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Increasing use of emojis can help display emotions better than words

Aaron Aupperlee
| Saturday, Aug. 13, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Apple's latest software update for iPhones and iPads will suggest an alternative way to talk.

Not in words but in pictures.

Next month, Apple will release iOS 10 and with it new features, including one that will suggest an emoji as you type a text message.

"That's something to smile about," a post on Apple's website says.
Apple's software update will attempt to further integrate emojis — small pictures of smiley faces, food, animals, weather and many others — into the way we communicate. "Emoji are an evolution," said Lauren B. Collister, a librarian at the University of Pittsburgh who studies language and the Internet. "They are basically humans adapting their written language to a more informal medium."

Written communication has traditionally been formal — books, letters, term papers — and spoken communication informal, like conversations at the bar. Technology, however, has allowed those chats over drinks to happen via text messages, Twitter, SnapChat, Facebook and more. It's a direction the written word never thought it would go.

"They add style and flair," Collister said. "They're just a way to help us add that extra meaning to our language that we miss out on in just text."

Emojis and their predecessors, emoticons, were created for that purpose. Scott Fahlman, research professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, was among the first to express an emotion, proposing a sideways smiley face — :-) — to indicate a joke or sarcasm in a message board in 1982. Sarcastic or humorous remarks on message boards would be misinterpreted, leading a few readers to respond, Fahlman wrote on his website.

"That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried," he wrote in a piece titled "Smiley Lore :-)."

"If the judicious use of a few smilies can reduce the frequency of such firestorms, then maybe it's not such a bad idea after all," Fahlman wrote.

SOCIAL FLASHPOINTS watergun

Suggesting emoji substitutions isn't new. Apps and other messaging platforms already offer it. Venmo, a money transfer app, started suggesting emojis to describe transactions in 2015. The most popular is the pizza emoji. The most creative is its suggestion for rent, a house followed by a wad of cash with wings.

In Apple's iOS 10 — a beta version is available to download and demo — words that could be replaced by an emoji turn orange when you press the emoji button at the bottom left of your phone's keyboard. Touching the orange word replaces it with an emoji or suggests multiple options.

Collister said emojis are commonly used to add something to a conversation, not replace nouns or verbs, as Apple is suggesting. Apple's software could help users navigate the pages and pages of available emojis.

There are nearly 1,800 approved emojis, according to the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that decides what characters are included in computer and mobile programming around the world. Decisions concerning new emojis have become social flashpoints. Unicode added emojis in different skin tones in 2015.

After the massacre in Orlando, a proposed rifle emoji disappeared from an update this summer. Apple plans to replace a black revolver emoji with one of a bright green water pistol. The current emoji alphabet, however, includes a bomb, knife and swords.

Unicode recently announced it was moving forward with a proposal to include more emojis depicting women in professional roles. The police officer, medic, detective and Santa emojis are all male. Women can choose from an angel, princess, bride, flamenco dancer, two ballerinas in bunny ears and various emojis of a woman doing things with her arms, like raising one, putting two over her head or crossing them in front of her.

A group of Google employees suggested to Unicode that the new women emojis include a woman in business attire, a doctor, a nurse, a scientist, a woman in a cap and gown, a woman in front of a computer, a woman holding a computer chip and women wearing welding masks and hard hats. These emojis would be available as men, too.

"Our proposal is to create a new set of emoji that represents a wide range of professions for women and men with a goal of highlighting the diversity of women's careers and empowering girls everywhere," the group wrote in its proposal.

TRACKING EMOJIS laugh

The American Dialect Society added a "Most Notable Emoji" category to its Word of the Year voting in January. The eggplant won. (Google it, but perhaps not at work.)

Emojis have been used 15.6 billion times on Twitter, according to Emojitracker.com, a website that has tracked the use of 845 emojis on Twitter since July 4, 2013. The emoji of a face with tears of joy is the most popular by far, used 1.3 billion times — about 735 million more times than the runner-up, a red heart.

The tears of joy emoji is king in Pittsburgh, too, according to research completed in January by Carnegie Mellon students Dan Tasse and Jennifer Chou. Tasse and Chou tracked emoji use on Twitter, plotted them on a map and grouped them by neighborhood.

"Do people feel more happy or more sad in some places? Are people more stressed Downtown because work is stressful?" Tasse said. "We didn't find anything like that."

What they found is perhaps what you would expect: Baseball and football emojis on the North Shore, penguin emojis in and around Uptown, city skyline emojis on top of Mt. Washington, drinks around the South Side. Hearts were common, too, and Tasse said that says a lot about how people use emojis.

"If you want to express a thought, you can use your words. But if you want to express an emotion, sometimes the face shows it more than the words that you would say," Tasse said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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