Commentary: How has using emoji changed the way we … – CNA

Emoji are particularly useful as they can help communicate some messages more effectively than purely verbal communication, say these Singapore University of Social Sciences professors.
Emoji can serve as a shared language in the digital world. (Photos: Unsplash/domingoalvarze, iStock/PeopleImages)
SINGAPORE: Early in July, a Canadian farmer was ordered to pay C$82,000 (US$62,000) in damages by a court that ruled that the thumbs-up emoji he had added in reply to a text message was just as valid as a signature.
This news may have some comedic potential, but there is in fact much more to the Canadian judge’s verdict than meets the eye.
Accepting emoji in contractual agreements does not just open up a Pandora’s box of the newfound legal powers of emoji, it may also represent a paradigm shift in our modern human communication and language.
Emoji are digital pictograms or icons widely used to express emotions in computer-mediated communication and mobile devices. 
Emoji have evolved to be the digital forms of non-verbal communication cues that are traditionally expressed via facial expressions, gestures and tone of voice.
One of our earlier studies on mobile phone usage among young adults suggested that they preferred messaging as a communication mode rather than speaking on a mobile phone. 
With the exponential growth in the number of mobile phone and gadget users worldwide, short message service (SMS) and other mobile messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Telegram and WeChat, have become ubiquitous.
SMS-style language has naturally become the norm for many, especially the younger generation, much to the chagrin of teachers and parents. Emoji have also proliferated in recent years as they are commonly used in these messaging functions and postings across digital platforms. 
Even Microsoft Word and many email applications can now automatically transform words and emoticons into emoji, the way auto-correct remedies spelling errors.
Emoji are particularly useful as they can help communicate some messages more effectively than purely verbal communication. 
For example, ending a text message, “Let’s have lunch” with a smiley-face 😊 emoji can immediately convey that the lunch is going to be an informal and pleasant affair.
In contrast, devoid of any non-verbal cues, the same text message might come across as more than a little concerning to the receiver, who may wonder if he or she has done something wrong, especially if the sender of the message is his or her superior.
Emoji have usefully bridged the gaps between face-to-face and digital conversations as they can add a visual and affective dimension to an otherwise boring and emotionless text-based message, allowing users to convey expressions and emotions in any computer-mediated and mobile communications.
Emoji are also useful in overcoming language barriers as they can be easily understood and are universally recognised. However, they can still be a potential minefield, such as intercultural differences in the interpretation of some common emoji.
For example, the “OK” sign 👌 may have positive connotations in most cultures, but in Tunisia, Greece and Turkey, the gesture may be considered offensive, and it has even been used by the far right as a symbol of hate.
Likewise, even though the thumbs-up 👍 can mean “okay”, “good” or “accepted”, it may have a pejorative meaning in countries such as Iran and Iraq.
Even if the meaning of an emoji is not in doubt, there is no guarantee that miscommunication can be avoided, as in the case of the unfortunate Canadian farmer.
Although he may have assumed it was clear that his thumbs-up emoji meant he had received the contract, he may not have foreseen that it could have been misinterpreted by the issuer of the contract as indicating acceptance of the contract. 
Both Google and Apple introduced emoji to Gmail and iPhone OS, respectively, in 2008. In 2010, a proposal to standardise emoji was finally accepted by Unicode, which is an encoding standard that provides letters, digits and symbols with values that make them interoperable across various digital communication platforms.
In 2015, the Oxford English Dictionary wowed the world by making the tears-of-joy 😂 emoji its Word of the Year, explaining that “emoji have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate”.
In 2018, another player,, became the first dictionary to officially provide reference content and explanations for emoji.
All these have reflected the continuously changing nature of modern communication and language.
Ms Jennifer Daniel, chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium, said: “Emoji don’t encode new concepts. They encode things that have existed for as long as written communication has existed.”
If what Ms Daniel claimed is true, the concern about the profound impact of emoji on human communication and language literacy may be unfounded. 
Some may even argue that emoji are just a natural development and metamorphosis of language made possible by new communication technology. Emoji may not change people’s thinking or lower our language standards after all.   
Either way, no one can deny the fact that emoji have revolutionised the way we communicate.
Emoji can serve as a shared language in the digital world. But, as with text, their meanings too depend on the context in which they are used. The poor Canadian farmer mentioned above can probably attest to that.
While emoji have long been a staple of texting-addicted teens and young adults, it is high time that we seriously look at how emoji have revolutionised our media and language literacy to future-proof ourselves in the ever-changing digital world.
Perhaps cyber wellness education in Singapore schools should also consider incorporating how emoji can be used more effectively in local and global settings. 🙏
Associate Professor Ludwig Tan is Dean, School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, Singapore University of Social Sciences. Associate Professor Brian Lee is Head of Communication Programme at the same institute. This commentary was originally published on TODAY.
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