Emojis and Our Return to the Cave Wall

cave drawing

Every so often, a new crop of emojiis is released, and there are typically two reactions:

1. Hooray! Finally, I can express my love of giant squid, while telling the world I’m craving tacos and that I have a cramp in my big toe, all without typing a flippin’ word!

2. What is the world coming to? Are we so lazy that we can’t use real language to express ourselves? I mean, I know texting isn’t supposed to be long and verbose, but seriously? Are we witnessing the death of language as we know it?

I’m not exactly on board with reaction #1 (I still use punctuation-based emoticons, dusty relic that I am), but I want to address reaction #2.  I’m decidedly old school when it comes to language. Even in texts, I still try to spell things correctly (although auto-correct seems to work against me), I still use full sentences, and I do try to avoid major slang or short forms. When I heard that “LOL” and “YOLO” were on their way out, I wasn’t all that disappointed. I maintain that it won’t kill us to think carefully about the words we choose when we’re on our devices, and to express ourselves in language of which our 9th grade English teachers would approve. I don’t, however, think the ubiquitous presence of emojis is reason to pull a Chicken Little. Here’s why:

  • Humans like language. We’re kind of fueled by our inability to shut up. How we communicate has changed over and over again since we climbed out of the trees, but the fact that we like to chat hasn’t. I’m not sure that emojis will ever satisfy our need to blab.
  • Communication through gadgets is limiting. Short forms may be time-efficient, but they make it very difficult to convey the deeper stuff. Seriously, how many times have you been offended or shocked by a badly-worded text that really wasn’t intended to be nasty? I can live with a little smiley face or cartoon critter at the end of a message, if it means it’s less likely that someone will misunderstand.
  • Not all humans are verbal thinkers. I live to flap my gums and wave my pen, but I recognize and even enjoy the fact that there are those who rely on visuals. If emojis ring true with these kinds of brains, then so be it.
  • You’ve probably noticed this, but emojiis aren’t exactly new, at least as a concept. Remember neolithic cave paintings? Hieroglyphics? Runes? Yeah, we started using visuals quite a while ago. You’ve probably also noticed little pictures of people on washroom doors, pictures with lines through them in no-smoking sections, along with arrows, squiggles and hand signals on road signs. Is working them into our texts and social media really such a coup?

What if our fascination with emojiis is a symptom of something bigger (as these things usually are)? Modern mainstream media presents us with a lot of information, bite after bite of words and ideas, and even if you’re a wordy person like me, it gets overwhelming. There’s a lot more to read than there used to be, a lot more to process. Can you blame us for wanting to go back to something a little more simple and direct, back to the scribbles on the cave walls that told us food was here and danger was there? I’m by no means advocating for doing away with complex thoughts expressed in words, but what if emojis are merely representations of our need to take a little breather now and again? Is civilization really going to come to a grinding halt because of cartoon poops or a little thumb’s up? At the very least, we should take comfort in the fact that these ready-made cartoon doodles are meant to convey emotion (it’s kind of in their name). In an age of virtual communication and geographic distance, we’re still trying to tell each other how we feel. We’ve just run out of cave walls.

Winky face, high-five, octopus, everyone.

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