Emojis – good (👍) or bad (👎)?

Last week Apple proposed a suite of new “accessibility emojis” to the Unicode Consortium, which sparked a water cooler chat in our team.


(Image available on Pixabay under a CC0 licence).

According to Apple, the new emojis are not intended to be a comprehensive reflection of all possible depictions of disabilities, but are intended more as a starting point. The new emojis include a guide dog, prosthetic limbs, a hearing aid and people using canes and various wheelchairs.

Perceptions on the uses of emojis vary enormously and as with anything new, our water cooler chat threw up more questions than answers.

Here are some of those questions:-

Are emojis a language subculture used as signifiers to identify membership (and non-membership) of an exclusive club?

As well as being inclusive and reflecting the diversity of society there is a counter-argument that asserts that emojis are sometimes used to identify membership of an exclusive club. History and popular culture is peppered with such examples, right from the divine symbols that represent the cults of ancient Greek gods to simple badges and logos on football shirts to name but a couple.

Some people feel disenfranchised or detached from using emojis, because of their perceived association with certain subcultures. Often this is generational, and (understandably) middle-aged folk like myself don’t want to be seen as trying to be “down with the kids” in a futile attempt to look cool.

I get that, I really do, but take it to the other extreme, take someone who refuses to use emojis at all in any context – does that not equally convey a message of rigidity and dryness?

Do emojis contribute to or distract from Plain English practices online?

This can be a very divisive question.

In an article in The Guardian called ‘Adults who use emoji should grow up’ David Webster clearly makes the case against emojis. In the article Webster bemoans the fact that emoji can cause confusion and are often a sign of “linguistic incompetence.” These are fair points, but doesn’t the richness of the English language often cause confusion  and belie someone’s “linguistic incompetence” too?

Webster gives a begrudging acknowledgement to some of the advantages of emoji, such as brevity and humour, but ultimately concludes that they are fairly useless:

“It’s not an objection to brevity or humour, and no sensible person really sees a new range of possible emoji as a sign of the eschaton. It’s that they aren’t much use.”

If emojis are the language of a subculture used as signifiers to represent the membership of exclusive clubs (and I think they are in some instances) I think the same argument could also be levelled against Webster and his use of English. Does anyone really use words like ‘eschaton’ other than the intellectual elites who read the Guardian? It’s this kind of pomposity that turns me off…

I can’t help but feel that Webster has not really taken into account the range of contexts in which emojis are used.

For example, often the platform can dictate the language used. Take something like Twitter, where brevity is key, emojis have a distinct practical advantage. Likewise, if someone wants a quick temperature check during a workshop, I’ve often seen the smiley face and sad face emojis employed on feedback cards to great effect. Like many others, I also use a range of apps on my phone to keep in touch with people on the go – conversely, in many mobile exchanges it would often be alien to respond to friends in prose rather than emojis!

Do you have to be completely on one side or the other?

Do emojis add an element of light-hearted fun to written communications or do they just trivialise the content?

I think they can do both – depending on context.

Yes, of course you will often get people using emojis in a trivial fashion (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that in moderation). Yes, you will also get people using them to undermine and exclude others, just as language has always done. However, does that mean we should all stop using emoji?

Perhaps a better question to ask is Why are you using emojis? Personally, I like emojis (I feel I should use a ‘👍’ here) and if they help to better reflect the diversity of our society, then that has to be a good thing. If there is a practical use for you, is right for the context or helps to create a positive sense of community, then why not?

If you’d like to find out more about the richness of online language and its broader applications, my colleague, Dr Esther Barrett, has written a series of excellent posts on the Inspiring Learning blog.


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