Emoji — the most voiced language digitally

In one phrase, emoji is used by three billion people making it the most spoken and fastest-growing language in the world. Now about half of communications are done through some technology and emojis are used to add an extra layer on top of what simple words can convey — emojis are modern facial expressions, hand gestures, or depicted objects that help conduct conversations smoothly.

The 20 most popular emojis by Brandwatch (Image source: The Most Popular Emojis | Brandwatch)

The above emojis are the twenty most used emojis on the internet according to Brandwatch. Emojis are not only additive elements, but rather can serve as the center of communications today. They also open up an opportunity for passive communicators to participate in conversations. According to this analytic, posts with emojis receive 47.7% more average interactions on Instagram.

In 2018, Toyota created 80 different versions of the same videos, which were about two characters with different emoji faces driving a Toyota Camry. Toyota published these as targeted ads on Twitter; they were targeted based on which emojis people have tweeted, because some emojis are a clearer way of capturing the audiences’ emotions than text messages.

“[In communication using technology], we’ve shut out the rhythm in sound of the voice, so emoji is almost a brilliant human way of replacing that. ”
— Helen Fisher, Biological Anthropologist at Rutgers University

In this entry, I explore the history of emojis, how emojis have added value to society alongside how they’ve altered they way people communicate in the modern digital products.

Where did the emoji come from?

The functional aspect of emojis resembles that of pictograms — pictograms convey a meaning through the use of a minimal iconographic shape that resembles the real object. Well-designed pictograms are easy to recognize and save screen space compared to writing a full text.

Emoticons also convey another aspect of expressions. Some of the original emoticons can be found from 19th century texts. For example,- a transcript of Abraham Lincoln’s speech published in New York Times contained “(applause and laughter ;)”. Rooted from these original artifacts, an evolution took place to invent emojis that soon became the center of digital communications today.

1982 — Digital emoticons

The first digital emoticon, a technique to create expressions using standard alphabet keys like :-) , first appeared in 1982. Scott Fahlman, a faculty member from Carnegie Mellon University, would use :-) or :-( to denote whether content on the online message board was a joke or serious, respectively.

1984 — Yutaka Sato’s graphic typography

Yutaka Sato, the Japanese type designer, submitted a set of typography, which consisted of graphic imagery., It even received special recognition in a typeface competitions.

Yutaka Sato’s graphic typography (Image resource: http://www.type-labo.jp/Ohbun.html)

1990s — Japanese pagers with the heart icon

Pagers were a mobile communication tool used as a precursor to mobile phones. People sent a limited number of texts to each other (almost like a precursor to Twitter if you think about it). Its original, most basic use case was to provide a means to communicate with others who are outside of the office or home in a minimal way. For instance, the sender sends their phone number from their office, so the recipient can see it and dial back from a public phone.

As pagers improved, people started using pagers as messaging devices, still with a steep character limit. At one point, a pager company released a newer model with simple icons including a heart icon. People loved how it could pack an emotion in a single character space. Demonstrating this clearly, the pager sales drastically dropped when they introduced another pager without a heart icon.

1998 — Emoji in NTT Docomo device

Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer at NTT Docomo, the biggest Japanese mobile career company, introduced a set of 176 image fonts to their phones. He called it Emoji, which translates to a picture letter.

The original emojis had to fit into the 12x12 pixel grid, which meant 176 characters were just over three kilobytes.

“Both emoji and kanji are ideograms, but I did not find inspiration for designing emoji in the kanji… In creating emoji, I found inspiration in pictograms, manga, and all sorts of other sources.”
— Shigetaka Kurita, the original Emoji designer
Shigetaka Kurita, NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176). 1998–99. Software and digital image files. Gift of NTT DOCOMO Inc., Japan (Image resource: The Original NTT DOCOMO Emoji Set Has Been Added to The Museum of Modern Art’s Collection | MOMA)

2010 — Emoji became part of Unicode

The Google team members, Kat Momoi, Mark Davis, and Markus Scherer, were mesmerized with emojis that evolved in Japanese mobile phone culture. In 2009, Apple engineers, Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, joined the conversation. They submitted the official proposal that includes 625 new emoji characters into Unicode, the nonprofit organization that has maintained the standards in digital texts since 2007. In 2010, emoji was incorporated in Unicode 6.0 and dramatically expanded its accessibility, including the use of emoji on regular computers as well.

