It started about six months ago, with a smiley face here and there, a sequence of pictograph red hearts when friends would send baby pictures or a string of blown kisses to say good night. I especially liked the face with a toothy, uncomfortable-looking grimace: “Yikes,” it seemed to say. Perfect for “I’m sorry I’m late!” or “Eek, it’s 1 p.m. and I just woke up.”
Eventually I was replacing words with characters, adding a series of flexing biceps to the encouraging “you can do it!” text. Then one day I spent a full 10 minutes obsessing over the perfect way to say “I’m a writer. I don’t do math” in a message to my accountant: [Girl symbol] (meaning me) + [Pen and paper] (writer) + [calculator] (math) = “?!?!?” Right, it doesn’t sound so complicated. But by finding said emoji, putting them in sequence and spacing them out, I could have typed the statement 17 times. Mid-composition, I got a phone call from a source I had been waiting to talk to. I pressed ignore.
This was emoji chaos; it had to stop.
The roots of smiley faces and emoticons go back to the 1880s, but the story of the emoji, those little pictorial icons on your cellphone, began in Japan in the mid-1990s when it was added as a special feature to a brand of pagers popular with teenagers. It wasn’t until 2008 that a uniform emoji alphabet was created (the idea was to minimize inconsistency across platforms), and Apple adopted it in 2011, adding it to its iOS5 operating system.
But what was once the domain of tech geeks and Honshu tweens has infected the masses. Emoji was crowned as this year’s top-trending word by the Global Language Monitor, and it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary (funny, because it’s a word that describes the concept of not actually using words). There is now a blog, Emojinalysis, that purports to psychoanalyze users’ most frequently used emoji (take a screenshot and send); a beta site, Emoj.li, for the first emoji-only social network (yes, as in only emoji); and the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit devoted to emoji standardization across platforms, recently said it would add 250 emoji to Apple, Microsoft and Google products. I seriously considered adding an emoji sequence to my résumé this week.