I've long been a big fan of emojis. When I was in high school, my best friend and I would stay up way too late trying to get one another to guess movie titles or common phrases by sending coded emoji combinations back and forth on our flip phones. I'm also the kind of person who always widely circulates those horny emoji-based chain texts when I come across them — long live Merry Dickmas. My use of emojis is even baked into the aesthetic of my phone's layout: the two pink hearts next to my partner's name in my contact list, the house next to my parents' landline. The folders I've organised my apps into on my home screen get emojis as well: Social media apps are grouped together with the woman raising hand, photo apps with the flashing camera, banking apps with the money bag. Emojis simply make looking at a screen more fun.
All of this is exactly why I've been obsessed with using them since I first discovered the concept of emoticons on AIM way back in elementary school. Recently though, my dependence on these little symbols has become much more serious, like an addiction, even. Every time I react to a co-worker's Slack message with the plus sign — or, a personal favourite, the double exclamation point — I feel like I've just received a rush of dopamine. It's even gotten to a point where I'm left frustrated when I have to use platforms that don't seem to prioritise emoji reactions. You mean to tell me I can't double-click that funny Gchat message from my sister and seamlessly respond with a skull in seconds? Unacceptable. Emojis — which were once just cute and fun for me — now deeply necessary. According to experts, there's a reason for that.
Christina Janzer, senior director of Research & Analytics at Slack, acknowledges that emojis are appealing because they're fun and lighthearted, but that's not all they're good for. In fact, she says, "that's barely scratching the surface of what emojis provide, especially in a tool like Slack." According to Janzer, in trying to replicate in-person communication with a digital tool, a lot gets lost. "When you're in person, you're looking at somebody's facial expressions, you're hearing the intonation in their voice, you can see whether they're happy or sad. You can read between all of that," she says. "When you take it to a digital tool, that's all stripped away. It's hard to know, what does that text really mean?" Dr. Monica Riordan, who studies computer-mediated communication and is an associate professor of experimental psychology at Chatham University, backs this up. "A lot of what we communicate to others is conveyed nonverbally — using facial expression, the tone of our voice, our gestures. Text messages remove those cues and leave us mainly with words," Dr. Riordan tells me. "We struggle to find the words to express a scowl or a furrowed brow. Emojis are a handy shortcut."
While Dr. Riodan says that the complexity of human emotion makes emojis imperfect representations of our reactions, they can make things a bit clearer. Janzer agrees: "Adding emojis really clarifies the meaning of the communication and it reduces that miscommunication. We see that a lot with business communication getting misinterpreted. You may get an email and wonder, Is that person upset or are they not? So I think emojis are really helpful in that sense."
This may all seem fairly obvious. Of course emojis are meant to depict our emotions, that key function is, after all, built into the name. But, after years of primarily using emojis to spice up text chains, my phone screen's layout, and even my Instagram bio, I forgot that they can actually communicate feelings. Being reminded of this helped me realise why, in the last several months, I've started to feel overly attached to emojis. Like nearly everyone else, almost all of my communicating has been done through text-based platforms since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
I'm an extremely expressive person. Friends and family have often remarked that I seem to be entirely incapable of hiding my emotions, and I regularly receive DMs from co-workers during company-wide work Zoom meetings that say, "Lol your face right now," because I simply cannot not show that I'm annoyed or confused or surprised or excited. My eyebrows are doing a constant dance dictated by the way I'm feeling inside and I've even been known to grab the arms of people I barely know and squeeze too hard when I feel like we're connecting. The physical side of me wants to match the emotional side, so despite the fact that I am a writer, communicating almost exclusively through typed-out words has felt stifling. Emojis, though, have been a saving grace.
Dr. Riodan says that this time of so much text-based communication has not only prompted people to use emoji reactions more, it has also prompted some people who never saw the need for emojis to start sending them regularly. "Texting with emojis or reacting to social media posts is not going to replace face-to-face human interaction. The depth and richness of face-to-face communication cannot be imitated by online platforms, try as we might. But while we wait for our in-person social lives to return, many of us whose social lives have gone online have learned to use emojis, reaction buttons, and GIFs as surrogates for nonverbal cues," she explains. "The use of these cues can reduce ambiguity and misunderstandings in online communications, which helps preserve and maintain our relationships with those with whom we communicate." I've noticed this in my own life. Over the past year, my dad, who is approaching 70, has taken to ending our text conversations with his almost eerily accurate Memoji blowing a kiss. The first time I saw it, I was absolutely floored that he had figured out how to customise the Memoji so expertly and that he even knew what a Memoji was. Being able to see his face, even just the animated version, made me feel more connected during this extended period of social distancing.
Outside of those that actually look like you, emojis can represent aspects of your identity. And sharing who you are, according to Janzer, is key in helping you feel more connected. "When the pandemic hit, the thing that we heard most from people was that they felt that loss of connection. They were used to seeing people every day, they were used to building those connections, and suddenly that was all stripped away," she shares. "What we've seen is that over time throughout the pandemic, that connection has slowly been building up because people have started relying on tools like Slack, and in order to build that connection, you have to show your personality. That has to be part of the equation. Some of that can happen with emojis." I'm someone who considers my co-workers to be some of my closest friends, and, when we were in an office environment, I would regularly express that through a midday hug, a riotous cackle, or yes, an arm squeeze when I was feeling particularly excited. Now, I most commonly express enthusiasm by reacting to their messages with an adorable tiny fox who repeatedly throws his arms up in the air as if to say "yay." I can't quite explain it but this emoji of choice feels very me. Perhaps the fast parrot or rainbow corgi or dancing banana is more your vibe.
As you can likely tell, the primary way I've enjoyed using emojis over the past year is as reactions to messages I receive. It's why I can't stand using Gchat and why if you are a friend of mine who does not have an iPhone, you've gotten a lot of "Loved an image" texts from me — that's your problem, not mine. When I ask Janzer why she thinks this specific feature, which was added on Slack way back in 2015, has recently come to seem so invaluable, she mentions communication clutter. "If you're using email, it's very common for people to reply-all. So, you could send an announcement, and then come the replies-all saying, 'Got it,' 'saw it,'" she says, laughing. "Not everybody needed to get that reply-all. It takes away people's attention, it's distracting. Emojis provide a really lightweight way to tell the sender that they saw it or that they acknowledge it without disrupting everyone else."
In a time when nearly all of our communication is through apps and we're no longer able to simply nod when someone shares something, virtual responses have become utterly overwhelming. Notification fatigue is very real and burnout is at an all-time high for those of us who worked through the pandemic without any time off. So being able to react to our many, many, many messages with the simple green check mark lets some of the pressure off. For me, being able to sum up the crushing weariness I'm feeling while also reassuring someone I've seen their ask with one click of the crying-blood emoji is pure ecstasy.