How emojis are transforming digital communication

The other day, I had an amusing conversation on Messenger with a friend of mine. We were laughing about a situation we had recently experienced. While we were chatting on the app, I realised that text alone wasn’t enough to adequately ‘depict’ our laughter. The ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji and a thumbs-up emoji were just what I needed to fully express my joy. In that moment, I realised how emojis have added another dimension to our digital relationships.

Illustration emojis

Symbols that capture hearts

Popular emojis vary according to platform and region, but here are ten emojis that are popular around the world:

😂 – The ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji signifies laughter.
❤️ – The ‘red heart’ emoji expresses love and affection.
😍 – The ‘heart eyes’ emoji signifies affection for other people and enthusiasm.
🤣 – The ‘rolling on the floor laughing’ emoji symbolises hysterical laughter.
😊 – The ‘smiling face’ emoji denotes satisfaction, happiness or gratitude.
🙏 – The ‘folded hands’ emoji stands for gratitude or prayer.
💕 – The ‘two hearts’ emoji signifies love.
😭 – The ‘loudly crying face’ emoji symbolises intense feelings.
😘 – The ‘face blowing a kiss’ emoji stands for a farewell kiss or a declaration of love.
👍 – The ‘thumbs-up’ emoji demonstrates agreement or acknowledgement.

These emojis represent just a fraction of the rich tapestry of symbolism that shapes modern digital communication. But where do emojis actually come from and what has made them so famous around the world?

Emojis date back to the 1990s, when Japanese mobile phone providers pioneered the development of simple symbols to convey emotions and moods in text messages. The term ‘emoji’ comes from the Japanese and means ‘picture + character’. Back then, expressing emotions in writing was limited to the written word alone and additional visual elements were not a part of communication.

The emoji breakthrough happened in 1999, when a market-leading Japanese mobile phone provider integrated an emoji function called ‘i-mode’ into its mobile phones. These first emojis were simple pixelated images such as a smiling face, a sad face and a heart symbol.

These symbols initially created in Japan gained global popularity with the widespread adoption of smartphones and instant messaging services. In 2010, emojis became part of the Unicode standard, which meant they could be displayed consistently across different operating systems and devices. This paved the way for the widespread acceptance and use of emojis in global digital communication.

Emoji controversies – simplification or enrichment?

As with any new form of communication, there are different opinions on emojis. Some people appreciate their expressiveness and ability to convey emotions in a simple way. They view emojis as a useful addition to plain text, which helps to prevent misunderstandings and foster more engaging communication. Conversely, others believe that emojis are impoverishing language and encouraging a form of laziness in communication where real words are replaced by simple symbols. Discussions have also arisen regarding cultural representation in emoji symbols and the lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and professions. Despite these differing viewpoints, emojis have become an integral part of communication.

Emoji culture

A smiling face, a heart symbol or a thumbs up usually has a similar meaning and effect across many countries – regardless of the recipient’s native language. Emojis, therefore, not only enable us to express feelings and emotions that might be lost in plain text, but they also establish a common foundation for intercultural digital communication. However, caution is still needed. ‘Emojispeak’ is not always the same across all cultures. An emoji that is received positively in one culture may have a different meaning in another. Here are a few examples:

  • The ‘thumbs-up’ emoji signifies approval and positive feedback in Western countries but is considered to be offensive in some Asian countries.
  • The ‘folded hands’ emoji can be interpreted differently too. Whilst it expresses gratitude or supplication in Western countries, it is interpreted as a greeting in countries such as India.
  • And the ‘waving hand’, which often denotes a greeting or farewell, can symbolise the end of a friendship in China.

Emoji developers take these cultural differences into account and adapt the symbols to prevent misunderstandings and promote universal communication.

The language of emojis in the digital age

Emojis have unquestionably transformed the way we communicate with each other. In our increasingly digitalised world, they play an important role in making communications more lively, nuanced and entertaining. They enable us to express feelings and emotions in a direct and simple way, which is often unattainable when using plain text alone. By regularly updating and expanding emoji libraries, we can express ourselves even more precisely and in greater detail. The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation which many tech companies belong to, decides which new emojis are added and defines their meanings. From their humble beginnings in the 1990s to their cultural significance today, emojis have become an integral part of our digital culture.


Passionate linguist Natalie has recently joined the Apostroph team in Germany as an intern. She is in the ninth grade and her favourite subjects are German, English and Chemistry. She is spending her three-week work placement reading, writing and translating. In her free time, she enjoys playing the violin, collecting books and cuddling her cats.

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