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Emoji – is the future of online communication alien?

The introduction of 300 new emoji to Apple’s iOS 8.3 may well be an exciting addition to iPhones but until yesterday, I hadn’t realised the farther reaching implications of this seemingly group hug expansion of our online lexicon until I started seeing aliens on my timeline.

With text-only based communication the inevitable stumbling block of mis-communicating the subtle emotions of trying to express verbally and facially how good a dry cappuccino and salt caramel tray bake square is, it was with relief emojis came along so we could all show a coffee cup and winky-tongue-face-thumbs up-rocket-party popper when we tagged the nice barista in our Instagram feed. <raised eyebrow> These expressive characters have proved genuinely useful outside of a mere trend. Users (me included) had been crying out for a way to tap out unwritable nuanced feelings a 🙂 or a ;P didn’t cover and emoji have added something genuinely Isotype-like to a global vernacular. Gerd Arntz would be proud. But what has become an almost standard addition to digital communication – so much so they form part of the Unicode Consortium – is about to get messy.

Fragmentation of standards is abundant in digital (think of gesture control in differing user interfaces and what a delete action means between native iOS, Android and third party apps and you’ll know what I mean). Already there are quirks between how a Unicode emoji is displayed between operating systems, for example two dancing girls in iOS look more like a Playboy bunny in Android. <concerned face> And those aliens popping up everywhere? A symptom of an out-of-date operating system. So in the meantime all this is something we must, if not accept, tolerate until it’s all ironed out and a unification of UI patterns emerge.

Only joking.

We all now know that the noble quest for standardisation isn’t around the corner like many leading figures in the field of UI design have told us. I know, it should all be in our hands as designers, but it isn’t in the interest of the business models which drive the technology for which consumers clamour and stand on each others necks to early adopt. And it’s this practice that’s rendering the humble user confused by the messages left on timelines up and down the internet.

Does not being able to understand comments left by friends on online feeds because the OS they’re using isn’t equipped with the latest emoji sound trivial? I thought so at first. But think about the power of communication. The power of humans as social animals wanting, needing, to keep up with their social group’s conversation and good old fashioned fear of missing out. In this scenario – where you can’t keep up with your peers with a simple message – that is a powerful driver for wanting the latest tools to stay in the loop.

What was a fun and useful universal pictorial system for all has suddenly become a divisive medium. Try installing the latest 8.3 upgrade on an iPhone 4S and chances are your world will suddenly sloooowwww down. Chances are you won’t like the experience of lesser performance. Chances are you won’t jump through the hack hoops to downgrade to your previous iOS. Chances are you’ll want to upgrade your phone to be able to keep up with your mates. If you can afford to. iPhones are expensive.

Looking at these Chitika stats (gathered in January via ad impressions) in America and Canada alone 34.3% of users are on iPhones below 5. That’s about a third of North Americans browsing online with iPhones who will either capitulate and upgrade their hardware or not be part of the full conversation. Division. Fragmentation.

And talking of the full conversation, I discovered that whenever an alien appears as part of a string of text, when I try to have Siri speak the selection, the VoiceOver just stops. Whole sentences which contain unrecognised emoji cause the conversation to pack in completely. This is a pretty dark scenario for anybody who relies upon Apple’s accessibility functions. Did I say dark? I meant dumb.

What is my point? My point is hey folks, we’re being tricked. Those aliens on our timelines aren’t friendly goofballs like ALF; they’re the ones wanting to stick probes where probes have no business being stuck. Rather than the promise of friendly tech helping expand dialogue, we’re looking into a division between those who can and those who can’t and that isn’t progressive. Or friendly. <unhappy face> <thumbs down><telephone> <alien> <alien>

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