Emoji, the Japan-exported digital images that are now widely available on iPhones around the world, present the observer with an endless series of mysteries. What, really, is the difference between “Smiling cat face with open mouth” and “Grinning cat face with smiling eyes” and “Smiling cat face with heart eyes”? Are all the old-fashioned technologies (floppy disk, fax machine, VHS tape) meant to evoke some kind of ironic nostalgia in emoji’s underage users, who may never have seen this ancient equipment except in miniature, on their cellphone screens? Is the inclusion of so many restrictive signs (No smoking! No biking! No pouring water!) an artifact of the Japanese culture of self-regulation?
Beloved not just by teens but by adults, including the lexicographers of the online OED (who added the term this summer), emoji have won fans partly through their sheer entrancing bizarreness. But they can also be a clever, highly contextual, visual code that comes as a novelty for those used to communicating through an alphabetic language.