Love in The Time of Dick Pics and Emoji

Aug 20, 2013 • Lifestyle, Technology

are emojis confusing or fun?

Nick Bilton over at the New York Times Bit blog has an interesting piece about how technology is impacting relationships. The culprit here is emoji, the little cartoon cousins that have started to replace punctuation mark-crafted emoticons.

“There was a special Japanese keyboard for emoji, because the language isn’t well-suited to shrthand,” said Willem Van Lancker, one of the creators of Apple’s original 500 emoji, in a text-message interview with Joe Coscarelli for New York magazine. People would write full sentences in emoji because it was easier.”

Emoji have now been around for almost 20 years, but they didn’t really get popular in the U.S. until iPhone apps brought them to the smartphones of the nation. When Apple made them accessible without an app on iOS5, this method of self-expression really started to take off. “Anyone using an older model iPhone or Android already had the option of texting with Emojis, but to do so required downloading an app, and then manually adding the ‘language’ to the keyboard,” wrote Hannah Goldfield at the New Yorker late last year. With iOS5, no app was needed and then when the iPhone 5 hit the market, users discovered an additional treat: the native support for emoji brought to users by iOS5 was still there, but this library contained hundreds of new emoji. Goldfield describes some of the icons available, adding:

The Emoji vocabulary includes but is not limited to: a cluster of musical notes; a fire; a thumbs up; a thumbs down; a hand giving the peace sign; a pair of blonde chorus-line dancers in matching hairbows and leotards; a woman getting a haircut; a baby; an old lady with a gray bun; a blonde princess; a skull; a lipstick kiss; an ear; a nose; a mouth; a wild boar; a koala bear; a snowman; a race horse; a ram; a bouquet of tulips; a dolphin; a cactus; an octopus; leaves blowing in the wind; a palm tree; a seashell; a heart-shaped box of chocolates; a graduation cap; a balloon; a ghost; Santa Claus; a digital camera; a vintage television set; a satellite; a pair of scissors; a megaphone; a skeleton key; a gavel; a lightbulb; a person bathing in a tub; an airplane seat; a hypodermic needle dripping blood; a pistol; a lit bomb; a sack of money; a football; a burning cigarette; a surfer; a saxophone; a painter’s palette; a trophy; a pink bikini; a cup of steaming coffee; an engagement ring; a top hat; a briefcase; a movie clapperboard; two mugs of beer, clinking together; a fried egg in a skillet; an ice-cream cone; a plate of spaghetti; a loaf of bread; a slice of cake; a strawberry; an eggplant; a house; an office building; a hospital; a hospital with a heart above it (where perhaps a baby has just been born?); a church; a church with a heart above it (where perhaps a couple has just been married?); a city skyline at sunset; a tent under the stars; a pagoda; a snow-capped mountain; the Statue of Liberty; a shooting star; a rainbow; a ferris wheel; a roller coaster; a sailboat; a speedboat; an airplane; a bicycle; a bus; a red hatchback car; a police car; a fire truck; a high-speed train; a slot machine; a gas pump; the Chinese flag; the Japanese flag; the Union Jack; the American flag; a one-humped camel; a two-humped camel; an analog alarm clock; a lunar eclipse; planet earth; a fish on a pole; a carousel horse; a skier; a banana; a circus tent; a violin; a telescope; a doughnut; a baby bottle; a half-wrapped chocolate bar; a video-game controller; a pig snout; a poodle; a man and a woman holding hands; a bride; a monster from “Where the Wild Things Are”; a brown shoe; a chick hatching from an egg; a green dragon; a pink change purse; a droplet of water; a clipboard; a mailbox; a wrapped gift; a love letter; a wrench; a wall plug; a magnifying glass; an Easter Island moai; a flashlight; a microscope; a butcher knife; a battery; a horned purple devil; a cat making the Edvard Munch “Scream” face; a shower head; a crystal ball; a funicular; and a trio of adorable monkeys who cannot, respectively, see, hear, or speak evil.

