Emoji: A reflection on daily visual language

Attracted by an article in the Swiss newspaper NZZ from March 24, 2017. As quite typical for media the title is challenging and perhaps unsettling ‘Wenn der Schleier zum Emoji wird (When the veil becomes an emoji). Starting point of that article is the submission of en emoji proposal by a Saudi teenager living in Germany who felt that she with her identify (wearing an hijab) and her culture was underrepresented in the visual catalogue used mainly in mobile and social media communication: the emojis. Women with veil are a visual identification for those women.

My log notes:

The article was questioning whether this is in favour of women and freedom (‘sich “nur” frei ausdrücken und sich selbst verwirklichen’ – translation: to express freely and for self-realization) or rather an expression of the repression of women (‘einer Totalverschleierung das Wort reden’ – to protect complete veiling i.e. burqa ) in those cultures.

Lobe is comparing it with another emoji,  a pistol. The visual was recently modified by Apple  (iOS 10) to a water-pistol as a toy  🔫 . Main reason to inhibit use for violence and hate. Interestingly the same emoji code appears differently depending on the system the reader/viewer is using.  Lobe sees a risk in the way cultures are represented through emojis, that of a stereotyping the culture. Another risk is articulated by Keith Winstein, Stanford professor for computer science as the danger of the power of the unicode institution on modern visual expression. This can be seen as one of those institutional facts agreed by J. R: Searle as the intentional assignment of a function with the allocation of power.

The author’s conclusion of the NZZ article is that emoji do simplify social realities excessively. And in case of the hijab the visual character does not reflect the ambiguity of reality (freedom versus repression).

This emoji proposal had quite media (searching emoji and veil and one will find all international media news on that). Mostly the writers were applauding the addition, in context of a global diversity.

Marjani Satrapi, from Persepolis, 2003

Fig. 1: Marjani Satrapi, from Persepolis, 2003

In context of the veil and muslim culture I find the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 31) intriguing as it conveys a multifacet image of living in oppressed cultures.

Satrapi story is sitaued in the time of the Iranian Revolution after the dismissal of the Shah in1979. A new period of conservative religion alongside oppresive means made women and girls to wear veil and to cover most of her faces. The key aspect is how she is reshaping her Muslim identity and womanhood, keeping her individuality and rejecting preconceived narratives of oppression. The veil is here depicted as an iconic sign, very much as emojis.

Satrapi story and the affirmation of the teenager who suggested the emoji with hijab are both appropriating the veil as sign of oppression as ‘a means of affirming one’s Muslim identity om the Islamic diaspora’ (Sturken and Cartwright, 2009, p. 31)


What are Emoji?

For me the question what emoji really are and how they are perceived  – as a replacement or as an extension of written language. Also if there is some connection with art.

The sociologist John Clammer explains the it is ‘no accident that the emoji homeland is Japan, a country with complex writing script and a “very visual culture”‘ (Atanasova, 2016) The Museum of Modern Art, New York (MoMA) added now the original emoji set into their art collection. Created by Shigetaka Kurita ‘NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176)’ 1998–99.(Galloway, 2016). Means emoji will celebrate soon its 20th anniversary.

Shigetaka Kurita 'NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176)' 1998–99

Fig. 2: Shigetaka Kurita ‘NTT DOCOMO. Emoji (original set of 176)’ 1998–99 – MOMA, New York

I was wondering whether visual icons, symbols etc. were not used before. And actually similar one-type icons are embedded in nearly each type font, called pictographs. e.g ☆♀♂⚖. As mentioned in the NZZ article the global institution for managing and approving emojis as visual language is the Unicode Consortium, created 1991 in California. The universal UniCode system encodes all sorts of characters, letters, symbols etc. In early computer times only a limited set of codes where available due to the restriction of hardware systems: bits and bytes and explicitly the ASCII code. And it was sufficient at that time to represent the Western languages as on a typewriter. The ASCII encoding system was the first encoding system with a limited number of 256 characters (https://web.stanford.edu/class/cs101/bits-bytes.html)  It was replaced by the UNICODE system, covering now more than 1 Million characters. The extension was greatly needed, first to embed Chinese and Japanese characters. Nowadays it is covering nearly all local global languages and even ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs for manuscript digitalization.  Over time emojis were added to the set, starting with smiley faces 🙂 😉

In 2017 an updated version of UNICODE.10 will be issued and for that version the above mentioned emoji ‘Woman With Headscarf ‘ will be added ( ‘&#x1F9D5’).

