Express Yourself

Death to the Emoji

Why these cute little faces could be damaging your relationships

A few weeks ago, I posted an Instagram story in the name of shameless self-promotion. Half an hour later, I checked Instagram and found my story had some replies — cool!

The sight was depressing to say the least. Six of the most recent people to reply to my story had tapped one of the eight automatic reaction emoji to let me know what they thought. But I still didn’t really know what they thought, and the fact that everyone had used the same two emoji left me struggling to differentiate the humans themselves. It felt like the same person had delivered the same message six times.

We often talk about how the digital world connects us all even more, but this experience left me feeling far from connected. So, how did we get to this point?

Conversation

Human language is a pretty awesome thing. The ability to trade detailed information about concrete and abstract ideas is unique to us and helps us successfully persist as a species.

Communication has been largely verbal for about 98% of our human lifespan. Before the advent of writing, around 5,500 years ago, the only way you could communicate with someone was by uttering things to them in person or using body language. Let’s call this our “natural mode” of communication. The natural mode is operated by our social persona.

Validation is the secret ingredient to developing good human relationships.

In our natural mode, communication tends to revolve around conversation — the act of two or more social personae exchanging information through words, sounds, and physical cues. Conversation is a complex skill that involves a lot of different subskills, and one of the most important of those subskills is validation.

Validation is the secret ingredient to developing good human relationships. It’s what bonds people and forges trust. Friends are friends only because two social personae went through an extremely long chain of mutual microvalidations.

Here are some examples of validation:

  • The words “yes” and “okay.”
  • Nodding and smiling.
  • Congratulatory words and phrases like “congrats,” “amazing,” and “well done.”
  • Meaningful and complimentary expressions like “I love you” and “you’re the best.”

Validation lets a person know they are accepted. It gives a person due gratification from an exchange and incrementally strengthens the relationship between them and their conversation partner(s). Validation also allows conversations to flow to different places and evolve naturally. Without validation, conversations can falter and relationships are less likely to form.

But I’m not really concerned about binary validation/no-validation scenarios. I’m concerned about the quality of validation in any given conversation — something that’s even more important. Though validation of some kind or another is basically a given in functioning conversations, “high quality” validation is not. Especially in text messaging.

The root of it all can be traced to the impact writing had on our natural mode of communication.

Writing

The invention of writing was a bit of a game changer. It introduced the possibility of communicating asynchronously — that is, not live. You could etch some symbols onto a bit of wood, send it on a donkey 100 miles across the country, and tell the pharaoh you thought he was a bell-end. Or instead of telling the local villager you love her, you could simply write a romantic poem and pin it to the well next to her hut. Asynchronous communication — writing — meant a couple of things:

  • Lower stakes: Your words and their meaning were protected by both space and time when received by someone else. You would never tell the pharaoh he’s a bell-end in person.
  • Premeditation: You had lots of time to think about what you wanted to draw or write.

Humans had a new way to express themselves, and it was incredible: a low-stakes, planned environment for articulating thoughts and emotions that had never been possible before. This meant that when you wrote, you became, consciously or not, an abstraction of the real person you were. In a lot of cases, that was irrelevant — like functional tasks involving the documenting or cataloging of text or numerical information. In other cases, it was useful and necessary to abstract yourself. A novelist deliberately separates themselves from the content of their book, for example, to engage the imagination of the reader and create a fictional experience.

But in practical cases where writing aimed to faithfully represent the author and was a means of communication between them and someone else, abstraction was an inevitable byproduct of the new mode. In live conversations, you were Dave, utilizer of language through the mouth, but in writing, you were {Dave}, utilizer of language through the hand, quill, and paper. A representation of Dave. Dave was the captain of the ship — responsible for forging and building real-life social connections. {Dave} was the deckhand, chipping in here and there and doing his utmost to continue the story of Dave.

I place no value judgment on this abstraction. It’s neither good nor bad; it just is. Writing, as an unnatural mode of communication, had given way to the {written persona}.

Text messaging

A lot has changed since the days when you’d tell the pharaoh he was a bell-end with a scrap of papyrus and a donkey.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, written communication began the slide toward a state of messaging that was increasingly synchronous. In other words, the time gap between the transmission of a message and receipt of a reply gradually decreased, thanks to advancements in technology. Simple physical notes (letters and telegrams) became telephonic messages (faxes), which became digital messages (emails), and those digital messages eventually made it onto portable mobile devices (texting). Instant text messaging is now the most prolific form of communication among humans, and due to the near zero time gap between message transmission and receipt, it effectively acts as a written imitation of real-life conversation: {conversation}, if you like.

There are two main challenges associated with that reality:

  • Challenge 1 is navigating an unnatural mode of communication and aligning our social persona with our {written persona}.
  • Challenge 2 is obeying a key principle of real-life conversation and supplying validation in healthy, high-quality portions.

Both of these amount to one super challenge: How can we be the most accurate representation of our social persona in {conversations} in order to provide due validation in our relationships?

