2015: It was Emojional

Emojis are everywhere this year; notably: Facebook's switch from the "like" button to emojis, Macdonald's recent emoji-based ad campaign, or the country of Finland that now has their own emoji set. We take a look at these modern-day hieroglyphics.

Feature by Alex Owen-Hill | 21 Jan 2016

2014 was hailed by some as "The Year of the Emoji." However, it's fair to say that the growing world of emoji and emoticons has surpassed last year. Emoji news has been almost continuous this year: An emoji-based blockbuster movie deal was announced by Sony in July, Facebook's new range of emojis replaced the "Like" button in October (a move which has received mixed reviews) , Finland has become the first country to have it's own set of national emojis (including the classic Nokia 3310 mobile phone, a heavy metal headbanger and sauna emojis containing naked cartoon Finns).

But, not everyone has caught up with the emoji craze. Some of us still only use the occasional smiley. We're not all Andy Murray - who raised several eyebrows in April when he spelled out his entire wedding night with emoji's, complete with a "winking-kissing-face" before a string of zzZZs.

What is "emoji"? Where did it come from? Could written words be a thing of the past? In the unlikely event that emojis have completely passed you by so far, this guide will bring you up to date.

What is Emoji and Where Did It Come From?

Back at the dawn of human civilization, the Ancient Egyptians wrote using small pictures - hieroglyphics. Emojis are a bit like modern-day hieroglyphics. They are small pictures used separately or together to express everything from a simple "thumbs up" to the more complicated "I'm going on holiday to sunny Spain to get a tan". However, according to linguist Vyv Evans, the modern emoji has far surpassed its ancient precursor. They are now used by 8 out of 10 Brits in text messages, instant chat, or social media and a majority of the younger generation find it easier to express themselves using emojis than with words.

Emojis were invented in 1999 by Japanese mobile phone operators, as a way to deal with a particular problem their customers were causing - people were sending too many picture messages and the mobile phone networks couldn't handle it. Emojis solved the problem by storing the data-heavy images on the phone itself and sending only a single character across the network, which the receiver's phone would then display as an emoji.

"Emoji" (which means "picture word" in Japanese) is a little different from "emoticon" (a combination of the words "emotion" and "icon"). Modern emoticons have been around a little bit longer, since 1982, and are created by combining punctuation marks. For example, the famous "smiley face" :-). This is different from the emoji for the same concept, which is actually a picture of a smiling face. These days, many phones and instant messengers will turn the more common emoticons into their corresponding emojis.

Will "Emoji" become a New Language?

Emojis seem to be becoming more and more popular. Many brands now, ranging from Chevrolet and Miracle-Gro to Starbucks and even India (yes the country) have started to use them in their marketing. The streets of the UK were awash with them earlier this year thanks to a poster campaign from McDonald's, which consisted of various emoji stories which all ended with the company's logo and a grinning face. Unfortunately for McDonald's, it's easy to mess with an emoji story and one graffiti artist in Bristol added a vomiting face to the end of the advert, which made the words "good times" at the bottom of the poster sound a little ironic.

Perhaps one of the reasons that people are so attracted to emojis is that they feel more personal than simple words or even emoticons. The pictures have personality and people get very attached to their favourite emojis. However, because of this people can get really upset when old emojis are changed or new ones are added. Facebook received so many complaints about their "feeling fat face" that they removed it in March. Scottish and Welsh users of Apple were up in arms about the new iOS update, complaining that it included the North Korean flag but not their national flags. People can be more passionate about emojis than they are about their own languages and it's even been shown that different countries use emojis in different ways.

But, will emoji's start to take over from written speech? Certainly if you sit and watch The Emoji Tracker for any length of time - which tracks real-time usage of emojis on Twitter - you might start to wonder if words are on the way out. However, Neil Cohn, a researcher into visual languages, reckons that emojis will probably not become a new language. In a recent article for the BBC, he explained that although emojis are very good at embellishing written language, they don't "scale up" very well when used on their own. He says that emojis don't have any room for complicated grammar, so they can get confusing if you try to string too many of them together. You only have to read a few pages of the book Emoji Dick (a Creative Commons version of Moby Dick translated into emoji) to see that he has a point. While emojis might be great for a quick instant message, written language is far more flexible.

How to Get Started Using Emoji

There are several great resources to get started using emoji, but the best website is almost certainly Emojipedia. This includes a search engine and all of the available emojis on the most popular platforms, including Apple, Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as comparisons of the same emoji on different platforms. Their associated site GetEmoji allows you to easily copy and paste emojis directly from your browser.

The iEmoji keyboard is quite a useful website as it allows you to create a message using text and emojis, then preview how it will look on different systems and even send a tweet directly from the website. Their dictionary of emoji meanings is also quite useful if you want to avoid putting your foot in it by choosing the wrong emoji (tip: always be careful when choosing the aubergine).

If you want to splash out on some physical tech, you could always buy the brand new Emoji Keyboard. This is the first ever dedicated, physical emoji keyboard which allows you to type the most popular emojis as easily as you type anything else. If you don't want to buy a whole new keyboard and have a mac laptop, this silicon keyboard cover funded in March on Kickstarter allows you to turn your existing keyboard into an emoji one.

However, the best way to start using emoji is to look at what is on offer on whichever device you use most often. If you're using a mobile phone, go to GetEmoji and click on your device type at the top of the page for a simple guide on how to use your existing emoji keyboard. If you're still using a mobile phone then you'll probably have to stick to text-based emoticons, nevertheless here's a list.