Five reasons why Emoji sucks as a language

c: | f: Language / Society

With the meteoric rise in the use of Emoji, I can’t help but wonder if people really have missed the point of communication.

Anyone who’s read any of the drivel I post on the Internet knows how precious I am about language. The art of communication, face-to-face or otherwise, is part of how we’re defined as human beings.

Language changes. I’ve rolled with it to some extent, but draw the line at Inboxing or Facebooking someone because the gerund has no place in such non-specific terms. “Email me” is fine as it has a single, defined action. “Facebook me” isn’t, as it could have multiple meanings: write on my timeline, send me a note, tag me in a photo, and so forth.

Emoticons are a wonderful, innovative way to add emotion to a body of text. When companies began to use auto-complete to render them as icons in instant messaging apps, it was only a matter of time before Emoji would be born: the wingdings of the mobile age.

Likewise, Emoji are great at enhancing written language to convey meaning. Adding a cheeky smiley at the end of a sentence to indicate a joke is a sure-fire method of ensuring the sentence is taken in the spirit in which it was intended. They disambiguate. Sadly, some of the icons in the Emoji set leave a lot to be desired and are themselves open to (mis)interpretation. Which begs the question: what’s the point?

To Emojity and beyond

Inevitably, some have taken Emoji to the extreme and started to employ it as the new text speak. Textual abbreviations (sort of) have their place in text messages and tweets because of the limited character counts, even though I still balk when someone does this:

ru cumin 2 da game blud ill b der @7

Plenty of space to fit the full — even pigeon — English and convey more readily-digestible meaning. Shortening it to that degree is sheer laziness on behalf of the sender and unnecessarily burdens the reader.

And so to the endgame for some people: pure Emoji, no words. To those people I say don’t be so bloody ridiculous. Use the tool for its intended use, fine, but as a complete replacement for words and sentences it’s not up to the job. Here are some possible examples of ways to convey meaning that are likely to get lost in translation:

Emoji sentence Intended meaning Possible mis-interpretation
👩👨📺🎮🚽 Shall we watch Game of Thrones tonight? Wanna watch me play PlayStation on the toilet?
👣🔪👨💃🔜 My feet are killing me. Can we postpone the dancing? I’m walking over to stab you, then heading out to a nightclub soon after.
🐈💉🏥💰 My poor cat’s sick. Took it to the vet. Damned expensive. Killed the mangy cat and sold its carcass for medical research. Made a fortune.

Adding ambiguity and slowing down communication, pretending to be edgy for the sake of shunning us old buggers who happen to think the written word is pretty amazing, is futile and fadmungous. There, I just made up a new word. Do that with your shiny symbols.

So in true linkbait style, here are the five reasons I alluded to in the title, for why Emoji can never be a replacement for natural language:

  1. The symbol set is too ambiguous to be of use. English has a set of twenty-six that may be combined according to a (mostly) well-defined set of grammar rules from which a near endless array of consciousness can stream. Icons encapsulate a single idea or emotion. Chaining them together does not generate the same level of comprehension.
  2. Increasing the symbol set makes the language less useful. If I want to convey my love for movies I can type “I love movies.” In Emoji I need to hunt / scroll for a picture representing me, a picture of a heart and a picture of a video camera. The result is still open to interpretation (maybe I love recording home movies, or particularly enjoy my new camera). Typing is more natural and faster, even regular emoticons take two or three keystrokes: “I <3 movies."
  3. Hieroglyphs baffled the greatest minds on Earth for centuries. Words are the natural evolution of a symbols-only culture, becoming the dominant form of communication ever since. Why would a bunch of teenagers with mobiles and a few GCSEs between them think they can make a better job at being understood than the mighty Egyptians?
  4. Despite attempts at adding times and places to the symbol set, it doesn’t deal with logistics at all well. It is and always will be far too imprecise for anything beyond sprinkling conventional text with digital confetti. Unless they start adding numbers and annotation to the symbols, which defeats the purpose.
  5. They can still be used ironically, adding confusion instead of supplying clarity, undermining one of the reasons for their very existence.

Although I extolled Emoji’s virtues for enhancing the written word to disambiguate the cold world of black and white lettering, to some degree the more skilful the writer, the less need there is for disambiguation. If Emoji took over, the art of wordplay, spelling, punctuation and communication itself would continue its alarming downward slide.

And that’s a bad thing.

Security through pictures

There was a news item yesterday about a British firm who want to replace the four-digit pin with four-character Emoji symbols. Interesting idea on the surface. Their arguments are that since people are generally visual creatures, pictures are easier to remember than numbers. That may be true to an extent, but there are flaws that the spokesman attempted to paper over with some semi-convincing factlets:

  • One in three people have forgotten a PIN in their lifetime.
  • One in four (daft, imo) people use the same PIN for all their cards.
  • Using symbols, people will be unable to pick easy-to-guess things like birthdays or house numbers.
  • A larger symbol set would increase the possible number of brute-force combinations an attacker might need to employ, bolstering security over the ten digits we have today.

They didn’t address the fundamental problem: people have very little notion of what constitutes good security, and a low mental capacity to remember things. The bombardment of data in our always-on lifestyles, poor advice on passwords from the tech world, sat-nag, browser settings, and reliance on devices to remember stuff for us, have gradually eroded our ability to think, learn and hence recall information.

I have no doubt that Emoji-based passwords will be equally as insecure as today’s numeric-based system, if not worse. Here’s why:

  • Unless the symbols are placed on physical keys (unlikely), it’ll be impractical to cover your actions with a conveniently-placed wallet or hand, thus easier to eyeball the symbols you tap on the screen of, say, an ATM or your phone.
  • The greater symbol set will slow down passcode entry (it’ll probably increase the likelihood of hitting the wrong symbol as they’ll need to be more closely spaced), opening up opportunities to obtain the information through casual observation.
  • The screen is an easier target for sprays or simple fingerprint tracking / lifting techniques because it’s harder to wipe down after use — something I routinely do with my sleeve over the keypad after interacting with an ATM.
  • People are inherently lazy. The type of person who picks the same four-digit code for all their cards will pick the same four-character Emoji sequence for all their cards.
  • For the same reason, far from Emoji codes increasing entropy, people will employ familiar sequences for ease of entry: four corners, first or last four characters in a row or column, girl-heart-boy-cat, and so on. Just because the possibility exists to choose more randomly, very few will take it, falling back on an easily-identifiable set that can be obtained via social engineering or at least by making an educated guess. Recall that nearly two million people thought 123456 was a good password.

Emoji can be fun and playful. They are the fad-du-jour and are probably here to stay until the next fad comes along. But they are not a security magic bullet, nor a replacement for the written word. Used appropriately they can add spice to digital communication or make you laugh, but that is about the extent of their charm. Vive l’alphabet!

N.B. If you wish to flame or praise me using Emoji, you can do so in the comments. Just paste any Emoji character codes in the Message box. For example:

You need &#x1F37B;&#x1F36B; for this.

will render:

You need 🍻🍫 for this.

Mmmm, beer and chocolate make Stef something something.

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