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.