The History of the Emoji

Up until the turn of the century, most people were using colon and parentheses (along with other punctuation marks) to create faces in their texts, instant messages, and emails. If users wanted to send pictures, the files were gigantic, putting a huge amount of strain on the mobile networks, which were still in their relative infancy. Japan was one of the first countries were this became a major issue for mobile networks and their engineers were scrambling to find a solution. On the smaller screen, communicating what you wanted to communicate quickly was becoming more and more difficult.

What was that solution? The invention of the emoji. The word “emoji” simply means “picture characters.” It was an efficient way to solve the issue of trying to communicate with pictures, especially because, at the time, most text messages had hard and fast character limits. Some phones and networks limited you to sixty characters—that’s less than half a tweet. An emoji would only take up on character’s space. Used the right way, they could go a long way towards communicating what you wanted to communicate. It was the engineers at DoKoMo who cracked the code and enabled users to send these standardized pictographs in their text messages.

One of the innovators responsible for the emoji is Shigetaka Kurita. He cites weather forecasts as one of the inspirations for the creation of the emoji. Weather services, instead of writing out what the weather would be, would simply provide you with an image. A sun meant a sunny, warm day. A sun with clouds, partly cloudy. Everyone already understood these images, without the need for any accompanying text. This made communication, especially on a cellphone with limited screen space, much more streamlined and easy to understand.

He took this idea and proposed the first set of emojis to be used on handheld devices. The creation of the emoji set, Kurita says, was borne from watching how people communicate when they are face to face, and looking for images that could represent those same facial expressions and body language that are an essential part of human communication.

They became a simple way to say, “I like this,” or “I love you,” or even “Let’s meet up at the mall,” without actually having to type out those words. It became a way of injecting meaning and emotion into texts that would otherwise be without either. The same sentence could take on two different meanings, depending on what emoji it was tagged with. The emoji made it possible to communicate more complexly through a medium where it used to be difficult to provide detailed and subtle communications.

This is not, however, where emojis begin and end. In the year 2000, the emoji began to become standardized in Japanese handsets. The first set of 180 emojis were created. They were very simple in comparison to what we have today, essentially pixel art of familiar images, ranging from arrows to a range of smiley faces. Each emoji was given a specific meaning and they began to be incorporated into every handset.

Over the next ten years, emojis began to spread in usage, eventually arriving in America. Now, just about every phone and operating system has the same set of emojis. From phones, they spread to instant messaging platforms, and then to social media, where they can now be used in status updates. The emoji has become an essential part of our online and person to person communication. They shape how we relate to one another and how we understand one another.