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Sunday, August 18, 2013

Disruptions: Texting Your Feelings, Symbol by Symbol

I recently had to sit my friend down for a modern-day digital intervention. It wasn’t that he was using his phone at dinner, or that he was hitting “reply all” on e-mail threads, or leaving unnecessary voice mail messages. No, this was much worse.

A few weeks ago my friend, Michael Galpert, a 30-year-old start-up entrepreneur living in New York City, was visiting the West Coast for work. I set him up on a date with a friend who lives in Los Angeles. The first date went well and the two decided to see each other again.

When Michael returned to New York, he and his new romantic interest started text messaging, and, as you often do if you are of a certain tech-savvy set, were communicating via emoji. As my colleague Jenna Wortham explained this year, emoji are the cartoonlike and more elaborate cousins of emoticons â€" those combinations of colons, parentheses and other punctuation that can convey expressions like a smile or a wink. ;-)

The woman Michael was courting would type sweet nothings to him using emoji icons â€" a lady dancing, high heels or a martini with an olive â€" and this is where things went awry. Michael would respond with the “thumbs up” emoji, a hand that looks as if it belongs to an inflated cartoon character. When she would text “I’m excited to see you,” followed by a pink heart, Michael would respond with a thumbs up.

The woman confided to me and a friend that she believed that based on his use of emoji, Michael was clearly not interested in her and just wanted to be friends. “It’s like he’s saying ‘Hey, dude’ or ‘Sure, bro’ when he sends me that emoji,” she told me. “It’s not cute.”

That’s when I had to intervene.

Sure, it might sound a bit odd that a new, long-distance relationship could fizzle because a tiny icon was misused, yet these types of messaging miscommunications happen often (though perhaps not quite as comically). The emoji icons can be baffling to the American adults who, whether they realize it or not, are taking their social cues from Japanese teenagers.

But American adults are not the first grown-ups with a tin ear for emoji.

“In Japan, there was a similar, interesting moment when you started to see older folks and men start using these kind of cute aspects â€" these emoji â€" that originally came from middle-school girl, mobile-phone culture,” said Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how young people use digital media in Asia and the United States. “Now, as emoji are seeing more adoption in the U.S., you’re seeing a form of communication being used that was clearly developed and marketed to a different demographic.”

Emoji date back to 1995, when people used pagers instead of smartphones and NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s biggest cellular phone operator, added a small heart icon to its pagers. The heart spread rapidly among Japanese teenagers because it allowed them to express an emotion that was almost impossible to portray in small snippets of text.

While emoji made their way to America a few years later, not many people used them until 2011, when Apple included the symbols in iOS 5, the company’s mobile operating system. But Apple was not trying to woo American customers when it introduced the colorful pictorial icons. It was going after Japanese teenagers, said Fred Benenson, a data engineer at Kickstarter and the author of “Emoji Dick,” a recreation of Herman Melville’s classic novel, “Moby Dick,” told entirely in emoji.

Mr. Benenson said that once Apple added emoji to iOS â€" they required a separate downloadable app but are now available in a manually activated keyboard â€" it was apparent that they could be used to tell a much longer story. But, he warned, sometimes emoji can be lost in translation.

“There are these blind spots with emoji, as a lot of choices for the icons bias towards Japanese culture,” he said.

There are plenty of emoji for Japanese food like sushi, ramen noodles and mochi balls on a skewer. There are also lots of animals, including a dog, cat, mouse, bunny, frog and two camels. Unfortunately, emoji for slices of Americana like tacos and hot dogs are hard to find.

American companies like Facebook have recently taken to emoji. But Facebook has been learning that the billion plus people who communicate across its social network not only speak many different languages but also use emoji differently. Greg Marra, a Facebook product manager, recently traveled to India and Japan to better understand the differences.

“We discovered that in the Asian culture, the expression on an emoji face isn’t necessarily what conveys emotion. It’s the context of where that face is located,” Mr. Marra said.

In Asian cultures, an emoji face in dark clouds would show that someone is sad and having a bad day. A face on a beach with the sun glaring means they are happy. In the United States, the emotion on the face tells the story, not the surroundings. Also, “stars for eyes could mean something completely different in Asia than using dots for eyes,” he said.

Eventually, though, Americans will catch on.

“Usually we see about a 10-year lag from when a new communication is adopted and when it becomes a norm,” Ms. Ito said. “We’re somewhere in the middle of that curve right now as an American-specific emoji culture forms in the U.S.”

As for Michael, things didn’t work out with the woman he was inadvertently insulting. But he said he learned a lesson along the way. “I’m no longer using the thumbs-up emoji,” he said recently. “I’ve switched it out for the star emoji.”