In 1995 Docomo, a Japanese telecoms giant, launched on its pagers the first emoji (“e” for picture, “moji” for written character): a tiny cartoon heart. By the end of the decade the company had developed 170 emoji to use on iMode, the world’s first mobile internet service. To drag a straitjacketed culture of correspondence – with its honorific formulations and layers of formality – into the terse digital world, Docomo’s team borrowed from the visual grammar of manga (comic books) and expressed abstract concepts with visual symbols: a big bead of sweat on a brow to show embarrassment, for example.
It was not until the rise of the smartphone at the end of the first decade of the 21st century that emoji lexicons became available across the world. A library of hundreds of emoji, which include Docomo’s original designs, now appears in keyboards for use on chat apps, such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. Such is their appeal that Oxford Dictionaries chose last year’s most shared emoji as the first ever pictograph to be awarded “word of the year” (below, or “face with tears of joy”).
But it is still in East Asia that emoji are the most avant-garde. Kim Uryong, a professor of communication at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, says emoji are South Korea’s “third language” (after Korean and English) – worthy, he thinks, of their own dictionary. Around 40m South Koreans (of a total population of 50m) chatter daily on KakaoTalk, a local messaging app; and every month they send 2 billion of the particularly elaborate, character-based emoji known as stickers, from a selection of over 10,000.
Stickers first appeared in East Asia in 2011, developed by KakaoTalk in South Korea, and Line, a Japanese messaging app, which is owned by a subsidiary of Naver, a South Korean internet giant. When a tsunami struck Japan in 2011, Naver’s staff there huddled at the office and created Line in six weeks to communicate with each other across a network with much-reduced bandwidths. James Kim, who managed the design of its first sticker set, says that as the app was developed rapidly, it struggled to transfer photos and videos; when it was released to the public, it compensated for this by offering users large emoji to send each other instead. Moon the rice-cake-shaped man, Cony the rabbit, Brown the bear and vain, blond James (named after Kim himself) were born.
Today Line’s users, mainly in Japan but also in Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand, send close to 2 billion stickers a day. KakaoTalk’s emoji team puts out two to three new sets of 24 stickers, many now animated, every day. A few are free; others cost between 2,000 won ($1.70) and 3,000 won. The latest designs pop out to fill the screen for a couple of seconds; some reveal a second emoji when tapped. Line suggests emoji tailored to each message as you type.
Stickers give cadence and character, punch-lines and punctuation, to South Korean text-speak. They act as qualifiers that inflect words with humour or sadness; they also establish an intimacy that most would shy away from in face-to-face dialogue. Many appeal for forgiveness. A dog called Frodo, one of KakaoTalk’s signature characters, proffers a bouquet of roses on one knee while perspiring. In another he is wearing a tie, and sweat flies as he hurries to work with a briefcase in hand, anxiously checking the time. Muzi, a yellow radish wearing a bunny suit, glares at his watch: his patience is wearing thin. Tube, a duck, cries and raises his arms above his head – a typical Korean punishment for naughty children – in repentance.
Emoji artists are constantly on the lookout for fresh cultural undercurrents. Currently a new crop of “sound emoji” is being built around the catchphrases of popular soap stars, singers and celebrity chefs. One of Kim Ho-cheol’s sets features Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua (which in one sticker perfumes itself with Chanel No. 5 before going to bed); part of his job is to imagine how exactly the pooch ought to sound when it cries. Other emoji tap into the national mood: “Cynical Rabbit” is an unemployed, mostly depressed white bunny.
Emoji in South Korea and Japan tend towards over-dramatisation, irony and self-mockery. They appeal not just to the young but also to middle-aged office workers looking to smooth awkward or delicate situations with bosses, colleagues and family members. One sticker set revolves around “Salaryman Mr Ho”, who veers between slumping over his desk from exhaustion surrounded by energy drinks, spinning gleefully in the CEO’s chair, and crying with rage. Kim’s recent hits include a crotchety grandmother who curses a lot – a softer way for chat-app users to swear in front of their elders – and a loving father-daughter set in which the girl gently admonishes her dad. Kim says wives use such stickers to show their disapproval of their husbands’ behaviour – when they’ve been out drinking late, for example.
Not all stickers mean something. The pleasure in scouring sticker stores and sending new ones to friends lies partly in hunting for the zaniest sets out there and chuckling over them together. Take “How about a Piece of Spamy”, which offers up the adventures of a slice of spam – a much-loved meat in South Korea – in 24 animated stickers (in one, Spamy falls in love with its rice accompaniment); or the irritable spring onion who is the star of “Mr Scallion’s Crappy Office Life”. He’s daft and pointless – but might raise a smile in the middle of a crappy office day.