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Emojis are the pictures that tell the story of our emotions

By Rhodri Marsden

Published 21/11/2015

The word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries is an emoji.
The word of the year chosen by Oxford Dictionaries is an emoji.

This week, Oxford Dictionaries bagsied themselves acres of media coverage by daring to make their word of 2015 an emoji. (The 'tears of joy' one - apparently it's the most used in the UK.) This prompted some renewed argument about the role of emoji in our arsenal of communication.

The haters will always hate. Emoji, they tell us, are reductive, childish blobs used only by simpletons who are unable to express themselves using conventional language. They're wrong. Emoji were intended to be used as embellishment, to help to add nuance to quickfire messaging.

But emoji are now being harnessed by Facebook and Twitter to do a job for which they were never intended - to sum up our emotional responses wholesale.

This week, a tool called Facebook Reactions rolled out in the Philippines. It's the latest territory to have the old "Like" button replaced with a choice of emoji responses (specifically: Like, Love, Haha, Yay, Wow, Sad and Angry).

A similar range has just been discovered lurking in a developer build of Twitter's iPhone app. The emojis are apparently intended to sit alongside the heart symbol, which replaced the star symbol as a way of "favouriting" specific tweets.

This creeping emojification seems to be emerging where two of the most gruelling aspects of social media collide. The first is our growing neediness and search for validation. The second is the ever-increasing and frequently unmanageable quantity of material that floods in our direction. Sometimes we simply don't have the time or attention span to properly absorb it.

When Facebook announced Reactions in October, it promised that it would give us "more ways to share your reaction to a Facebook post".

Social media platforms know we're struggling to make ourselves heard and to respond to all the things we'd like to - and this is the answer: some cutesy images to lob at each other.

The irony is that both companies now appear to be under fire for placing emotional constraints on us. Really, Facebook? You're only giving us a choice of seven emotions with which to express our delight at the arrival of our friend's newborn?

But we seem to be forgetting that we have another option -language. Remember? Let's not fall into the trap of using tiny pictures alone to express the way we feel.

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