This question becomes even more important when you consider that text messaging is quickly cannibalizing real-life interaction but is unequipped to deliver the same social payload.

Emoji

Emoji is the most significant development in human language since hieroglyphs, and it’s considered the fastest-growing language in existence today.

Within the past 20 years, a blink in the lifespan of Homo sapiens, these ideograms have become a core component of text messaging worldwide. People love them. A 2015 survey estimated that 72% of U.K. citizens ages 18 to 25 find it easier to communicate emotions using emoji rather than text. Later in 2015, the Oxford Dictionary revealed its word of the year to be the “face with tears of joy” emoji: 😂

And it makes sense that people love them. In the modern trend toward ease and convenience in all areas of life, emoji present a handy shortcut to time-starved humans balancing numerous online relationships. Also, they’re colorful, cute, and kinda funny.

People use emoji in all sorts of ways when they text message. Sometimes it’s to embroider a sentence and give it some color. Other times, it’s to react to someone’s comment or statement in a quick, stress-free way. Whichever way you choose to deploy an emoji, the inescapable truth is that you’ve consciously or subconsciously made a sacrifice along the way. A sacrifice, most controversially, at the expense of words.

But words don’t like it when they’re sacrificed. And why should they?

Quick disclaimer: I don’t think all emoji, or all emoji use cases, are bad. They can be very useful tools to add cheekiness, reference in-jokes, structure information, or give your predominantly text-based statement some color. I sometimes use them! My main focus here is on emoji that attempt to capture human emotion and, more specifically, when those emoji are used to react to something on their own with no accompanying text.

The battle for meaning between words and emoji

The English language has around 170,000 words currently in use. Those words have been carefully crafted over hundreds and hundreds of years and are evidence of our constant pursuit and exploration of meaning. Every year, languages make room to accommodate the many new ideas, thoughts, and inventions that humans have come up with, allowing us to vocalize them or put them down on paper for the first time.

Emoji, by contrast, currently have 3,521 symbols. Though the emoji dictionary is also being added to regularly and rapidly, it’s still considerably sparser than traditional languages. When it comes to the most common emoji and the main targets of my article — those involving facial expressions and the human form — the pool of selection is only around 200 ideograms.

When you use a face emoji in your text messages, you are making a trade-off.

So, we have an immense portfolio of words coming up against a tiny number of symbols. That means when you use a face emoji in your text messages, you are making a trade-off. You’re ceding your right to choose from a huge arsenal of words to convey your specific meaning and opting instead to go for one of 200 symbols that are in regular rotation by the 4 billion people who text message today. That’s half the world communicating using the same sticker book for seven-year-olds.

Ultimately, there is nothing distinctive or characteristic about writing an emoji in a text message. When you do so, you strip yourself of your right to uniqueness and join the hordes of people whose communication is being dictated by the technology we use and not the thoughts we have.

You are not addressing the first challenge of text message communication — to align your social persona with your {written persona}.

In fact, you are allowing your {written persona} to become {wr😂tten pers😍na}, a homogenous entity whose billion clones routinely spew the same symbols into chats worldwide.

Characters versus caricatures

We’ve seen how going for an emoji over a word means rejecting a large library in favor of a single sticker book. But how valuable are stickers compared to books when it comes to delivering meaning?

Words are the main tools we depend on to make ourselves understood. And they do a pretty good job of it. From epic war novels to romantic poems, words have consistently been a reputable outlet for human expression.

Beyond describing the stuff around us that we can see, words also capture the most abstract of human ideas: torment, lust, agony, impudence, passion, greed. When you read a string of letters that makes up one of these abstract words, I’m sure you get a microscopic feeling or flavor associated with that word. “Agony,” for example, strikes this slightly despairing chord throughout my body for a split second. “Passion” is like a dim fire flickering around my sternum, and when I say the word aloud, it even seems to sound passionate itself.

That’s the beauty of words. They are whole characters in themselves. And I’m not talking about the characters you write in a tweet; I’m talking about the characters in the epic novels words helped to write. Words are rounded, nuanced agents that have high attention to detail and resound with both concrete and abstract meaning when they are uttered or written. When used together in different combinations, the possibilities for expression and communication are nearly endless, and we can paint a picture of almost any situation in all its glorious subtlety.

Emoji are picture representations of concrete and abstract things. There’s an emoji for “car,” but there’s also an emoji for “ecstatic.” Emoji are currently limited to a modest number of objects and emotions, but the tone in which they depict these things differs completely from words.

That’s because emoji are caricatures. They take certain features or tropes of human emotion and exaggerate them to an absurd degree. A person laughing is represented by 😂, a face crying its eyes out with orgasmic glee. A person wishing you love becomes 😍, two cartoon hearts obscuring two presumably shelled-out eye sockets. A person sticking their tongue out (God knows for what reason) becomes 😛, a vile, floating orb of yellow.

