Smileys, emojis, emoticons, hashtags … why they have become essential

by bold-lichterman

The spread of these small colorful visuals is not so much the gamification of the world, as a need to communicate effectively.

The success of smileys, “emoticons”, emojis (pronounce emodji) or still “stickers”, is confirmed. Not a social or messaging application has gone without their services within its functionalities: Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or professional software, like Slack. French queries on Google also attest to this growing popularity.

These small graphics that have gradually colonized our communication tools are not new. The invention of the first typographic smiley dates back to 1648! It was the Englishman Robert Herrick who would have used it first in his poem To fortune, in this form: smiling yet:)

However, it is IBM who introduced in its first PCs in 1981. In the beginning, there are only three types of smileys: a smiley, a scowl, and a black smiley face. Since then, smileys continue to diversify to become the emoticons with multiple expressions, which we know today.

In 2009, the Japanese went even further, by designing small graphics that not only represent human faces, but also all kinds of objects (fruits and vegetables, everyday objects, etc.): these are emojis. They are integrated into electronic messaging systems, such as Outlook or Gmail, and are now part of our daily communication tools. However, how to explain this generalized frenzy in time and space?

Emoticons fill the gaps in written language

The main answer lies in the significant poverty of written language. That’s what Marshall McLuhan called a “cold media” in his book To understand the media in 1964. What the Canadian media theorist meant was that certain modes of communication are poor in information and require a significant effort of interpretation on the part of the receiver.

In writing, it is sometimes difficult to perceive the speaker’s intention. And for good reason, it lacks the expression of the face, the body, the intonation of the voice… These are sound or visual signals – and non-verbal – which put the words in context, which allows them to be easily decoded. Who has never read an email wondering if the other was paying for his vial, or if it was indeed first degree?

This importance of the non-verbal was brought to light by researchers at the Palo Alto school in the 1970s. Ray Birdwhistell worked on kinesics, the study of the meaning conveyed by body language (of which one could say that The mentalist is only a recent follower).

Edouard T. Hall has for his part developed a fascinating work on interpersonal distances, explaining the difference between intimate, personal, social or public space. Thus, in a crowded public space (metro train, elevator), each encroaching on the other’s private space, the adaptive strategy consists of emitting as few signals as possible. It was agreed to play “dead”, to avoid aggravating the discomfort caused by this violation of everyone’s personal space. So try to talk to others in this situation, you will see that at best, people smile at you without answering you, but more often, they glare at you.

Gregory Bateson has more particularly worked on the notion of cognitive dissonance. You know when your face says the opposite of what you think. Like when someone violently crushes your foot while apologizing, and you respond with a hated grin: “No big deal.”

In short, all this research testifies to one thing: the importance of the non-verbal in communication between people, even if some may have exaggerated its importance (no, 93% of communication between men is not non-verbal!). Emoticons are therefore used to bring non-verbal – emotion, distance, humor – to weak information: the plain text.

Defuse conflicts: “I come as a friend”

It is no coincidence that the first emoticon created was the smiley. His role is to tell his interlocutor: “It’s for laughs” or “I’m coming as a friend”. The smiley plays a fundamental meta-linguistic role – to use the terminology of linguist Roman Jakobson – that is to say, a discourse on the discourse.

It’s exactly the same as the smile you wear after a valve. You could say it’s a form of cognitive dissonance. You have to understand the opposite of what I’m saying: “I’m breaking you, but I like you”, “Go, I don’t hate you.” The smiley is a special form of verlan, so to speak.

The Japanese, who have a holy horror of conflict, quickly adopted and developed smileys and emoticons, which have the immense advantage of avoiding the slightest ambiguity of interpretation. Generally speaking, the second degree is not very popular in Japan because it presents the risk of being misunderstood.

Hashtags play the same role: to explain the point we just made to highlight the irony #onycroit (we can’t believe it for a second), to mitigate the violence of his sentence #JDCJDR (I say that , I say nothing), to say that we are joking (#jesors, etc.). What’s funny is thatone more time users have hijacked the initial use of the hashtag which had a functional purpose: to store the message in a theme.

