Estimated reading time: 5 minute(s)

I have never been a big emoji user. Emojis are disabled at The New Leaf Journal, both because I would not use them in content and also for minor site performance reasons. Today, however, we will think deeply about emojis, and more specifically about emojis and censorship (or, put more broadly, how the depiction of emojis put third parties, typically corporate and governmental parties, in control of emoji-infused speech).

A collection of public domain black and white emojis submitted to Openclipart.
Uncensored emojis posted to Openclipart – Public Domain.

Mr. David Merfield is a web developer who runs an interesting service called Blot. Blot is static hosting software offered as a paid service (it is also free and open source and can be self-hosted). It allows users to place posts and other website files in a Dropbox folder, Google Drive folder, or Git repository and have them instantly conveyed to a server. While I have not tried it myself, I have read good things about the service and it looks like a great way for people to start their own blogs with minimal fuss.

Mr. Merfield has a strong commitment to free speech in running Blot as a service. His interest in free speech perhaps prompted his thought-provoking take on emojis. One section of Blot’s software-as-service brochure website covers Mr. Merfield’s aesthetic preferences and how they inform his design choices. He wrote the following about why he does not like emojis:

I dislike emojis mostly because they seem to be designed for children. I also dislike them because to use them means to let a corporation control your [speech].

The current paragraph appears to be missing a word – but I am confident that the missing word is speech from the context of the passage as a whole. How in the world could using emojis on a blog be akin to “let[ting] a corporation control your speech”? Let us continue to find out:

To use an emoji is to surrender control over your speech to a megacorporation. See the pistol emoji for reference: on some platforms it appears as a gun, on others a water pistol.

Mr. Merfield cited to a page with information about the pistol emoji as reference.

This is a very interesting take. I have long been aware that emojis display differently in some places than others. When I was using my BlackBerry Classic, emojis sent to me in SMS messages from iOS devices often did not display at all (total aside – the shocked face emoji on BlackBerry 10 is perfect). The pistol emoji highlights that different operating systems and services display the same underlying emoji in different ways. Mr. Merfield astutely notes that this can lead to the intended message of an emoji being obfuscated by the design sensibilities of a large corporation. Mr. Anthony Kelly of L’Atelier BNP Paribas explained how the issue that Mr. Merfield noted works in practice:

Emoji are, in a sense, a closed system. Whilst control over their structure and availability is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, a whole ecosystem of variation exists around this central orbit, where platforms and operating systems build their own designs over unicode foundations. In use, the physical form of emoji is immutable. Thus the relationship between emoji designers and users is unequal.

This insight reminded me of a story, so I invite everyone to gather around the campfire.

Back when I was in high school, many of the guys in my class were fans of 24, the television series. I personally had no interest in 24, although I would have probably watched under threat of waterboarding. But I digress. One evening, I was having a conversation on AIM with one of the most avid 24 fans in my class. The subject somehow came up and he insisted that he would be able to convince me of the greatness of 24 through an AIM chat. He proceeded to use emojis to play out an interrogation involving the protagonist of 24, Jack Bauer. My classmate adroitly used the emojis along with his own dialogue of a 24 scene, I remember some shocked faces and an emoji red with anger. He probably threw in some object emojis as well.

Before I continue to the point of telling that story, I must note that my classmate’s emoji rendition of 24 was brilliant. I kid you not when I say that I was on the edge of my seat. It did not convince me to watch 24, but I was certain that nothing in 24 (or on TV, period) could have measured up to his masterpiece. That experience disabused me of the notion that emojis are wholly a waste of time. Emojis are like Twitter in a sense. The vast majority of people lack the capability to use them well, but a select few are capable of unleashing their full potential.

But I digress. Back to my story.

Assume that my friend decided to share his emoji thrillers with someone using a different platform or service. It would make sense for him to use object emojis, including pistols, considering the nature of 24. Perhaps there is a powerful message in his emoji thriller. Now if I am viewing his thread with something that depicts the pistol as a pistol, I would experience the full impact of the emoji thriller scene with the pistol. However, if I view his thread with something that depicts the pistol as a water gun, the impact would be lost. I dare say that replacing a pistol with a water gun could dramatically change the meaning of the scene.

(I also note that sending a water gun emoji that is seen by the receiver as a pistol could also lead to some problems.)

Mr. Kelly, like Mr. Merfield, expressed concerns about a reality “where corporations wield power previously reserved for nation-states,” with emoji depictions being but one example. This is not to say that nation states themselves have not gotten in on the act – the Chinese Communist Party has taken an interest in emojis and emoji censorship.

I conclude by noting that I am not clear as to all of the particulars of cross-platform emoji depictions, but Mr. Merfield raised an interesting issue in a short aside that has been the subject of more detailed inquiry elsewhere. Emojis are often used to convey thoughts and sentiments (set aside how useful they are for that purpose), but corporate and State actors decide what emojis look like. Contrast the foregoing with words, which require a heavier touch to manipulate or obfuscate. The vulnerability of emojis to censorship is a point well-worth considering when using emojis for meaningful communication or in the composition of meaningful art, although no emoji art will ever be as meaningful as the AIM-24-thriller I was treated to many years ago.