These caricatures have some key shortcomings when it comes to representing human emotion:

  • They are reductive and absolute and devoid of nuance. Emoji-land is a world where you’re always in a polar state of being. Ecstatic 😁, despairing 😩, or even ambivalent — 😐 — to their most absurd endpoints.
  • They are distorted and grotesque and portray things humans simply don’t do and ways humans simply don’t look: 🤩😍🤪.

Those two issues have the following effects:

  • They can make our reactions seem more extreme than they really are. If you reply 😂 to a message you thought was modestly funny and would have yielded anything less than hysterics in person, your social persona and {written persona} are at odds. The reaction is fake.
  • They trivialize real emotion. In a stylized, grotesque world of feeling where you’re all or nothing, we start associating more with the dangerous territory of {em😃tion}. This is different from the nuanced world of real emotion, where even the most florid assembly of words struggles to communicate our exact feelings. The world of {em😃tion} is a parody, a pantomime.
  • They betray meaning. Where words in {conversation} imitate the actual sounds that would have been uttered in real-life conversation, emoji do not do the same for facial gestures. “That’s not the point!” I hear you shout. Yes, I understand. It’s just a way of having fun with human expressions and lightening up {conversation}. But if you like the nonexistent things emoji portray, you need to understand that meaning is still not served faithfully and real conversation is not successfully imitated. As soon as you start believing in fictional, distorted human states above real ones — and as soon as they become your first port of call for emotional reactions in the written world — the disconnect between your social persona and {written persona} widens.

Even in a world where emoji supply wasn’t an issue and you could choose from 170,000 symbols, you still wouldn’t want to. The quality of their meaning is too poor for a social format rapidly becoming the norm.

Effort: 👎

More often than not, choosing an emoji is simply a low-effort means to delivering your meaning.

With low-effort actions come low-quality consequences. In the case of online relationships, this means the output validation is likely very low. Getting a crying-face emoji to the funniest joke you made all year represents a gross imbalance of conversational effort and quality.

The path to validation

Some research has found that as much as 70% to 90% of live communication can be nonverbal. So it would seem that emoji could address the number-one challenge of our unnatural mode and better simulate real conversation. Perhaps they can showcase things words can’t — like nonverbal communication!

Of course, words alone aren’t sufficient to get across the infinitely complex nature of human interaction, with all its physical idiosyncrasies and cues. But that’s precisely the challenge of the unnatural mode and why words must, in the case of writing, stick to addressing the portion of communication that is verbal.

As soon as your friend uses an emoji, the path to quality validation can become much less clear.

When they do address this part of communication, they do so as faithfully as they can. In a {conversation}, the words your friend writes represent sounds they would have said to you in a real conversation. Behind the letters is an identity, a unique social persona you are familiar with whose actual voice comes through the text. The prospect of quality validation is not far off.

And that’s what it all boils down to: As soon as your friend uses an emoji, the path to quality validation can become much less clear. Because of the emoji’s caricatured nature, it is much more difficult to imagine what is happening with your friend behind the scenes. The symbol doesn’t equate to the events of a real-life conversation. Beyond being an indicator of vague positivity, neutrality, or negativity, it doesn’t come accompanied by your friend’s voice or unique social persona and therefore might not live up to your subconscious expectations of a real social exchange. Your friend has become a {fri😻nd}, and the social validation you receive is likely low quality.

Even when the symbol equates more accurately to something that would happen in a real-life conversation, like the thumbs-up emoji, a different issue arises. If someone asked you to go for a walk, would you really just put up your thumb in response and remain silent? Would you silently put your hands together in prayer to thank someone for giving you your main course?

You probably wouldn’t. You would use words, because words are the vessels we’ve always relied on to provide high-quality validation and strengthen relationships. Not using words when you are able to could even be considered rude. I see no reason the digital world should be any different.

Emoji don’t imbue text messages with meaning and nuance like facial gestures do for real-life conversations. They do the opposite. They’re grotesque symbols that betray meaning and shun the two pressing challenges of {conversation}: to align your social and {written} personae and provide others with adequate social validation.

🎤 ⬇️ The last word

Nowadays, we generate and foster relationships in the digital realm. That means we have a responsibility to do everything we can to foster them well. But it’s not easy. The enormous chain of mutual microvalidations it takes to build meaningful connections is hard to piece together in any world, let alone one founded on an unnatural mode of communication. That’s why we have to take extra care when it comes to expressing ourselves and interacting online.

So, the next time you think of using an emoji in writing to someone, think about what it actually means to be doing that. Think about how you can provide high-quality validation to your conversation partner, and think about the best way to align your social persona with your {written persona}.

Instead of using the thumbs-up emoji, consider writing “roger that” or something along those lines. Instead of using the prayer emoji, maybe thank the person and tell them why you’re thankful. Instead of sending this emoji — 🤪 — please do literally anything else.

Our new {world} requires you to be proactive, not passive. Put down your sticker book and head into the library!

Writer

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