The relationship, more than the content


Jakobson also showed that in all interpersonal communication, the content of what one expresses is not everything. There is also the relationship, the attachment that one expresses to the other. We are always surprised by these empty conversations between lovers, or the tasteless conversations of teens with their BFF (Best Friend Forever) or their tribe. The subject matters less than the link, the permanent, almost fusional connection with others.

Adolescence is that particularly terrifying age when you feel the need to be reassured by the presence of your friends who are going through the same difficulties, the same doubts, the same frustrations as yourself. The tribe is to the teenager what the blanket is to the baby. This is why teenagers are glued to their mobile today, as they were yesterday to the landline (review some sequences of the party for example).

Emoticons fill the conversation with trivial and nothing, in other words essentials for those who use them. It is an essential communication kit when what you tell is secondary to the link you maintain. Here we find the phatic function of Jakobson, that is to say the maintenance of the communication channel itself (Hello? Hello! It’s okay, the exchange channel is in place, we can exchange). This is why adults do not always understand their interest, nor do they understand the interest of ephemeral messages “without consistency” (without content) that are exchanged on Snapchat.

Create a bond by excluding others

Emoticons have another linguistic virtue, in the same way as SMS shortcuts: that of encrypting the subject for those who do not master the keys. On the one hand, there are the adults who do not understand anything about the esoteric signs that are linked together, and on the other hand, all the strangers to the tribe who cannot understand the visual references to moments of life (giggles, conversations, confidences…). This exclusion also reinforces the cohesion of the group, according to the classic mechanism of strengthening oneself, as opposed to others (Hegel “posed by opposing others”). This is one of the reasons for the various slangs of young people over time.

The technique works well in cinema, when complex references are not explained, to better promote those who are able to decipher them. The spectator who grasps the reference can say to himself: “I understood, how smart I am!” 2001, a space odyssey, or Usual suspect – in very different registers – cultivate this feeling.

The growing need to stand out


A question arises, however, that teens aren’t the only ones who use emoticons, and not just to defuse potential conflicts. So why are adults using them more and more?

I see another reason here: adults are caught in a communication escalation to exist socially. Any weapon to stand out is therefore welcome: icons, smileys and pretty graphics are part of it, just like gifs. The premise is the same that those cohorts of adults who optimize their Instagram photos, only post situations that highlight them and bring her outrageously back to hide the normal emptiness of their existence.

This need to exist is also felt in the emotional outburst expressed by a multiplication of expressive icons, like so many exclamation points which overplay the feeling experienced. Here again, we remember those verbal exaggerations of teens who express their need to give more weight and interest to their conversation. “Ah no, but it’s too awesome, topisssime, too cooooool” (for a course that would have skipped for example).

Gamification, pleasure and forgetfulness

Finally, we should not forget a motivation which is not without importance, in the use of these multiple colored icons. It is simply the pleasure of playing and a form of generalized gamification. This is very true among the Japanese who invented the “kawaii” (the cute), a form of sanitization of existence and withdrawal into a childish universe to better escape the ferocity of the world (a very new movement for the Japanese which is undoubtedly no stranger to the atomic cataclysm of which they were victims and which is strongly felt in their manga culture, as in the Akira movie, among others).

But this tendency is also expressed more and more with us: regressive nostalgia, “adulescence”, gamification of our downtime via games that are reassuring by their childish aspect and by the impression of control they create via repetition (see the King range of games, such as candy Crush).

Emoticons, smileys, emojis, hashtags… These new graphic signs are therefore far from useless. They fill a real linguistic need and are not used only by teenagers, far from it. However, they are also part of a hyper-communication society where the signs of written expression have also become elements of social distinction.

Article originally published on Mediaculture.

cyrille frankCyril Frank is a journalist. Founder of and (“the news explained”, now “that interests me”), it supports the media in their digital transformation. Trainer in content marketing, editorial strategy (increase in traffic, loyalty, audience monetization) and use of social networks (traffic acquisition, engagement…).

Find Cyrille Frank on Twitter, @cyceron, on its website, on Linkedin.