Returning to my exploration of visual characters, emojis I looked further and came across the letters Lewis Carroll wrote to Georgina Watson in 1869. He mixed his written sentences with graphical signs. Those can be called Rebus, allusive pictures that represent (part of) words (The American Reader). Interestingly Carroll used quite often hands and home graphics.

Lewis Carroll - Letter to Georgina Watson, 1869

Fig.3: Lewis Carroll – Letter to Georgina Watson, 1869

He used those signs also for concealing, kind of secret code to disclose for the reader. Rebus was invented in the 1500s in France and became quite popular in Europe. One can say that the visual writing language in form of rebus, pictogram, or emoji is now 500 years old.

Emoji can therefore be considered as an extension of written language especially to better express gestures and emotions, one would need perhaps several words or phrases. In today’s world of social media and rapid communication images (e.g. selfies) became an important role. Rothenberg created a code to track real-time the use of emojis in Twitter, showing that faces and hearts are on top of the list (Rotherberg, 2013): http://emojitracker.com

As Carroll used his graphic signs partly as a puzzling and secret code the use of emoji in daily digital communication can be seen by ‘outsiders’ similar as a secret code. In the expansive collection of emoji one has to find those most appropriate and/or to learn those that are new and added.

Others might think emojis are a fallen back to ancient symbol languages. At least both have in common to be encoded in the same system.

But emoji as a visual expression of have also other impacts like conveying empathy, triggering emotional responses or softening negative news. Studies discovered that the same region of the brain is activated when seeing an emoji or seeing an actual face. And people are tend to use more positive than negative emojis. It is worth noticing that there is a cultural difference not only in the subject matter of the emoji but also in how an how often they are read and used, but also in how they perceived emotionally (Atanasova, 2016).


  • Emojis can be seen as cultural heritage and an important visual language. Due to its visuality it became art as MoMA with the acquisition of the first set by Shigetaka Kurita demonstrates.
  • Emojis are an extension of out written language, not a replacement. It allows communication of gesture and emotions, support emotional communication and
  • Emoji are at times seen as a reflection of identify of people and cultures.
  • Visual expression in form of emoji can raise concerns about stereotyping cultures and the apparent power of a single global institution (Unicode consortium).

 Addendum 10 May 2017:

I read later the book ‘Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology’ by W.J.T. Mitchell (1987) and found amazing parallels with the use and interpretation of emojis. Exploring imagery and mental images related to meaning the author states that ‘if the figure of the pictogram or hieroglyph demands a viewer who knows what to say, it also has a way of shaping the things that can be said.’ (p.28)

By that argumentation I can see how the author of above NZZ newspaper article refers to a sense of ideology in the process of publication and usage of emojis. An ideology that according to Mitchell is ambiguous depending on the perspective one looks at it. Either with an orthodox view of ‘false consciousness…to conceal the historical character and class bias .. under guises of naturalness and universality’ or in a ‘simpler’ view ‘to identify it simply with the structure of values and interests that informs any representation of reality.’ (Mitchell, 1987, p.4)

  • What adds to my conclusion that emojis are one way of representing reality based on temporal values and cultural interests


  • Fig. 1:  in SturkFig. 2: in: Galloway, 2016
  • Fig. 2:  in: American Reader (s.d.)
  • Fig. 3: in: Sturken, M. and Cartwright, L. (2009)


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