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With emoji here to stay, it’s face time

Whether our incessant texting is pulling language apart or pushing it forward (or a little of both) is a debate unlikely to be settled soon. But few will deny that there’s little poetry to be found in a texted “k”; there is only anguish over how best to unpack that “k” and lingering frustration at yet another reminder of written language’s fundamental shortcomings as a vessel for conveying our true selves. A text message like “u awake” is a churning swirl of complex subtexts and implications, but it doesn’t carry any of the humanity that might prompt such a query.

This is where Face With Stuck-Out Tongue and Winking Eye comes in.

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If you already use emoji — the hundreds of smileys, icons, and animations tucked into the menus of your chat and mail applications — you’re either bummed that summer vacation is about to end, or part of a growing population who have relaxed their rebus resistance and enabled their keyboards. (Or will right now.) For a potentially seizure-inducing glimpse at their popularity right now, visit the real time emoji-use monitor site, emojitracker.com.

The increasing ease with which photos, videos, and cartoony “stickers” can be dropped into our texts points to a fault in the form itself: Texting is all tell and no show. Meanwhile, emoji are arranged in a grammar of association — they’re all show. Where a sentence leads us word by word through its meaning, thoughts composed in emoji require us to cross the same stream on fewer stones. This interpretive potential has already been pushed to its absurd extreme in the form of the 736-page hardcover “Emoji Dick,” for which Melville’s classic was “translated” line by line into emoji by more than 800 crowd-funded workers through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service in 2009; it has recently been physically printed.

Emoji are both challenging in their limitations and charming for their relentless cuteness — enough so that emoji enthusiast Katy Perry is delighting crowds on her current tour with a massive inflatable (and always smiling) Pile of Poo emoji hanging from the rafters. They’re also pervasive enough that something like that could happen and seem remotely normal to stadiums full of people.

As commonplace as they are, using emoji still means tuning out the doomsaying of buzzkills who think sending a little picture of pizza instead of saying “pizza” is tantamount to throwing a shovelful of dirt directly onto the barely-breathing face of civilization.

But language is always changing, even as the needs and desires it expresses stay the same. And as with “k” and “u awake,” a driving catalyst for change in our language is efficiency. Thus, if I have only a few minutes to get ice cream because I have a meeting at the office, I’m going to send you Clock Face One O’Clock/ Ice Cream/ Necktie and start thinking about what flavor I want.

The specter of emoji has been looming for decades. The Globe first broke news of “smilies” to its readers in 1993 as part of a sampler of “cyberwords,” and even that was just 11 years after Carnegie Mellon professor Scott Fahlmann first posted :-) as a “character sequence for joke markers” to an early bulletin board. Emoticons were born, and emoji were inevitable.

The first emoji were designed by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT Docomo’s i-mode, an early Japanese mobile Internet service that delivered forecasts, news, e-mail, and other soon-to-be-basic features. Other Japanese carriers quickly caught on to the potential and popularity of the symbols and cluttered the emojiscape with their own sets. Savvy users elsewhere in the world needed to use third-party software to incorporate emoji into their texts, and services like Gmail started introducing their own emoji as early as 2008. But it wasn’t until 2010 that Unicode standardized hundreds of emoji for cross-platform use, prompting Apple to add emoji to its standard list of international keyboards in 2011.

A Unicode update set for full publication in October will add approximately 250 new emoji, which will greatly enhance users’ facility in expressing Zen-like states (Man in Business Suit Levitating), surrender (Waving White Flag), hunger (Fork and Knife With Plate), and frustration (Reversed Hand With Middle Finger Extended). On that note, a reminder not to text and drive.

And while Unicode doesn’t design the actual emoji (it only regulates their standard presentation across platforms), Apple has expressed a desire to diversify its emoji offerings — which, outside of the universal yellow of smiley faces and a few strangely reductive icons like Man With Turban, skew white in their depictions of people. (Apple added gay and lesbian couples to their emoji offerings in 2012 as part of iOS 6.)

But human expression being what it is, any given range may ultimately prove too limiting. Thus we have new apps like Imoji, which can take selfies and code them on the fly into textable emojis of your own face. It took two minutes for me to make one for my “I cannot believe this is how you load the dishwasher” face, which will come in handy at least twice a week.

And while a pair of emerging emoji-only social networks (Emojicate, and the soon-to-be-launched Emojli) are the first signs that this whole thing may be jumping the shark, it’s worth noting that I had no shark emoji option available to express that. It’s still a growing lexicon — or iconicon. (Just imagine how different “Emoji Dick” would be if the still-forthcoming Cloud With Lightning was available back then!)

Users have only begun to tap into the true powers of emoji. After all, conventional wisdom says a picture is worth a thousand words — and who’s got time for that?

Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at mbrodeur@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.
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