Friday, October 2, 2015

Big Talk, Small Talk

Why People Who Read Should Care About Emojis

My friend Anne sent me a lightning bolt. She also sent me three flexed biceps and a dripping faucet. Also a rainbow, a volcano, and a crying-with-joy face. No smiling pile of poop yet, and no frowning devil or smirking cat. She has nothing against those. The right occasions just haven’t arisen.
Anne loves emojis, the goofy digital pictograms that have become the latest bones of contention in our culture’s never-ending deathmatch of old codger versus eternal youth, and she chides me for my skepticism. The thing is, Anne isn’t a fourteen-year-old girl, a gadget-fetishist, or a trend-hound. She’s a witty, serious, and cultivated writer in her fifties—an award-winning novelist whose elegant and precise prose lingers and haunts, and epitomizes the splendor and necessity of nuanced language.

On emojis, she’s unequivocal. “They’re fun!” she cries. “Silly, sure, but that’s the point. It’s not a reason to reject them.”

She shows me her iPhone. The dripping faucet came from a text exchange with her college-age daughter about a running bathtub: affable shorthand for, “I know, I’m not an idiot.” The string of flexed biceps went to her sick personal trainer, a woman half Anne’s age: a perky “get well” card that strengthened an intergenerational bond. A gift-wrapped candy heart helped patch up an argument with her husband.

“Sometimes language can get in the way,” she explains. “An act is sometimes better than a word. Emojis are like tiny presents. There’s no need to attack them with your intellect.” I’m a theater critic and professor in my fifties who has impugned them as ridiculous and childish. She sends me screenshots so I can mull over her examples, a slow student receiving extra help from Teacher.

Some version of this argument has played out over the past few years between countless literate people. Ever since Apple and Google made emojis standard on iOS and Android smartphone keyboards in 2011 and 2013, they have proliferated not only in texts and emails but also in social media, the art world, literature, politics, advertising, music videos, and fashion.

Most people still use them the same way the Japanese teenagers who first drove their development did—as social lubrication in electronic messages. They’re a cute, shorthand way of clarifying emotional intention and smoothing the rough edges of quickie notes that are easily misunderstood without crucial facial cues. Women use them much more than men, researchers say, and their sincerity has powered a welcome pushback against the bullying brutality on social media.

At the same time, their downside is pretty obvious, at least to educated grownups. Emojis are an infantilization of language in the name of amusement. A New York magazine cover story last year compared them admiringly to ancient hieroglyphs without mentioning that civilization bounded forward after advancing from pictographs to symbolic language.

by Jonathan Kalb, Brooklyn Rail | Read more:
Image: uncredited