Emoting Out Loud: The Origin of Emojis

Emotions are no longer difficult to express, thanks to the myriad expressive faces depicting your reaction to various situations. This month, we trace the sources of the world’s first emoji, and it’s story of evolving through an assembly of dots and colon

By Souvik Das | Published 04 Aug 2016 20:22 IST
Emoting Out Loud: The Origin of Emojis

On July 17, we commemorated World Emoji Day. In true millennial fashion, the world took to social media and celebrated the presence of emojis in our lives with… well, emojis. This is not the first time that an Internet-born inanimate object has been commemorated, though. For instance, World Wi-Fi Day was celebrated on June 20 to honour the magical airwaves that connect us to the rest of the world in a matter of seconds, and World Internet Day itself is observed on October 29 in honour of, well, the Internet. Hence, it is only natural that we celebrate emojis too, the tiny, round faces in varying shades of emotion that are ever-present in our messages these days.


The Origins

As with much of technology, emojis also have their roots in Japan. Shigetaka Kurita was a part of Japanese telecom operator NTT DoCoMo’s i-Mode mobile Internet platform that witnessed a rising trend of using pictures in text messages to depict reactions and/or emotions. This was some time between 1998 and 1999, and the brink of the millennium was witnessing the widespread acceptance of mobile telephony, the advent of commonplace text messaging, and Japan was one step ahead already. To serve the users better, Kurita and his team came up with emoticons, a total of 172 faces depicting the various emotions and reactions that he had witnessed among the people in his city. Each emoticon had a size of 12x12 pixels, and was a part of a special package for NTT DoCoMo customers to differentiate the service provider from the rest and appeal more to users.

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While Kurita and his team at i-Mode have usually been credited with the invention of the world’s first emojis, this is the time when a number of Japanese telecom providers came up with similar solutions and layouts. Vodafone Japan also happened to be one of the early adopters of emoji, and the link for emojis spreading out across the world can be drawn from here. Even prior to the presence of graphic emojis, people using text messages have resorted to ASCII symbols to emote. These were basically combinations of punctuation marks that somewhat created a barebone sketch of how you were feeling at that moment, forming a precursor to the myriad emoticons we have around us now. The very first recorded use of emoticon were the two basic smiling and sad faces, :-) and :-(, by Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. His email to colleagues on September 9, 1982 stated:


The first recorded presence of emoji

This is credited to be the first recorded instance of an emoticon being used in communication. The mention of the concept dates further back to Vladimir Nabokov’s interview with The New York Times back in 1969, when he stated, “I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile — some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket.”

The Evolution

The first graphical representations of the symbol-based emoticons were brought to the fore by Nicolas Loufrani, son of The Smiley Company’s President Franklin Loufrani, who decided to take up the mettle of innovating with the basic smiley, and create animated graphics to ease communications. He realised the potential of digital communication and the years to follow, and compiled an emoticon dictionary, a precursor to the extensive list of emojis we use these days. Loufrani’s company presently holds copyright to the smiley face and its usage across multiple nations, prior to which his online emoticon dictionary included sub-genres of emojis such as Classics, Food, Sports, Weather, Animals, Nations and many more.


The development of emoji made it easier for telecom servers to handle the ever-growing scale of text messages, and its evolution from basic characters to pictographic content. For one, each image shared over messages was much larger than emojis, which made it difficult for operators to handle the peak time traffic of messages. Emojis were also more fun and convenient, as they were no longer disjointed structures of special symbols and characters, but faces depicting regular emotions. Prior to emoji and emoticons, adding tone to a text message was difficult, which often led to conflicting interpretation of messages between the sender and receiver.

The Impact

The rise of online chat rooms and the primary forms of instant messaging saw the relevance of emojis. With casual chats, the need for easy depiction of reactions became tantamount, which led to a rising count of emojis, and their overall refinement. The rise of WhatsApp and advent of smartphones was crucial to the massive expansion of emoji use, which grew at a steady yet slow pace until then.


Better accessibility to the internet, advent of mobile internet with smartphones and the integration of third party services on devices saw a large section of users engaging with emojis, lending deeper, easier-to-understand tone to interpersonal messaging. One of the most notable impact that emojis had, before becoming pivotal to the present advertising and marketing industry, was on the iPhone, in Japan. With Jobs’ refusal to play along with other companies, Apple was surprised with the amount of features that were regular to the 80 million people using smartphones back in 2007, and yet, were missing from the iPhone. With most operators turning down a partnership deal with Apple owing to the lack of features, it was Vodafone Japan that picked up the contract deal, under clauses that the next update to the iPhone would include emojis for users in Japan. Since then, emojis have remained constant, and contributed to the exponential growth of emojis since then.

The iPhone was compelled to include emojis in Japan

With us moving into the second decade of this millennium, the presence of emojis in a message became even more relevant for those born around or after the year 2000. Marketeers and advertisers started capitalising on communication trends in an online-first world to present messages, ad campaigns and slogans which involved emojis. Advertising in the digital age were impacted by emoji campaigns, which were deemed not only more effective, but imparted more relatability and a deeper sense of connection for target audiences.


The Gradual Diversification

As with every element gradually diversifying after becoming popular, emojis have diversified manifold. The faces have evolved, new expressions have been added, and the world of emojis have gone way beyond mere emotions, to now include sports, flags, differences in races and even celebrities. Emojis are now a discourse that even has statistical analysts breaking down how nations generally feel, which activity is the most popular, and an overall sense of needing to be politically correct with your reactions.

We will not judge you if you use these 

Notable diversification of emojis include the marginal differences in the original Emoji, the ones used by Twitter, and the likes of celebrity emojis like ‘Kimoji’ (by Kim Kardashian) and ‘Boltmoji’ by celebrity athlete Usain Bolt. A recent study has scaled the rise of diverse emojis, accounting for a whopping 609-percent year-on-year increase in the use of emojis in the marketing industry. As of May 2016, 800 million emoji messages were used in the field of marketing and advertisement, as opposed to only 145 million in May 2015. The effectiveness is being realised now, with millennials regarding brands that employ emojis as more relatable.

Emoting out loud

Emojis are no longer casual pictographic depictions to ease messaging tones, they are a part of everyday communication that our lives are simply used to. Statistical analysis on emojis make way for consensus on how a population is generally feeling, paving way for sociological research and data collection. This Emoji Day, for instance, while the US and Canada happens to be tired and weary, Spain reportedly feels strong, and India has her hands folded.

What India tweeted on World Emoji Day

Our generation is all about emoting out loud, of expressing loudly and clearly about who we are, what we prefer, we like, dislike and even when we are in love. What started as a crucial tool to ease communication servers and attract more users to the network is now a tool that seamlessly fits into our generally expressive social media presence. Here’s raising a toast to the millions of familiar faces - the past, presence and expansive future of emojis.

Souvik Das

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