Micro.blog’s adoption of emoji as a way of organizing conversations across the service prompted me to reconsider my longstanding resistance to using emoji. For some time it’s been convenient to write off my aversion to emoji as a disinclination shaped by my age, professional & social circles, & a personality that gravitates toward the contrarian. So when Manton Reece announced that he was introducing search collections organized around emoji, my initial response was a mixture of reflexive opposition & hesitation calculated to provide me with some space to actually examine the idea.
Manton did not initiate this without careful deliberation. At every step of his development of the service, he’s been thoughtful about how potential features align with the core ethos of Micro.blog, which I’ll shorthand as respect for individual ownership of content and expectation of respectful treatment of others across the spectrum of Micro.blog’s user base. I admire & appreciate that deliberation. I can disagree with this particular implementation and still use Micro.blog. I will find myself surprised if I wind up using this feature, though, because I think I’ve finally arrived at what truly bothers me about emoji.
I am not a linguist or psychologist, so it would be inappropriate for me to make claims about how emoji are affecting language acquisition, fluency in native languages, and so on. My entire educational, professional, & artistic development has been fueled by the written word & alphabet-based language. Much of my current work relies on my ability to interpret words that represent the ideas & spirit informing my institution’s academic policies & the curricula of a variety of degrees, all in order to help others understand these structures and how to navigate them toward particular goals. My training in history cultivated a deep love for words, along with a very deliberate mindset in how best to deploy them to convey an argument. I think studying Russian in college gave me a firmer grasp on the grammatical conventions of English than I ever received in school. Learning Russian simultaneously opened my mind to new perspectives on how the expression of a common idea can yet carry a vast array of organically shaded meaning, additional context, or other ideas incorporated into one word. One of my favorite examples is “dog” in English and “собака” in Russian. In addition to the “dog” idea that represents Canis lupus familiaris, in Russian the word encompasses not only a pejorative (“bastard” or “mongrel”), but the Russian term for the @ sign. Think of a Siberian Husky curled up in the snow, tail over its nose.
Most essentially, my artistic life revolves around words. The poetry I write conveys ideas & experiences to readers who may not have intimate familiarity with war, or loss, or the beauty of a specific place in the world, and it can create a sense of shared community with those who do know these things from their own lives. Editing poetry published in The Deadly Writers Patrol only reinforces the significance of words for me, placing me in the position of both reader (seeking understanding or connection), trusted collaborator (seeking to help the poet facilitate understanding or create connection with their reader), and arbiter of the big picture illustrated by the poetry in a given issue. Words and their organic natures are the medium of my art.
So, what my emoji resistance comes down to, in the end, is a deep aversion to language shaped not just by cultural trends that have largely passed me by & my personal irascibility, but by something more fundamental:
I am resistant to a language I perceive to be initially mediated by a pay-to-play body that decides what a “word” is within an iconographic medium, and then further mediated by a variety of platform vendors’ decisions about how to represent that “word” or idea via its own proprietary display of the emoji. True languages are democratic — words originate with its speakers and gain cultural currency (or not) based on utility, beauty, cross-pollination with other languages, and other factors privileged by the speakers. Speakers are also free to add new definitions, freighted meanings, and other characteristics to words already in circulation, or finding their options limited, in turn invent new terms organically or borrow them from other existing languages.
Emoji is a language of borrowed “words” “curated” by technocrats (experts, presumably of technology, at the Unicode Consortium), who release those new “words” to platform vendors like Apple, Google, Facebook, & Twitter, who then decide how their users can express these “words” by altering their visual representation. (See Emojipedia for myriad examples ranging from humorous differences in artistic taste to clear differences in meaning.) The only control in this arrangement that remains for the actual users of emoji are which symbols are used, and whether additional meanings are assigned to them within a specific sub-set of the wider emoji-using culture. (All languages likely are capable of this aspect of use; it’s just that this appears to me to be the full extent of agency for “speakers” of emoji.) In a sense, emoji are to language what Twitter & Facebook are to the web — a proprietary platform created & controlled by technocrats that limits the agency of its users — who once exclusively expressed themselves through a messy, but wide-open & democratic platform instead.
I think Manton experienced some of the downside of emoji already, as users opted or advocated for other emoji representation of the idea of “book” rather than Manton’s designated “books” emoji. (I wish there was a good way of linking to the entire conversation inspired by Manton’s announcement of the feature, but I can’t discern where to get a link to a collected thread of all replies, and Manton’s blog doesn’t include those replies as comments on the post.) I particularly appreciated the complexity of emoji use for organizing conversations in this manner that Chris Aldrich highlighted, which give a sense of some of the energy around this announcement. None of this is insurmountable for the platform if Manton decides to continue with this method of organization, but in the end I’m not sure it will be less messy when reading (or any less of a hassle for organizing conversations) than a system like hashtags.