Perhaps you remember when you saw your first smartphone and felt a tingle of amazement. It could access the world’s libraries, play movies and music, text friends, take pictures — oh, and make phone calls.
Perhaps even then you had the foresight to ask the really tough questions:
Can I use the phone to send a cartoon picture of a smiling pile of poop? And is the cheese in the right place on the Android hamburger?
Let’s back up a bit.
In the old days, you might have used emoticons on your phone to indicate mood.
:) for smiling
:0 for surprise
;) for just kidding.
Those are so 20th century you might as well be using Morse code to communicate. Emojis are the preferred shorthand visual vocabulary of the era.
These small cute pictures originated in Japan, and made their official debut on the iPhone in 2011. They’d been available for years before that, buried in the code. But Apple made it hard to access the emoji keyboard, perhaps because Americans might not have been ready to send a smiling coil of digestive waste to a friend, or even a frenemy.
That, apparently, has changed.
Not only is the poop emoji one of the most popular, Poop became a character in “The Emoji Movie,” voiced by no less of an actor than Sir Patrick Stewart.
Now, the poop emoji has become a well established part of our online vocabulary. So much so that the Unicode Technical Committee (the Supreme Court of emojis, if you will) proposed adding another poop emoji. Instead of an expression of eager cheer, this one would be frowning.
If you think one such image is vulgar and infantile, and two is worse, you have allies.
Typographer Andrew West wrote a letter to the committee about his disdain for the existence of the object.
“I’m concerned that this character will open the floodgates for an open-ended set of Pile of Poo emoji with emotions, such as Crying Pile of Poo, Pile of Poo With Look of Triumph, Pile of Poo Screaming in Fear, etc.,” West wrote.
Unicode withdrew the pooposal, but announced that it will revisit the matter sometime in the future.
This may seem like a total waste of time, but it’s part of a larger, more important conversation about how we talk to one another: The more emojis replace words, the more they define which ideas can — and cannot — be expressed.
Like any pictographic language, emjois are limited in their ability to express complex ideas. Subtext and nuance are difficult to convey in tiny images. And these shorthand characters of the online world can carry loaded messages.
In addition, emojis are completely open to interpretation and their meanings rapidly evolve. (An emoji of a rifle, intended to celebrate an event in the 2016 Olympics, was nixed.) Emojis have been attacked as racist (Apple didn’t add ethnically diverse emojis until 2015) and sexist (last summer, there was an internet campaign to introduce a ballet-shoes emoji to compete with the stiletto heel emoji, which some saw as sexual and demeaning).
To add to the subjective nature of emojis, different platforms render emojis differently. Take the cheeseburger controversy. Last month, Google’s CEO tweeted a promise that the company would “drop everything” and address an issue that had dismayed millions: Its new cheeseburger emoji put the cheese under the patty.
Apple and Microsoft have the cheese in the proper position. So if you use a Google cheeseburger to indicate, say, incompetence or bizarre priorities, you couldn’t because Apple phones would render the emoji with the cheese where it should be.
Again, it sounds ridiculous. Who cares if your phone has a frowning poop or a hamburger with or without cheese?
But it forces us to think about where we’ve ended up: with powerful computers in our hands that can type and send the most elaborate, profound and intricate thoughts. And what do we use them for?
Flinging poo like monkeys.
By the way, if you use the monkey emoji and the wind emoji, you can tell someone their latest text was simian flatulence.
And that’s the one you use when you want to be polite.
James Lileks • 612-673-7858 • @Lileks