Most Emojis are universally understood — even the ones you can’t imagine finding use for. (My personal favorites in that category comprise what I like to think of as the Lost Toys: nearly obsolete technological equipment it seems hilarious to reference at all, let alone in a text, including a fax machine, a floppy disk, a VHS tape, a pager, a CD, and a camcorder.) Others, however, are distinctly Japanese. There is an array of actual Japanese characters, a line of Japanese foods (a plate of curry with rice, a bowl of ramen, a bento box, tuna sushi, onigri, shrimp tempura, a dish of shaved ice, a bottle of sake), a handful of Japanese trinkets, and a yellow face wearing a surgical mask, with sad eyes. And then there are the Emojis that seem to just be lost in translation: a pyramid of excrement with eyes and a grin; a stack of dollar bills with wings; the tip of a fountain pen in front of a padlock; a pair of hands held up, palms open, beneath a line of blue triangles; a building with the letters BK on it (not signifying, presumably, Brooklyn); the number 18 circled and crossed with a diagonal line.

Three years ago, after some serious leg-work from Google and Apple, hundreds of emoji were encoded in Unicode 6.0. The core set includes some 722 characters, mostly found under the category Symbols, Other.

Writing for Salon earlier this year, Tracy Clark-Flory suggested that emoji usage is a sort of backlash — “a rebellion of cute in the age of the dick pic.” She writes: “Saying ‘you’re the key to my heart,’ ‘you ring my bell,’ ‘you’re the apple of my eye’ is genuinely corny — but include an emoji of a key, heart, bell, apple or eye in place of the word itself and it’s actually kinda cute (especially if you add in a couple of self-mocking emojis of corn). It’s like charades, without all the awkward gesticulating. […] There are no X-rated emojis, but it isn’t difficult to think up creative workarounds — say, a lipstick smooch plus a rooster, a tongue and two tennis balls, or all those weird hand gestures paired with that mysterious splattering of liquid. Even the most graphic of emoji compositions show sex as it is: absurd, hilarious — and fun.”

Of course, as with any adoption of a new language, translation errors tend to occur. Which brings us back to that recent New York Times piece about the impact of emoji on relationships:

When Michael returned to New York, he and his new romantic interest started text messaging, and, as you often do if you are of a certain tech-savvy set, were communicating via emoji. […] The woman Michael was courting would type sweet nothings to him using emoji icons — a lady dancing, high heels or a martini with an olive — and this is where things went awry. Michael would respond with the “thumbs up” emoji, a hand that looks as if it belongs to an inflated cartoon character. When she would text “I’m excited to see you,” followed by a pink heart, Michael would respond with a thumbs up.

The woman confided to me and a friend that she believed that based on his use of emoji, Michael was clearly not interested in her and just wanted to be friends. “It’s like he’s saying ‘Hey, dude’ or ‘Sure, bro’ when he sends me that emoji,” she told me. “It’s not cute.”

Poor dude. He just didn’t give good enough emoji.

I haven’t encountered emoji since 2008, when my friends put the keyboard on my phone against my will. That went nowhere, but it was time to give it another go. I geared myself up, but alas, the only really useful thing I found Googling “flirting with emoji” was a guide on Esquire magazine by Fred Benenson, Kickstarter’s data engineer and the author of Emoji Dick, a translation of Moby Dick to emoji. It has good pointers as a starting point, but it has no cheats you can put to use.

I would have to figure it out as I went along. This is what happened:

when emoji sexting fails

Emoji, the way blowjobs become explosive indigestion following the consumption of salmonella-plagued poultry.

If you’re as confused as I am, you might try familiarizing yourself with the language with emojitales, a site dedicated to telling stories with emoji. Alternatively, you can attempt an emoji sing-along to Katy Perry’s “Roar.”

If that made your brain hurt, just wait for my flirting tutorial using animated gifs.

Header image by Intelfreepress.