Emojis: 21st century hieroglyphics

The way we will soon be communicating?

Stuart Zanville
2016 March

Every once in a while I write a column about communication or technology. This column is both.

I like to write about things that we are vaguely aware of, but don’t really understand. I have to admit that while I hope to educate the reader, I’m really educating myself.

This column is about emojis. Really. 

Quick quiz. How many of you know what an emoji is? I thought so. I didn’t either. I’m sure that like me, you see those colorful smiley faces and other graphic symbols that seem to be popping up everywhere. What you may not know is that emojis are fast becoming the communication method of choice for people sending texts, even supplanting written words.

This column is also about how we communicate using our Smartphones. Stay with me here, and I will also explain why this form of communication is important to trial lawyers.

How much you know about emojis probably depends on your sociological generation.

If you are a baby boomer like me (ages 51-69) you grew up without the Internet or computers. We were adults before computers were on every desk, let alone in your hand. We had to learn how to communicate by email, then twitter, and now by text. 

The younger generations are different. The younger Millennials (18-34) and post-Millennials (kids to teens) are the first generations to grow up completely using Smartphones as their computer device of choice. Not tablets, not laptops and certainly not desktops. This generation uses their Smartphones for everything they do from commerce to communication.

Emojis come into the picture

Tracey Lien wrote in the L.A. Times in January that “Emojis originated in Japan in the late 1990’s, when wireless carriers created sets of digital stickers people could use in text messages. (Note: Emoji is Japanese for picture plus letter).

“Elsewhere, people had long used emoticons – visual expressions strung together using symbols such as parentheses, dashes and colons to denote a smiley face.”

Emoticons combined the words “emotion” and “icon” and allowed people to convey the emotional intent of posted messages. Emotions were missing from texts and emails until emoticons came along.  Sometimes when you received a message, you couldn’t tell whether the words were serious or a joke; whether they were happy, sad or angry. Emoticons and now emojis solved that problem. They also became a form of language themselves.

Lien wrote in the Times that “once emojis were incorporated into Unicode – an international system that standardizes characters across different operating systems−they became accessible and easy to use.” 

In her article, Lien wrote that “after Apple made emojis available on its iOS mobile operating system in 2011, with Android following in 2013, emojis have been one of the biggest communication breakthroughs since people took to the Internet.”

She reported that “a 2015 study by Bangor University linguistics professor Vyv Evans found that 80 percent of Smartphone users in Britain used emojis. When the research focused on people under 25, almost 100 percent of Smartphone users text with emojis. According to a Swift Key report, 74 percent of Americans use emojis every day.”

Lien concluded that “Things that are quickly adopted have a tendency to quickly go away. But the way emojis fit so seamlessly into the way we communicate and their ongoing ubiquity gives linguists the belief that they aren’t going anywhere any time soon.”

The emoji “language” now consists of nearly 1,300 images, ranging from facial expressions to gestures. More than 70 new ones are being considered in 2016.

Why it’s important to lawyers

First, it will help you understand the next wordless text you receive from someone under the age of 21. Second, it may also be part of your next trial.

Leigh Raper wrote in Avvo’s Naked Law Blog that “Courts are beginning to deal with emoji, albeit reluctantly, while still grappling with how to handle the more standard electronic communications. People – employees, employers, co-workers, friends – are all lured by the informal nature of emoji, creating millions and millions of pieces of data for lawyers to sift through.”

Raper writes about the 2015 Silk Road trial in which prosecutors read strings of text messages to the jury. Initially, they omitted the emoji, but after a defense objection, the judge ordered the jury be informed of the symbols. That is part of the evidence of the document, she said, as reported by the New York Times. “Without the emoji, the defense argued, the messages were incomplete.”

A Michigan judge took a different position and found that the inclusion of an emoji after a potentially defamatory statement “does not materially alter the meaning of the text message.”

For now, there doesn’t seem to be clear interpretation of how emoji will be seen in a court of law.

Maybe it’s my generation, but I prefer to communicate with written words, not hieroglyphic symbols. At least now I understand what emojis are and why they are important. Hopefully, you do too.

Stuart Zanville Stuart Zanville

Stuart Zanville is the Executive Director of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). Contact him at (213) 487-1212 or by e-mail: stuart@caala.org.

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