The Rhetoric of Emojis

The original set of 176 emoji, which has been acquired by the Museum of Modern Art. Credit Shigetaka Kurita, gift of NTT DoCoMo >

The original set of 176 emoji acquired by the MoMA. Credit Shigetaka Kurita, gift of NTT DoCoMo << >>

Last month, it was announced that MoMA – Museum of Modern Art – will be adding to their permanent collection the original set of emojis. Yes, ladies and gentleman! As Amanda Hess stated in her NYT article, “Your phone has just become home to a tiny collection of modern art.”

Emojis are slowly but surely dominating our communication. They are affecting  not only how we think and process language, but also prevailing as a cultural phenomenon. They have become so popular that in 2015, Oxford English Dictionary named an emoji – specifically the 😂 Laughing Crying Emoji – as the “Word of the Year”.

Google defines an emoji as “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication.” But the emoji phenomenon that surrounds us seems to have overshadowed that definition in mind-blowing ways. Last year they went from being icons to words, and this year they have become art.

Started out as a tool for corporations to reach customers effectively amidst the intricacy of the Japanese characters, these 12×12 pixel images have become a worldwide means of daily communication amidst the intricacy of human thought. Now the complexities of heartbreak have been reduced to a literal broken heart – 💔 – and meaningful, thoughtful responses have been reduced to a Facebook Reaction.


This rapid evolution of emojis infiltrating our language and culture is reflected not only in social communication but is now prevalent even in politics and marketing .


CNN Election Emojis  << >>

It is not too much to say that the 2016 presidential election has been no less a cultural phenomenon in itself, and social media has played a huge role within it in more than one way. Given the highly involved social media presence of not only the general population posting and tweeting away, but also prominent political figures and the candidates themselves being actively involved this election season, emojis were bound to make a forefront.

CNN conveniently created emojis for all the presidential contenders (and even one for the White House) to show support for our favorite candidates in our social communication. Twitter also incorporated emojis this election season within their hashtags, in which certain election-related hashtags automatically generated the corresponding emojis.

The election is just the beginning of how far emojis have penetrated our culture. Pictured below is a press release by Chevrolet. The car company released this in June of 2015 to advertise their latest model, the 2016 Chevrolet Cruze, in which they completely discarded the use of actual words. Not only is the press release written entirely in emojis, but their whole campaign surrounding the release is in emojis.


Chevrolet Press Release << >>

They used the hashtag #ChevroletGoesEmoji to promote their product, for which the tagline used is “Words alone can’t describe the all-new Chevrolet Cruz.” The campaign goes as far as to create an accompanying song advertisement to the press release, also using emojis, titled “Speaking My Language.”

Through these various incorporations, the idea being presented by Chevrolet is that emojis can work across language barriers, which in the Age of Globalization is a plus. But also, that emojis can describe what words cannot – an idea that is both fascinating and dangerous – and the acceptance of which  could change the way we communicate and process language completely.   

In ways, social media and companies like Chevrolet are contributing in the simplification of human thought and mind. Think about it: why would your brain use the extra power to form coherent sentences when you can manage a response with the click of a button or a tap of a finger. It is both intriguing and disturbing a thought to think that eventually, the human brain will possibly be able to read a press release like the one from Chevrolet without any written context.

In her article, The Psychology of Emojis, Courtney Seiter discusses how social media culture and emojis are changing our brain as well as our speech patterns.

“Emoticons are a new form of language that we’re producing,” says researcher, Dr. Owen Churches, from the school of psychology at Flinders University in Adelaide, “and to decode that language we’ve produced a new pattern of brain activity.”

With their emergence, our brain has started to process emojis the same way as it processes body language and facial expressions. Emojis have now taken the place of physical human presence in our brain, which is lacking in written communication.

This is changing our speech patterns because the brain is now reading sentences with both verbal and nonverbal cues. Emojis function in our communication as vocabulary and grammar as well as emotions and gestures, and our brain activity is changing in order to process that function.


Emoji mandala by Vedran Mišić via << >>

The above picture is a perfect example of how Hess sums up emojis in her NYT article:

Emoji evoke art form both ancient and modern, from hieroglyphics to manga. Their novelty is in how they are deployed. As emoji are traded and spread and remixed by users, they become the medium for an internet-wide collaborative art project. Emojis may have started at DoCoMo and risen to MoMA, but they belong to everyone and no one.

That is the key to understanding the phenomenon of emojis. Because of this sense of belonging, we can individually do what we want with emojis from using them as a conversational supplement to making them an art technique. It is up to us how we exploit them, and that is where we have to be careful.

Beyond being supplemental tools for art or communication, emojis are becoming a language of their own. We need to be aware that it could very easily become not just another language but a replacement of what we know language to be. If in the use of emojis we are evoking the primary ancient source of written communication, it leaves us with the question: are we evolving or devolving in our ability to form and communicate more intricate thoughts?

Would love to hear what you think. Let’s converse in the comments section below – possibly in more than just emojis.


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