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Memojis: Sign Language 2.0

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Emojis, animojis and now memojis are changing the way we communicate online

Emojis, those tiny images that reside in our phones, are evolving. However you may look at them—whether as silly decorations to our messages that show how poor we have become in our ability to communicate with words, or as something that is not just an embellishment but actually enhances communication—there should be little disagreement that they make up an essential part of the way we speak online. It is a new language of its own, a ligua franca of the digital age.

Last year, the emojis got a big update. We got animojis. A stock of emoji characters like cats and robots—introduced by Apple for its iPhone X devices —but which could be animated by using one’s own face. The emoji now takes another step in its evolution with the memoji. In this new version, courtesy the latest iOS 12 update and available on the iPhone X or one of the newly announced iPhone models, there are no stock emoji characters. We are instead using our own faces, only emoji-ised. And it is not just Apple. There is a race among several companies in the customised emoji space. Samsung earlier this year came up with its AR Emoji on some of its latest phones. Snapchat has already acquired Bitmoji, another customised emoji company.

A word of caution. An emoji is not an emoticon. The emoticon is a predecessor. It is a typographic display of a specific emotion, usually in the form of a facial expression. It came of age in the 1980s and 1990s for internet chat-room conversations and pre-smartphone-age text messages. An emoji, in contrast, is far more sophisticated. It has somewhat the same brief: to convey an emotion. But an emoji is an actual picture, not one made by combining the standard keys of a keypad.

The first set of emojis was created in the late 1990s by a Japanese communication firm, NTT Do- CoMo. Its inventor, the Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, was on the development team of the firm’s mobile internet platform. Drawing inspiration from marks used in weather forecasts and from Kanji (a Japanese script), he designed a set of 176 symbols that covered a range of human emotions and activities that could be used on phones.

Emojis now pepper our chats on WhatsApp, Instagram and other platforms. They show up in office emails and press releases. Facebook revealed earlier this year that over 900 million emojis are sent daily without text on its Messenger service. There are smiley emojis, emojis based on people, food, sports, flags and a vast number of other things. And new ones are being constantly added. They have become more racially diverse—amidst an ongoing public debate on representation—with a variety of skin tones, hair types, dresses and foods available. Three years ago, the emoji with a ‘face with tears of joy’ made it to the English Oxford Dictionary as the word of the year. There is Emoji Dick, a translation of the novel Moby Dick into entirely emoji-based text that was accepted by the Library of Congress in the US as part of its collection. According to Fred Benenson, who put together this project, his interest lies in how digital technology influences language and culture. ‘Emojis are either a low point or a high point in that story, so I felt I could confront a lot of our shared anxieties about the future of human expression by forcing a great work of literature through such a strange new filter,’ he wrote while raising money for the project on Kickstarter.

Is the memoji, then, a high point or a low point? We can’t quite tell rightaway. But it’s clear that online communication is evolving at a speed no other language on earth has done before.