I wish emojis had never replaced emoticons

A photo of a keyboard with emojis above it
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When someone texts you news of a promotion or a date with that special someone they've been eyeing, how do you respond? Many of us might go right for the reaction gif, or a quick "Congratulations!" depending on how busy we are. For many texters, however, their first option is an emoji. Maybe it's the raised hands symbol or a heart. Maybe it's the hair flip emoji to signify how much of a boss your friend is. Whatever you choose, you've probably selected a much more simple and succinct way to pass along your thoughts than what text could convey. It's super useful and quick to send a red "100" to someone who tells you they just aced a test, or a picture of a smarpthone to a friend who asks you if you're free to chat. It's all very streamlined. Clean. Classic. You don't even have to think about what to say, because the image says it all.

And that's great and all, except that I hate it. In fact, I wish emoji had never replaced emoticons, and here's why.


What's the difference between emoji and emoticon?

Perhaps I should back up a bit. I realize there are still folks out there who haven't ever had to discern what an emoji or an emoticon is, nor care about their differences.

Emoji are ideograms, the latest evolution of the pictorial representation of our emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Basically, they're the image equivalent of communicating how we feel or what we're thinking about at any given time. You might send a cheeky image of a peach if you're being flirtatious. Similarly, you could send over a cake to wish someone happy birthday. They're so simple, anyone can understand what they mean. There's no pretext. You can send a literal pile of poo to someone if you're angry with them, or communicate wordlessly with a string of emoji to let someone know (or guess at) what you're feeling.

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Emoticons, however, have much more nuance, at least in terms of interpretation and creativity when forming them. They were the best way to wordlessly convey emotion or intention when chatting online before emoji came along, first rising to popularity as the ":-)" signs of yesteryear thanks to creator Scott Fahlman. Comprised of characters like parentheses, colons, dashes, and exclamation points, they're meant to be read sideways. Instead of replacing words, however, they're often used to supplement them.


Japanese netizens took the emoticon one step further and pioneered the "kaomoji" emoticons, using the Japanese language's Katakana character set. They can be read head-on without the need to tilt your head to see the expression that's been typed out. And there are thousands of different combinations of kaomoji and Western emoticons that can be formed. Some of them are so complicated to create given their usage of symbols that typical users rarely need to use on their keyboards and rely on "alt" codes to create.

For example, to create the "é" in Pokémon, you can use a special keyboard shortcut depending on what computer you're using to make the character. It's the same for some of the Japanese kaomoji, which can be used to make plenty of expressive, sometimes adorable faces. Ironically, the emoji we use now actually originated on Japanese mobile phones back in the late '90s beyond the kaomoji and Western emoticons in play back then.

What do I have against emoji?

They're making us lazier. They're making it more difficult, at least, for me to connect with others or really form connections, depending on how we communicate. As a writer, I've always appreciated communication via language and text, prizing electronic messaging over talking over the phone. I grew up on the internet and made most of my friends online through chat rooms and endless paragraphs of roleplaying. We wrote about our emotions, thoughts, and feelings rather than showing them. It was comforting. Meaning was never misconstrued, and as someone who often only had text to remember online friends by (this was an era before it was less weird to call someone up you just met on Instagram) our conversations were my only connections to the past.

Think about it this way: If you told someone not to worry about something back then, you'd write out what you wanted to say, and cap it off with a simple smiley like a ":]" variation, or the popular ":)" to keep things light.


If you were to say the same thing to a loved one with emoji, many would likely skip the text and send over a goofy smile or a sad face in an attempt to make a connection. The meaning becomes lost. What are they trying to say, exactly? While many individuals opt to use emoji as supplementary conversational elements, others aren't quite sure how to be tactful with the pictograms, and send them in lieu of words, so the original meaning becomes muddy, and often awkward. It's not to say this didn't happen when emoticons were more prevalent, but it was more awkward back then to send a small pixelated face without any words in response. Perhaps even more so than it is now.

As I've gotten older, I've observed a tendency for many people to use emoji as a way to replace the conversations they should be having, both at work and in private. And while I've slowly gotten over the frustrating dance of having to communicate with coworkers who speak in exclusively lowercase, it's utterly bizarre to think that certain situations have found me trying to make sense out of emoji requests when asking a superior at a job what task I should focus on next. I've been dismissed from a job before after receiving a single "sad face" emoji. The onus was on me to start a dialogue to see what had gone wrong.

The same goes for planning for events with friends. Is the "thumbs-up" emoji communicating that you're particularly enamored with what we're doing Friday night, or is there something that we should have a conversation about?

Think about it: Having to articulate yourself through text is a dying art. Most of our casual conversations with friends have slowly devolved into emoji-ridden iMessage group chats punctuated by the errant gif or sticker. We don't have conversations, we have hieroglyphics.

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But what's wrong with using pictures to communicate?

Well, unfortunately, we have imperfect hieroglyphics. We have a cavalcade of oddly gendered only sparsely diverse emoji that don't accurately reflect the world we live in today. In fact, when we first saw the birth of emoji, we were limited only to white men, women, and children save for the errant one-off situation here and there. While the default race for emoji is "yellow" now, with a few different skin tones to choose from, things have been far from completely diverse since emoji took off. Even when the skin tone changes, facial features don't. It's a Band-Aid for a flawed system.

It's not only flawed for this reason, but because of the many ways emoji can be interpreted, especially when sent from phone to phone. Given that different smartphones use a slightly different set of emoji designs from others, there can be several misunderstandings that arise from sending emoji to certain individuals. One face could be misconstrued as another, because of minute differences between designs. Communication via text is difficult enough, and when you throw in differences in the pictograms meant to represent emotion to combine it all together, that can lead to some awkward conversations.

Because of these things, and other reasons, I worry that we're losing our ability to communicate and empathize with each other. While it's easier and quicker to catch up with friends, it's harder to delve below the surface without feeling like you're "trying too hard." Why use words when pictures can do the talking for you? When we were relegated to emoticons and the text that went with them, it felt like the world was closer, more personal.

If a pictogram can say it all for us, what good are words? At least emoticons gave us a way to add tone and emotion to our statements. I'm scared that emoji will eventually simply replace them.