Excerpt from Unicode block Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs, with reference glyphs, and descriptions (Image resource: Emoji set to live long and prosper, thanks to Unicode | Internet.com)

2011 — Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS

iOS users could start using the emoji keyboard in the same way they changed the keyboard they would use to different languages. Android also followed this movement.

The original iPhone emoji keyboard (Image resource: Emojipedia)

2015 — Option to change skin tone

Unicode took the first step toward diversifying emoji by introducing the option to change skin tone. Since then, emojis started moving toward caring about and representing cultural diversity.

Image resource: NoMoreSkinToneSuggestion prevents iOS from nagging you about skin tones for Emojis | iDB

Where and how are we using them today?


“Over the past year we’ve found that if people leave a Reaction on a post, it is an even stronger signal that they’d want to see that type of post than if they left a Like on the post.”
— Facebook in a statement
Image source: Are You Liking Facebook’s New Emojis? Scrap That. Do You ‘Wow’ Them? | npr

There are 6 animated emoji “Reactions” on Facebook — like, love, haha, wow, sad and angry. Facebook uses these emoji reactions as an important meter to personalize users’ experience. According to one of their statements, they have weighed other reactions as “higher” than a like to articulate expression, thanks to an algorithm. However, the love, which consists of 50% of all reactions, weighs equally in comparison to other reactions.


“It helps the more important messages stand out,”
— Simon Vallee, a product manager at Slack.

With emoji reactions, Slack does not feel like a cold business software. Emojis are used for light reactions and responses, and they help most important messages stand out. Instead of typing “ok” or “got it”, thumbs-up reactions would communicate the similar response without hiding the original message.

Some unique use cases:

A lot of organizations adopted Slack as a tool to poll (Image source: Some of the ways we use emoji at Slack)
Three colored dots for different levels of urgency (Image source: Some of the ways we use emoji at Slack)
The U.S. government design group 18F uses green tree reactions for evergreen content to share and manage knowledge (Source: Using emoji for knowledge sharing, 18F)


Instagram has actively been making Emojis the core of users’ responses to others’

posts or stories. For example, emojis appear first when you tap into any comments, so you can immediately and casually respond to any post. A similar tactic is used for responses to Instagram stories; emojis are the easiest to react to at the center of the screen above the keyboard.

As mentioned earlier, Instagram posts with emojis received 47.7% more interactions, 56.5% of all users use emojis, and the growth of emoji usage was a record high of 19% in 2016. Instagram also introduced slider stickers with the emoji face in 2018, which essentially spices up participating in while simultaneously lowering the bar to join polls.

Instagram added the emoji slider to spice up polls. (Image source: Instagram via. Instagram adds emoji slider stickers to spice up polls | TefchCrunch)

Snapchat- Friend emoji

Friend emojis on Snapchat represent a user’s friend status and replaces the old best friend feature. The app tracks messages between individuals and groups to assign different emojis representing the degree of their relationships. If no messages are exchanged at all for enough time, emojis will not appear, or disappear if the relationship changes. Although users can customize these emojis, the list below shows these Snapchat delegated emojis and their status meaning.

💕 Super BFF— You’ve been each other’s best friend for at least two months.

❤️ BFF — You’ve been each other’s best friend for at least two weeks.

💛 Besties — You’re each other’s best friend. You send the most snaps to each other.

😊 BF — One of your best friends, but not your number one.

😏 Their BF, but… — You’re this friend’s best friend, but they’re not your best friend.

😬 Mutual Besties — You have common best friends with this friend.

😎 Mutual BFs — One of your best friends is one of their best friends too.

🔥 Snapstreak — You’ve been snapping with them a lot and regularly recently. Eventually, you will start seeing stream numbers next to emojis as you continue marking the amount of days you’ve snapped each other consecutively.

👶 New friend — A new friend that was just added.

Group chat — This helps identify friends in group chats.

