up with smiley faces where we started commenting with two dots and a bracket to mean a smile,” he said. “I think the Oxford Dictionary was very smart in finding an emoji as a symbol of our culture.”

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