Philip Seargeant on his new book The Emoji Revolution

The Emoji Revolution : How Technology is Shaping the Future of Communication - Philip Seargeant

Interview by Kevin Laddapong

Kevin Laddapong: The Emoji Revolution allows us to revisit Linguistics 101 from the perspective of how we use emoji. It is eye-opening to see how emoji can be analyzed so effectively on every level of linguistic production and expression, from phonological, morphological, syntactic, semantic, narrative, or even poetic. Do you think emoji are unusual phenomenon in this regard?

Philip Seargeant: One of the aims of the book was to show how emoji are very much a part of the history of human language, and particularly the history of writing. Although they may seem a completely new phenomenon (and even, perhaps, a slightly frivolous one), in actual fact we can find direct precedents for many aspects of them throughout history – from the way they relate to other pictographic writing systems, to the way they’re used to express irony and emotional framing.

The reason behind their popularity, I think, is that they’re so flexible as a means of communication, and particularly that they allow for, if not encourage, creativity in their use. Part of this creativity is prompted by the fact that they’re a reasonable small, closed system (there are only a few thousand emoji in total), so if people want to try to express more complicated ideas they have to find inventive ways of doing so, often exploiting a range of different communicative tropes to do so.

Kevin Laddapong: One of the outstanding characters in your book is Jonathan Swift. Why is his story relevant to how people use emoji today? What do we learn about creative and playful communicative practices throughout history through your comparison?

Philip Seargeant: In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift parodies many of the scientific trends of his time, including ones concerning language. As a satirist, he takes real life ideas which are slightly ludicrous, and then exaggerates them to make them fully absurd. One of his targets is the trend for people trying to create a supposedly perfect language because they feel human language is too vague and imprecise. The solution that the scholars in the novel have come up with is to carry a vast array of objects on their backs, so that whenever they want to refer to something they simply take out the object and point to it. The idea that ‘Words are only Names for Things’ is obviously a very simplistic and misguided understanding of how language works; but it’s similar, I think, to how a lot of people probably think emoji work: that is, emoji are just pictures of objects, and that’s how we use them to communicate. But just as language is much more than words, so the way emoji are used involves a lot more than the simple pictorial representation of objects.

Kevin Laddapong: You mention the importance of language standardization and universalization in your book. Emoji are evidently the product of successful attempts at standardizing and universalizing a form of communication, yet as you point out, these attempts are dramatically different from any other attempts. Why did emoji experience such a different destiny?  What did Unicode Consortium and other actors do differently from other language regulators?

Philip Seargeant: Emoji are standardised in terms of their form because they’re a digital writing system which needs to be compatible across different platforms around the world. This is the only reason that a single body (in this case the Unicode Consortium) is able to regulate their form – and even then, the different platforms have slightly different designs for each character. This is very different situation from other languages, where the speech community itself generates new words and practices, and then a language academy can only try to regulate this after the event. It’s also worth noting that although the Unicode Consortium regulate the form of emoji, they can’t regulate the way they’re used, so there’s still variety in the meanings they accrue and patterns of usage from speech community to speech community.

Kevin Laddapong: Emoji clearly could only be possible in a context of capitalism and hyper-consumerism. Towards the end, you suggest that emoji is seamlessly fused with neoliberal practices. Apart from million-dollar Twitter emoji deals, what other aspects allow emoji to be so compatible with neoliberalism, and why do we have to be concerned about this?

Philip Seargeant: In many ways, this is part of the general business strategy of the big tech companies, who are constantly looking for ways to engage users/customers, and ensure that their products are in a continual state of development so that people feel an endless desire to keep up-to-date with them. Emoji are updated on a yearly basis, along with related innovations such as Apple’s Memoji, and thus become a attractive sales feature for new hardware, while also being a very popular resource for marketing initiatives. Again, this is unusual for what is essentially a writing system, but is, as you say, in line with a hypercapitalist society.

Kevin Laddapong: Throughout the book, you have hinted about the intervention of machines in our human interaction. Emoji have been designed, developed, and coded to be neatly merged with auto-correction and word suggestion technologies.   Are emoji part of a larger trend — how else is communication changing to accommodate the demands of digital technologies?

Philip Seargeant: That’s a very large topic. The simple answer is that so much of modern communication is mediated via computers, and thus digital technologies have a huge influence on how we communicate. Emoji are rather unusual in that it is the writing system itself which is regulated – and indeed owned, to a degree – by the big tech companies, and so these companies get to decide which emoji are appropriate and which aren’t, and to assign meanings to them on autopredict, and so on. But increasingly the spaces in which we communicate – be it Facebook, Gmail, Twitter, and so on – are also owned by the huge tech companies, and their business models thus influence all aspects of our communication. Not only will Gmail gives you various ‘smart reply’ options, but it is also able to scan or extract data from your messages, while what you write or post on social media is, to all intents and purposes, in the public domain, and also has to abide by the platform’s guidelines on expression. All of this means that this type of communication takes place within a very different environment from, say, a face-to-face conversation, and the specifics of this environment have an influence on both what we say and how we say it.

Amy Garey takes the page 99 test

 Page 99 of my dissertation ends with a quote from a 2019 comedy festival, “KVN is, KVN lives, KVN will continue to live!” It sums up one of the strands of this research, which examines how a popular student game came to be both banned and supported by the Soviet state, both politically subversive and ideologically conservative, both grassroots phenomenon and media spectacle. KVN, an acronym for Klub Veselykh i Nakhodchivykh, or “Club of the Cheerful and Clever,” is a Soviet-bloc team comedy competition. It began in 1961 as a televised improv show, but students across the USSR soon adopted the game in their universities, organizing interdepartmental competitions and city-wide leagues. Students grew to love KVN because comedy helped them, as octogenarian Ukrainian Eduard Chechelnitsky put it, ”get round” the censors: young people could critique the state nonreferentially, voicing sentiments no one would allow in direct speech. Most, though, simply wanted to laugh and make others laugh. While competitors made (and make) political jokes, and while many found value in a forum that let them speak truth to power, it is humor that attracted participants.

