Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2015 was a surprise for some of us.
Because it was this: ????.
We even felt weird putting a period at the end of that sentence. Even though emoji are all over the place—Twitter, Instagram, in almost all text conversations we have—it has never occurred to us to define it as a word.
What is a word?
We didn’t know how to answer this question, so we turned to the dictionary, because that’s where the words live.
Here’s what we found: words are carriers of meaning, they can be written or spoken, and they are the smallest units that can be used independently to convey meaning.
A word is made when a group of people decide on a meaning for it. This doesn’t happen around a board room table, but more organically. We all know what hangry means. It makes sense. We have a shared consensus, but we know we weren’t there when this was decided. It developed naturally. Now we all describe ourselves as hangry from time to time. The point is that the dictionary as an entity didn’t decide it, it emerged from our culture.
What Makes a Word Real?
Ann Curzan in her talk What Makes a Word “Real?” asks students to challenge dictionaries, saying that they “are human and they are not timeless.” Editors put together dictionaries. These editors are not simply deciding amongst themselves which words are real, they are trying to keep up with what is happening in our society. They are trying to stay on top of the evolution of our living language.
Unlike other forms of internet language, emoji are not part of a spoken language. We’ve (almost) all adopted the phrase lol, even to the point of saying it out loud.
However, I can’t say “little face with hearts for eyes” as efficiently as I can say “omg I love that.” But once it’s written down, ???? goes a lot further than saying “omg I love that.” Though an emoji can’t be said out loud efficiently, it is a symbol for something that wouldn’t be conveyed as well if it were written out. And thus, if we go back to our dictionary definition, it is the smallest unit of its meaning.
We have a shared agreement on what (most) emoji mean, they can be written down, and they are the smallest unit of their meaning. Sounds like a word to us.
Marketing with Emoji
Some brands take full advantage of this. GE, Taco Bell, Budweiser, among others create social media campaigns that have no problem using emoji. You can order a pizza by tweeting???? to Domino’s. GE has an entire website dedicated to the approval and love of emoji. Here are a few reasons why brands have adopted this new language:
Emoji are (mostly) universal.
???? means the same thing no matter where you are. There are a few exceptions, but generally speaking, emoji transcend language. In his talk How Language Transformed Humanity, Mark Pagel says, “language is a piece of social technology for enhancing the benefits of cooperation.” Though he’s talking about the development of language generally, the concept is applicable to how global communication is adapting to the internet. Are emoji the first step toward a global language? Are they a means of enhancing cooperation between people online that are separated by languages?
Emoji are concise.
You have only 140 characters (for now!) to convey your point, empathize with your reader, and get them to click on whatever it is you want them to click on. There is no space to waste. Honestly, even if you had all the space in the world, you only have a few seconds before someone is bored and skims down to the next post.
Take a look at GE’s tweet regarding electricity in parts of Africa. Not only is there an image associated with the tweet that is informative, but they used their 140 characters to imbed a link and keep their headline in full.
National Geographic has fantastic content, but this tweet probably wouldn’t stop someone in their tracks. It doesn’t necessarily need an emoji. They could use an image to draw the eye of people lazily scanning their feed, in which case they would have to condense the tweet.
Images are more memorable than words.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America ran an experiment to study why people remember pictures better than words (words, in this instance, being combinations of letters). Though the majority of the study is scientifically over our heads, they state that “the greater activity in medial temporal cortex during encoding of pictures compared with words suggests that pictures more directly or effectively engage these memory-related regions in the brain, thereby resulting in superior recollection of these items.” Basically, images have more of an effect on our memory, and are easier to refer back to. To put this into the most simple of terms, a tweet with an image is more memorable than a tweet without one.
Emoji are empathetic.
Research shows that your brain reacts to facial expressions of emojis in the same way it reacts to facial expressions in real life. If you’re looking for a way to humanize your brand, to make emotional connections with your online consumer-base, an emoji might be one of the best things you can use.
But don’t do it wrong.
Don’t recklessly shove a bunch of emoji into your social media marketing. There can be something problematic about using solely emoji for communication, or using emoji in an inappropriate way. For example, in August of last year, Hillary Clinton, or at least her marketing team, tweeted “How does your student loan debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emojis or less.” There are some things that we can not boil down to simple images, there are things that are more complicated and require more nuance than emoji can provide.
Continually, posting a tweet that is only emoji can be confusing, like a cypher people have to figure out. Chevy put out a marketing campaign that asked their readers to decipher an entire page of emoji. For a certain person, this might be fun, but most people are not going to put in the time and effort to decode it. Emoji should make what you’re saying easier to understand, more fun to read, more memorable, but not trivialize what you’re saying.
All of this is about communication, being able to reach people, to get them to a place where they understand and are eager to engage with you. The more you can be on their level, the better. The more you can convey your humanity, the better. Emoji are another vehicle of communication, potentially a silly one, but one that already functions as a successful part of our language.