The emoji list is from Here’s What the Emojis on Snapchat Really Mean


Brilliant is a website that features mathematical and scientific problems with its associated community that comes up with approaches to solve these problems. In their community answers, people can propose ways to solve these problems, and others can react to these proposals. There are four response choices: Helpful, Interesting, Brilliant, and Confused. In comparison to the chat tool, Slack, which keeps many emoji choices with interpretations thereof left up to their users, Brilliant keeps these reactions limited and clear; in other words, it is extremely controlled.

Apple’s Memojis

A decade after the game companies such as Nintendo or Sony introduced customizable 3D avatars in their games, Apple’s Memojis present a similar concept. They are very comparable to their counterpart, with one significant difference being their sophisticated camera sensors. Although the style is still cartoonish and may lack some human details, the fact that these Memojis mirror users’ movements and facial expressions fill this lack of details.

The powerful customization capabilities with Memoji (Image source: Apple’s Memoji are a decade late and just in time | VentureBeat)

Memojis come with extensive customizable options to completely personalize one’s avatar. I can see how Memojis may be very popular with young kids, however, they are only available on limited devices. In contrast, emojis are universally accepted due to the effort of standardizing them for the Unicode format back in 2010. Nonetheless, emojis’ iconographic styles are up to each operating system, and they have to be differentiated due to the licensing issues. Therefore, some emojis you send on an iPhone may be received with a completely different look on the Samsung device.

YOBO — Like Yelp but with emojis

Yobo is an app service that crowdsources restaurant information with Emojis. This iOS app, which was meant to appeal to young Millenials and Gen-Z, was launched in 2018. In the app, people share a picture of their local favorite spot with up-to-three emojis. These photos are shared anonymously. Its AI also adds extra levels of information using photo-recognitions. This particular place serves coffee, evidenced by the photo of coffee, for example.

There is no follow function like on other social media, but users get notifications when other users rate photos that they have submitted. These reactions are also done with emojis. Unlike other rating services like Google, Yelp, or Foursquare, Yobo is 100% visual and easy to share.

Image source: Die YOBO App — Finde Orte in deiner Umgebung mittels künstlicher Intelligenz

Lastly, some interesting stats about Emojis

Top 10 most used in Facebook, 2017 — Lifewire

  1. 😂
  2. 😍
  3. 😘
  4. 🤣
  5. 😀
  6. ❤️
  7. 😉
  8. 😊
  9. 😭
  10. 😄

Top 10 most popular emoji on iPhones in US — Business Insider

  1. 😂
  2. ❤️
  3. 😭
  4. 😍
  5. 😘
  6. 🙄
  7. 💀
  8. 😊
  9. 😫
  10. 🤔

Emoji usage in text messages by each country — Futurity

Top 10 most likely to encourage click-through — Hubspot

  1. 🐙
  2. 🐴
  3. 👖
  4. 🍒
  5. 🚂
  6. 🏳
  7. 🌉
  8. 🆓
  9. 👇
  10. 🎟

Top 10 most likely to increase engagement — Hubspot

  1. 🙆
  2. 🍒
  3. 🐠
  4. 💃
  5. 🌤
  6. 💘
  7. 😔
  8. 💕
  9. 😢
  10. 💓


The History Of The Emoji | HBO

Can You Speak Emoji? | PBS Idea Channel

The Wired Guide To Emoji | WIRED

The Fascinating Story Behind How Emojis Were Invented | Simplemost

You might want to rethink what you’re ‘liking’ on Facebook now | Mashable

Facebook Confirms Emoji ‘Reactions’ Affects Your News Feed | Forbes

Here’s What the Emojis on Snapchat Really Mean | Lifewire

Slack’s New Emoji-Based Reactions: Way, Way More Than A “Like” Button | Fast Company

Why Do We Use Emojis Anyway? A Fascinating History of Emoticons | Reader’s Digest

How Emoji Get Lost in Translation on Different Devices | Slate


Short History of The Emoji | Alvaro Arregui

Some of the ways we use emoji at Slack | Slack

Emojis Lead up to 47.7% More Interactions on Instagram | Quintly

These Emojis Can Increase Click-Through Rates, According to New Data | Hubspot

Relying only on Emojis and photos, could YOBO be Generation-Z’s Foursquare? | TechCrunch

Emoji stats