Jokes worried Soviet ideologues, though, and in 1972 officials banned KVN—at least on television. But by that time KVN had spread to schools, universities, and summer camps from Kiev to Bishkek, and people openly played throughout the fourteen-year period of the “ban.” In interviews, KVNshiki (as participants are called) stressed triumph and autonomy as they described the game: KVN is ours, they seemed to say, not the state’s.

KVN’s extra-state nature has been highlighted by the war between Russia and Ukraine. Although Ukrainians and Russians no longer compete against each other, as they had before 2014, KVN remains as popular as it ever has been in domestic Ukrainian competitions. KVN lives. That millions of young people still play a game that began as a hokey 1960s Soviet game show, despite prohibitions, despite border closures, means something, socially. A lot of KVNshiki, beyond liking to laugh, believe in the personally and politically transformative potential of comedy. Page 99 illustrates some of the ways they renew those principles in everyday practice.

Amy Garey. 2020. The People’s Laughter: War, Comedy, and the Soviet Legacy. University of California, Los Angeles, Phd.

Mattias van Ommen takes the page 99 test

Page 99 of my dissertation contains a theoretical discussion on fantasy, situated in arguably the least ethnographic of chapters. The dissertation itself is about Japanese players of the popular online game Final Fantasy XIV. Based on participant observation in both urban Tokyo and the virtual game world, I argue that players develop “fantastic intimacy”; appreciating fantasy as separate from offline social identities, yet drawing on fantasy content to slowly build intimacy with players, which frequently culminates in offline relationships.

One example are romantic encounters between players, which many communities explicitly prohibit. However, if these occur out of serious, long-term commitments to the ludic framework of the fantasy world, these are often welcomed, and players may even organize a virtual wedding ceremony to celebrate publicly. Subsequently, groups of players also gather in the physical world, often using themed cafés to retain some visible reminders of the fantasy world which initiated their relationship.

Unfortunately, page 99 lacks ethnographic material showcasing such relationships. Perhaps the closest it gets to the actual field site is when I discuss fantasy’s potential to encourage an active relationship with the user, noting that taking active control over one’s in-game physical appearance stands in sharp contrast with offline Japanese society, where dress-codes and forms of communication are so rigidly determined, often along gender lines. Here I reference Teri Silvio’s animation theory, which plays a prominent role in how I interpret player–avatar relationships.

 Page 99 also contains a discussion of “Facebook fantasies”, where I juxtapose fantasy-themed virtual worlds against social media such as Facebook. I argue that both contain:

“carefully constructing a character profile by drawing from one’s imagination, using that character to build intimacy with others, the value of presenting an internally coherent ‘world’ or ‘character’, and measuring success by quantitative parameters such as ‘likes’, numbers of ‘friends’, or ‘levels’.”

In neither case, the profile contains a verifiable relationship to a physical referent. Yet, since interactions through social media are perceived as being closer to consensus reality, there is value in presenting virtual worlds as fantasy, since its users seem to be more conscious about the dangers of drawing a straight line to the physical world.

In sum, while page 99 contains little about the players that form the heart of the ethnography, the discussion on fantasy builds towards the core conceptual argument of fantastic intimacy.

Mattias van Ommen. 2020. Intimate Fantasies: An Ethnography of Online Video Gamers in Contemporary Japan. University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Ph.D. Dissertation.

Lauren Crossland-Marr takes the page 99 test

Re-reading page 99 of my dissertation, I’m snapped back to the mosque in Milan, Italy that I came to know so well. Where public school children convened to learn about Islam, and a first grader asked if he was no longer a Muslim because he accidentally ate pork. Where, almost every Friday, I sat in the back with my hair covered, surrounded by other women, who expertly moved their bodies to the rhythm of worship. Where I walked, day in and day out in order to enter the offices of Halal Italia.

Page 99 sits towards the end of a chapter about the community running Halal Italia. I’m drinking tea and eating pastries with an Algerian friend who mentions that the group I work with is “not really Muslim”. What my friend was alluding to is that labeling food is powerful and can create legitimate actors and legible worlds. This is especially relevant in Italy for two conceptual reasons that have empirical effects. Italy has a global reputation for “good” food, and Muslims outside of Muslim majority countries play the leading role in determining what is certifiable as halal. Through my entanglement in daily work life, I found that the established culture of made in Italy products was a powerful force in shaping values within the Italian halal industry today.

This notion of value itself is complex. And perhaps it is due to this complexity, and the limits of the ethnographic written form, that I end my dissertation with a passage from Italo Calvino’s (1972) Invisible Cities. In the book, the emperor Kublai Khan tells Marco Polo that he can describe real cities he has never seen, his cities are based on elements in which all cities should possess. However, the Khan is unable to describe any of the cities Polo has encountered. Polo responds, “I have also thought of a model city from which I derive all others… It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions… But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would arrive at cities too probable to be real” (Calvino 1972:32).

Similarly, I show that the project of the certifier is to operate within a world that is empirically true but is also one of discourse, and like Polo’s cities, their projects are limited by, and shaped within, the food worlds they inhabit.

Calvino, Italo. 1972. Le Citta Invisibili. Turin: Einaudi.

Lauren Crossland-Marr. 2020. Consuming Local, Thinking Global: Building a Halal Industry in a World of Made in Italy. Washington University in St. Louis, Phd.