Sad face: there’s now an emoji movie

By Adam Westbrook 17 May 2017

But does it tell us how language is changing?

Bad news if you have kids between the ages of five and thirteen: at some point this summer you’ll probably find yourself in the cinema enduring two hours of The Emoji Movie.

The film’s new trailer, released this week, sets up the story of a world of emoji characters living inside the phone of a teenage boy.

All emoji must constantly live the single emotion they convey, but the hero, a glum emoticon called Gene, breaks the mould.

There, I’ve just written that so you don’t have to watch this trailer.

Now you might think this is just another example of the creative decline of Hollywood, but it’s also a sign of something much more significant.

It also tells us something important about how language itself is changing.

The rise of ‘picture-talking’

Invented in Japan in the late 1990s, it took more than a decade for the colourful emoticons to explode into our common vernacular.

Now something in the order of 6bn smiley faces, poos and aubergines are sent every day according to one study, including of course, in The Memo‘s very own daily newsletter.

In 2015, “Face with tears of joy” was the first emoji to enter the Oxford English Dictionary as its Word of the Year.

Whether you use them yourselves, you’ve probably seen kids using them almost exclusively to communicate – often in place of words.

This has happened alongside Snapchat, where users now carry out entire conversations, not with words but with videos, gifs, still images and emoji.

“Emoji create new avenues for digital feeling” say two academics writing in The Journal for Social Media + Society [PDF]. “These symbols do considerable work to underscore tone, introduce humour, and give individuals a quick and efficient way to bring some colour and personality into otherwise monochrome networked spaces of text.”

Yes, there are academic articles about emoji now.

The last word?

This is a potentially profound development in language.

For the last few thousand years, humans have pretty much always been taught to form our thoughts and to communicate them verbally. In school we spend hours practising our handwriting and our grammar, not considering how to convey ideas with images. When we think to ourselves “oh I need to top up the petrol” the thought appears in our head as words.

But teenagers today are having complex conversations using pictures.

Instead of texting a friend the words “I’m bored”, they’ll send a 5 second video clip of their face with a bored expression on it.

Like a language, emoji are slowly developing their own grammatical constructs and conventions. For example, there is no way of conveying a plural of something in emoji, so users simply repeat the same image several times to convey the idea.

Read more: The Ultimate Emoji Dating Quiz

Write like an Egyptian

Could this be the decline of written language? Are we on the verge of becoming a solely visual culture?

Probably not.

Fact is, “per bit”, letters and words are capable of communicating more information more efficiently than an emoji ever could.

26 individual letters is all anyone needs to write Moby Dick, but the same story in emoji is almost impossible.

There’s a reason the ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted for 4,000 years but never achieved much more than a few pyramids. Their pictorial language was too inefficient.

So we probably don’t need to worry about emojis killing off text as the primary way humans communicate.

But the fact that they’re now considered worthy of a movie means it’s 🕐 to 📚 ⬆️.