Clear Ideas, Tangible Feelings — Alphabet versus Emoji

(#11 of 27)


Revisiting a quote from Gustave Flaubert,

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.”  

If Flaubert were alive today, he would be absolutely appalled by the rampant usage of emoji.

He’d say that emoji are a verbal crutch, a way to get out of clarifying and communicating exactly what we think.

“Vague. Lazy. Trite. A slippery slope to incoherent illiteracy,” he’d declare… except he’d declare that in French… and no doubt deploying le mot juste to deliver a devastating denouement of instant messaging patois.


Yet, for all my Flaubertian appetites and tendencies (minus some of his personal choices — we can discuss that another time), for all my aspirations of becoming a worthy wordsmith, I happen to think that emoji have great potential.

Untapped potential, in fact.


Emoji after RockwellBut first, please read the New York magazine article, “Smile, You’re Speaking EMOJIThe rapid evolution of a wordless tongue,” by Adam Sternbergh. It provides an essential understanding of what emoji are, where they come from and how they can be used.

For Sternbergh, emoji are…

  • a new form of punctuation
  • non-verbal communication frozen and standardized into unicode characters
  • a constructed language that breaks through global linguistic barriers
  • user-specified hieroglyphs
  • yet another example of the disproportionate influence of Japanese culture, with all of its positivist biases and kawaii peculiarities, on the rest of the world  (not unlike the disproportionate British influence on world culture via the English language… what is up with these island nations…)
  • an efficient compressor & transmitter of complex, unspeakable emotions

I’d add to that list the following possibilities:

Let’s be clear, however:  Some people don’t like emoji, and don’t want to be usin’ none of this newfangled language.

emoji-angrypurpledevilEmoji Haters

“The word, although prevalent in our day, has lost its reasoning value, and has value only as an accessory to images.


“These related images provide me with practical content: a common truth that is especially easy to swallow because the ready-made images that showed it to me had been digested in advance.

Make no mistake here: this is how modern people usually think. We are arriving at a purely emotional stage of thinking.”

– Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word (1981)

There are people who avoid using emoji out of a desire to maintain clarity of thinking… or at least, clarity of a certain kind of thinking.  The concern here is that, by using emoji instead of words, they will miss opportunities to refine their thoughts and improve their ability to articulate themselves in writing. According to this view, the round-faced glyph is an enemy of reason and rationality. McLuhan would agree, albeit gleefully.

However, I’d offer that if a person refuses to use emoji — but then uses emoticons anyway — then they’re not so much sticklers for language and reason as much as they’re mainly/vainly concerned about not being taken seriously.

Is there really that big a difference between this… emoji-wink

…and this…?   emoticon-wink



*smiles and winks*


Well, okay, I sorta get it… maybe it’s similar to the way that I’m a font snob. My distaste for tasteless typefaces might be analogous to their eschewing of smiley faces… and girly-girl bubble-hearts, shooting stars, rainbows, blue diamonds… emoji are often used like stickers, only without the scratch-and-sniff.

That said, even with my puritanical zeal for Helvetica, I can’t fully empathize with the emoji-haters. There is absolutely no reason (no reason!!) to use the abomination known as Comic Sans (or its close cousin, the horrible Hobo STD!!) in ordinary graphic communication, whereas expressing immediate visceral adoration for something with the image of heart-filled eyes is truly indispensable. How ELSE can you do THAT??


But, that’s just, like, my opinion, dude.

Question for you, the reader, to reflect upon: As you read this blog post, does the fact that it is interspersed with emoji-related images make it easier for you to read, or harder?

Do the pictures break up the monotony of text for you, or do they otherwise distract from your reading focus?

Also: How does your understanding of the author’s tone and intent get affected by all of these goofy little pictures?

A new dictionary definition to consider:

Emoji – n. – A way to connect directly between limbic systems, circumventing the pesky, stifling cerebral cortex.

emoji-lightbulbHow do I emoji? Let me count the ways…

Here are just three of the ways we can say good night, via text message:




Although each of the above messages conveys the same general idea using the same medium (instant text messaging), each message also provides a different feeling and activates a different sub-medium, i.e. a different form of reading/looking and thinking.

McLuhan differentiated between television, large-screen television, and stadium-television-with-instant-replay.  If he were around today he’d have a field day with all the different ways we can play with our emoji.

A good rule of thumbing:  Use the style and type of emoji that your conversational partner is comfortable with.  Just as you would with other aspects of communication, over time you’ll tend to develop a distinctive dance with each of your conversational partners.

Another idea that, if it hasn’t already been done, will be done:


Build your own library of emoji using your own pictures. This would make the communication feel more personal and less trite… although it would also undercut the power inherent to cartoons, i.e. how a simple drawing causes the reader/viewer to project themselves into the image and fill it with the details of their own head-universe.

emoji-finger-to-fingerClash of the Text Titans, and a conclusion

It’s true, I love Flaubert. I aspire to his command of language and to his discipline of clearly defining and articulating what he really thinks. I enjoy his elegant economy of words. Flaubert wants his reader to become an aristocrat.

However, I also love McLuhan and share his not-so-secret disdain for the unimaginatively fragmented style of thinking inherent to alphabetized hyper-literacy, as well as his crush for sensual new forms of multi-modal, multi-faceted communication.  And yes, I enjoy his dense, heavily referenced and meta-aware sentence style. McLuhan wants his reader to become an anthropologist.


I think Flaubert and McLuhan would agree on some things, though.

I think they would agree that the alphabet and the icon are two completely different things.

They’d also agree that being lazy sucks.

So go ahead… use emoji.

Hell, use expletives too.

But try to use them artfully and with purpose.

“The art of emoji is the art of letting others embrace what you’re feeling.”

– Not Flaubert

How does that grab you?



About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 13, 2015, in Art, Communication Skills, Information Design, Jargon, Psychology, Social Media, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The example of three ways to say good night provides a qualification to my earlier suggestion that an emoji wink is not all that different than an emoticon wink. They are similar in function, but not the same.

    The “semicolon-dash-close-parenthesis” emoticon is closer to punctuation than illustration, but like its pictorial emoji cousin it is certainly not a form of rational verbal expression.

    There are degrees of emoji-ness we can employ in our text. Hence, typing ” *smiles and winks* ” is a viable option for the more literate-minded emoji-hater.

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