Emojis Matter

Emojis and emoticons seem to have become increasingly widespread over the last few years. I have to admit – I’m not a huge fan myself. But I can 100% see why they’ve become so popular. After all, who within Bitcoin doesn’t like ToTheMoonGuy?

With access to technologies becoming increasingly commonplace (SMS, tweets, Facebook interactions), we’re communicating more frequently but using far fewer words in each exchange. And within these reduced mediums, one well-placed emoticon can easily convert a vicious personal attack into nothing more than comical banter between friends.

It’s interesting to watch how society is starting to deal with this evolution in language. Ignoring the cost implications of the technologies that have in some cases been misunderstood (a woman in Scotland racked up an extra £1,000 bill as a result of her emoticon addiction when she failed to realise that each emoticon message was being charged as a picture message by her mobile provider), they are now assuming more formal significance.

There are reports of juries being directed to focus on the use of emoticons in written evidence led in court. We saw it happen in the recent Silk Road trial of Ross W. Ulbricht for example. But the difficulty here is that there is no standardised usage yet for the symbols. Usage of emoji can vary between two individuals or within certain communities so it remains a challenge for outsiders to interpret at this stage.

I don’t really have any firm conclusions on this one way or the other to be honest. But I’m interested to see whether we will ever reach a stage where the meaning behind emoticons (or their descendents) become genuinely standardised. Or will the development follow that of the written word or currency, where to date the world has shown itself to contain enough niches to support entirely separate versions. My instinct is that we are a long way off a common language using symbols.

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Are You Ready To Be Auto-Corrected?

It’s become increasingly common to rely on the autocorrect functionality on our mobile phones as we go through each day. Apply users can use QuickType whilst Android users can choose to use SwiftKey (if it’s good enough for Stephen Hawking, it must be good enough for the rest of us).

But as the suggestions become even more nuanced, is there a risk that our conversational ability might be overly-influenced by the algorithms that underpin the software? Will computers replace free thought when it comes to word placement in our personal communications so that we become increasingly homogenised in our interactions?

That’s the question asked by philosopher Evan Selinger. At the most basic level, it’s very common today to find many people who simply check their written messages but instead rely on spellcheck to point out any errors. But modern software now analyses your email and texts and makes suggestions about what you might want to type next.

The crux of Selinger’s argument is that this is encouraging you to present a ‘predictable you’, as opposed to showing those flashes of individual uniqueness that are so important.

So is this simply yet another incarnation of technology-fear? After all, we once worried that heavy usage of text-speak on mobiles would destroy the English language. Interestingly, the evidence shows otherwise – check out John McWhorter’s TED talk below that explains that those who use it heavily are in fact learning another, second skill that develops alongside their ‘normal’ writing skills.

Perhaps it’s simply a case that the intelligence that powers that algorithm needs to advance significantly so that it can accurately represent our individual personalities. Or else, Selinger argues, we might all be content with simply putting far less effort into our levels of engagement in relationship with others – and that could very well have an effect in the real world.