Adrienne LaFrance has an eye-opening article about “The Westernization of Emoji” in The Atlantic (5/22/17). Here’s the summary statement at the beginning:
The takeout box and the fortune cookie are perceived as emblems of Chinese culture, when they’re actually central to the American experience of it.
The Unicode Consortium will be issuing dozens of new emoji as part of its June update. Among them will be a fortune cookie, a takeout box, chopsticks, and a dumpling, all designed by Yiying Lu, an artist based in San Francisco.
The irony, she says, is that two of the four new Chinese-themed emoji—the fortune cookie and the takeout box—are not Chinese Chinese, but instead reflect Westernized elements of Chinese culture. “It’s kind of like Häagen-Dazs,” Lu told me. “People think its Scandinavian just because of the two dots in the name, but it’s American. It’s the same thing with the takeout box. The Chinese takeout box is completely invented in the West. And the fortune cookie was invented by a Japanese person, but it was popularized in America.”
Emoji, too, were invented by a Japanese person before becoming hugely popular in the United States. For people outside of Japan, emoji were a charming and mysterious window into Japanese culture. The fact that they weren’t globally representative was part of what made emoji fascinating to people in the Western world.
Shigetaka Kurita, who designed the first emoji in 1999, never expected them to spread beyond Japan. But they did. And now they’re everywhere, thanks to the widespread adoption of the smartphone.
“The whole reason emoji are taking off the way they are is largely because of Apple, which is an American company,” said Christina Xu, an ethnographer who focuses on the social implications of technology. And although the Unicode Consortium—which standardizes how computers communicate text and agrees upon new emoji—it [sic; –> is] an international group, most of its voting members are affiliated with American companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Oracle, and IBM. “So even when it is about other cultures, it’s still about America,” Xu said.
We have previously highlighted Christina Xu’s perceptive, entertaining observations on “‘Facial expressions’ in text-dominant online conversation” (8/2/16).
Also referenced in LaFrance’s article is Jennifer (now Jenny) 8. Lee of “Character Amnesia” (7/22/10) fame. It’s interesting how often these conversations on the cutting edge of cultural evolution are interconnected and overlap. Jenny remarks:
“Most linguists say emoji are not currently a language—they’re paralinguistic, the equivalent of hand gestures or voice tone. But for people who use them, it’s almost like fighting for a word that [shows] you exist. When you come up with a word to describe your population, it’s a very powerful thing.”
For those who may have been wondering, “emoji” comes from Japanese e 絵 (“picture”) + moji 文字 (“letter [of alphabet]; character; writing; script”). Any resemblance to the English words “emotion” and “emoticon” (“emot[ion]” + “icon”) is purely coincidental.
[Thanks to Christina Hilburger]