Do you like emojis?

We all know a few emoji haters, some who refuse to use the cheerful graphics we inject into electronic messages that are cartoonish. Perhaps they recall a period before emoji, when we used simple emoticons such as:-(in our chats, and they prefer what is familiar to them. Perhaps it’s because they feel cheap writing emoji and fear that novel symbols are progressively diluted with language.

But whatever the reason, emoji are a part of pop culture and here to stay. Although invented by Japanese cell phone carrier SoftBank in the 1990s, emoji gained truly global popularity in the 2010s when Apple and Android phones started supporting them. Initially, 608 symbols were offered, but the library quickly expanded. Today, all major phone providers support over 2,800 emoji. 

But why did emoji become a universal part of our online language? Well, it links back to the argument in the previous post. Because writing removes the body from language, many of our communicative tools are lost. Emoji help to fill this void.

Two particularly useful ways to think about emoji are available. Next, as gestures with emblems. In short, gestures are any physical action you use to express your point, such as keeping your hands apart to show that a fish was “this big one.” However, theorists describe emblem gestures as gestures that have a particular name. Each English speaker, for instance, knows what a wink or a thumbs-up means, and you can even find their names and meanings listed in English dictionaries.

The roaring success of emoji is, in part, due to their providing emblem gestures in writing – a place previously lacking them. We now have, on our smartphone keyboards, the power to flip someone off (🖕), wave (👋), wish luck (🤞) and roll our eyes (🙄). 

But not all emoji are emblem gestures – some are illustrations. We use these emoji to reinforce the meaning of our messages and illustrate context. Birthday messages are a shining example of this. These days, when we receive “happy birthday” messages from friends, they’re often accompanied by a range of illustrative emoji, like the birthday cake (🎂), balloon (🎈) or gift (🎁). We also often combine these context-dependent emoji with others that have broader meanings, like sparkles (✨) and hearts (❤️).

Love them or hate them, emoji filled a gap in our informal writing and added new layers of meaning to our messages. They are colorful representations of our physical world, and add nuance and flair to our chats.

Pessimistic over the impact of technology – and especially TV – on society, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg certainly didn’t have online spaces in mind when he coined the term third place in 1989.

This term was used by Oldenburg to refer to social spaces, apart from the first place of residence and the second place of work. For friendly environments, which emphasize leisure, relaxation, conversation and playfulness, third places are notable. These were important to social life, civic participation and the democratic process, Oldenburg thought, citing pubs and cafés as primary examples.

And though he wouldn’t see them as such, social media sites are ideal third-place examples. We see a stream of regulars and outsiders both mixing, chatting and socializing as we log into the third position of our social network accounts. We glimpse others’ everyday habits and stay up to date with significant events in the lives of our acquaintances. We no longer need to catch up when we start conversations with old friends, because we’ve been in the loop.

In recent years, social media – and especially Facebook – have become the dominant third place for adolescents to hang out and socialize. Instead of, say, going bowling, an increasing number of teens go online on weekends to chat, post updates and flirt. This affects what teenagers aren’t doing, too – in a surprising reversal, several studies have noticed that post-internet teenagers aren’t having sex or drinking as much as previous generations. 

Oldenburg also argued that third places have been crucial in forming the wide, loosely-knit social groups essential to revolutionary movements. He cites the taverns of revolutionary America and European coffee shops in the Enlightenment as key examples of this. 

But this only reinforces the argument for social media as a third place. For instance, during the 2011 Arab Spring, which saw numerous pro-democracy uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Twitter was the key tool for organizing protests and spreading dissent.  

Other examples of third places are internet forums and online communities. Reddit, currently the internet’s most popular site, caters to over 1.2 million different audiences, all focused on various subjects, from makeup art to 3D printing. These act as third places in the way a pottery class might: you go for the material at first, but you start remembering names and faces after a while. Soon, for the social part, you find yourself still attending.

Remarkably, memes have been around longer than the internet. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in 1976, as a counterpart of the gene. For Dawkins, a meme is a shareable piece of cultural information which survives through social selection. 

Defined like this, memes existed long before 1976. The internet scholar Limor Shifman, who specializes in internet memes, highlights a particular graffiti sketch as a classic pre-internet meme. “Kilroy Was Here” features a large-nosed man peeking over a wall, and became extremely popular in Europe during World War II. 

But internet memes as we know them today – usually featuring text superimposed onto a digital image – really took off in the early 2000s. Then, a number of sites appeared allowing you to upload an image and quickly add some text. Some of the earliest popular memes, originating on the anonymous forum 4chan in 2005, were lolcats: funny pictures of cats with witty captions attached. 

A key feature of many lolcat memes was the purposeful use of incorrect grammar and spelling. This was meant to reflect the poor grasp of English a cat would surely have if it could speak. One lolcat meme, featuring a kitten in a bow tie, was captioned: “I CAN HAS PROM DATE?” 

In a especially popular meme, the theme of intentional linguistic mistakes was later copied: Doge. “Doge’s own misprint was based on a photo taken by Japanese teacher Atsuko Sato of her pet Shiba Inu.” The meme was remixed by numerous subcultures to represent jokes within their group, still maintaining the distinct linguistic style of Doge, usually sporting text scattered randomly across the picture revealing Doge’s internal monologue.

One Doge meme, popular among the gamer community, featured Doge crudely photoshopped into a soldier’s uniform. Using the font from the best-selling shooter franchise Call of Duty, the meme spelled out “Call of Doge” with other text like “wow,” “so pro” and “much tough” spread around the picture.  

The enduring popularity of memes doesn’t just lie in their easy creation and distribution. Creating or enjoying a meme usually requires being an insider to a particular community. This reinforces a sense of belonging among members, and draws boundaries around outsiders who don’t get it.

From an explosion in informal language to Call of Doge, the internet hasn’t just changed how we communicate – after all, language is constantly evolving – it has also dramatically quickened the pace of change.

The English language is an eternally moving sand, but the emergence of the internet has increased the speed of transition. The online world is a great place for linguistic creativity, because ordinary people, free from the fear of editors and English teachers, have contributed to an explosion of informal writing. And because many of our communicative methods are lost in language, such as gestures and tone of voice, people have found innovative new ways to communicate themselves and their intentions. But if we are limited in certain respects by electronic messaging, it also opens the door to other forms of expression: the use of memes, for instance, is an internet-specific way of making in-jokes and becoming part of a community.

Check out my related post: How would life be without the internet?

Interesting reads:


  1. Thank you for the great introducion into emojis, and their role in our new way of communicatiions. Without any regrets against life would not be life. 😉 For Germany, better Bavaria i remember a great ranting against the use of smartphone by youngsters. Now, during the lockdown these devices are the only way for them staying in contact with another. Michael


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