The Evolution of Netspeak and the Increasing Use of Emoticons and Emojis

The humble colon and parenthesis, :), started something revolutionary when it was first used on a university forum in 1982. Described as ‘the electronic equivalent of a spin doctor’ by writer Neal Stephenson these expressions have been used to indicated the tone of online communication. For as long as we’ve been communicating online we’ve needed to demarcate different emotions. This is because the lack of tone or facial expressions means that messages can be misinterpreted as more hostile than intended. Since 1982 these combinations of punctuation have developed and morphed through many different forms across the world. Today they are popularized as emojis, used by 92% of people online.

There can be no doubt that emojis are now the bedrock of online communication. There are built in emoji keyboards on the vast majority of smartphones on the market today, while over half of posts made to Instagram contain an emoji. Their prevalence on social media is unrivaled. What is really fascinating about emojis is how they are being used to cultivate expression beyond (though not all many agree above) our regular communication. This has been highlighted by Tyler Schnoebelen, a researcher for a linguistic data firm, who found that when talking about their phone people were eleven times more likely to use the skull emoji. He concluded that this was tied to our reliance on our phones and the social ‘grave’ we may find ourselves in when they don’t function correctly.

This is an emoji expressing a sentiment rather than being strictly reserved to emotion or representation. We can see the development from the ‘:)’ to the over thousand emojis present in the most recent version of Unicode and the vigor it can give to online communication. The wide variation offers the possibility of combinations while many people add their own personal meaning to the faces. These emojis took off when a emoji keyboard was added to iPhones in 2011, followed by Android two years later. Now they hold a unique place in the way we communicate online.

The clipped nature of our chatter online, be it through character limits or missed tone, can be enriched in millions of ways through emojis. This is perhaps why they are pushing netspeak, phrases like ‘lol’ or ‘brb’, to the sidelines. Couples or close friends can have emojis that represent the awful boss or an important event. Teddy bears are often put together with a neutral expression so that children can more easily project their emotions onto them. Emojis can provide a similar function through their range, allowing users to project complex emotions through combinations or personal references.

While these emojis cross linguistic barriers the more rudimentary combinations of punctuation vary from culture to culture. Morningside Translations showed that in eastern cultures, where emotion is more readily expressed through the eyes, their smiley faces mirror that. T_T as opposed to :’( for example. The new-style, pre-packaged faces, offer to transcend these difference and create a universal pictorial language untrammeled by language, history or culture.

Photo: Wicker Paradise




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