MOMA Commentary: A brief history of emoji

via "We would first need to understand what emoji is and how it has evolved. The word “emoji” is originally a Japanese combination of e (“picture”) and moji (“letter, character”), which thus can be translated roughly to pictogram or pictograph [1]. The term has nothing to do with ”emotion“ or ”emoticon,“ although they seem related. In some cultures like South Korea, the word “emoticon” is used much more commonly to refer to what English word “emoji” means. But they are different. Emoticons have a longer history that is traced back to the 1980s when computer users in alphabet-using cultures began to create simple facial representations out of preexisting glyphs, for example :slight_smile: for a smile and :frowning: for showing sadness, disappointment or dissatisfaction (Hern, 2015). While emoticon utilizes texts only, emoji is an actual picture.

Emoji was developed in 1999 by Shigetaka Kurita, who came up with the idea and the designs a year prior, as an employee of the Japanese national mobile carrier Nippon Telegraph and Telephone (NTT). NTT DoCoMo’s “i-mode” mobile internet service, at the time, limited text messages on a screen to 250 characters, and the short messages could appear blunt and impolite, especially in a culture that regards politeness as paramount (Kageyama, 2017). Image-based text messages could soften the tone. As Kurita explains, “With a heart, the message can’t be negative whatever the text says” (AFP, 2016). Drawing on various sources that included : manga , Zapf dingbat typefaces, public signs, zodiac and weather forecast symbols, Kurita created the set of 176 emoji characters on a grid of 12 x 12 pixels (Galloway, 2016). It is important to note that the emoji was developed to enhance the company’s marketing, rather than to assist communication among the users:

DoCoMo used emoji to deliver weather reports to pager users (hence the sun, lightning bolt, umbrella and snowman emoji) and direct them to local businesses; the hamburger symbolized a fast-food joint, the martini stood for a bar, and the high heel indicate a clothing shop. DoCoMo also partnered on its first emoji set with the Japanese ticket seller Pia and the restaurant review company Zagat, and these old corporate deals remain baked into the DNA of Internet culture. Modern smartphone keyboards still offer an emoji for the word “soon” under a right arrow, an old Pia symbol for a show that’s about to begin (Hess, 2016)."

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