Where did all the words go?

Uh oh, she’s off again.

I’ve been musing about the lost art of words. So much of our communication these days is through images – emojis, memes, gifs photos, film clips, you name it. Of course, I’m speaking mostly of casual exchanges – not professional or formal – but I wonder how long it will be before that’s acceptable, too. It makes me a bit sad that the art of words and conversation is getting lost among all the pretty pictures. When it comes to emojis I’m just as guilty as anyone – sometimes it just seems more appropriate, friendly, and easy to respond to someone’s comment with a smiley, especially if you’re at the end of a conversation or there isn’t much to say. A picture speaks a thousand words, so an emoji’s got to be, what, ten at least?

These days we’re struggling to express ourselves in a world that’s all about speedy, efficient interactions. Nobody wants to spend time in lengthy discussions anymore. Similarly, for anything to stand a chance against rapidly scrolling fingers it has to stand out, and images do that so much more powerfully than words. So it’s no surprise that we resort to visual flirting instead of going to the effort of composing a sentence. (Rein it in, Kate, rein it in.)

Nudge, nudge, winky face

Back when text messages really were just text, I remember the rise of emoticons – early ‘smileys’ made by combining punctuation. Even before that, you could find rudimentary versions in glyph libraries and font collections such as Symbol and Dingbats, but it never would have occurred to me to use them in a conversation with people. We should have seen it coming. Some smart people did – they got rich (some even tried to trademark emoticons – they didn’t). Pretty quickly, emoticons became smileys which in turn became emojis, and all of a sudden there’s this huge library of facial expressions to choose from, containing more squints and grimaces than we could ever hope to produce with our own faces. And now it’s not just faces – there are cartwheelers, zombies, mermaids, David Bowie and a multitude of suggestive fruit and vegetables. You could basically write a sentence using emojis alone – and I’m genuinely worried we’re headed that way.

Big on ambiguity

My issue with emojis is that while they’re fun and jaunty, there is such potential for ambiguity. The problem with images is that they are very much dependent on the interpretation of the recipient. For example, take the raised eyebrow face. Sandy says to Dave, ‘I tripped and fell on the subway.’ Dave replies with the raised eyebrow face. That could mean so many things. Dave might mean, ‘You did? That’s embarrassing!’ Or, he could be saying, ‘I doubt that’s true!’ Or, ‘You really are a clumsy shitbag!’ The possibilities are endless. Sometimes I have trouble with the sweating emoji because the sweat drop looks a bit like a tear drop, so I’m never quite sure if someone’s feeling (mock) uncomfortable or just very emotional. Even the most innocuous faces like the simple smile could be misconstrued as sarcasm or passive aggressiveness – which they often are (you’ve all seen Moon, right?)

Secondly, emojis still aren’t always rendered the same across different operating systems and devices. Even worse – sync your social media to post simultaneously across all apps, and you might end up posting emojis that look quite different on one to the other. While I don’t link any apps myself, I’ve noticed some marked differences – for example, the ‘surprise’ emoji on my WhatsApp looks more like embarrassment compared to Twitter’s version. These differences could be dangerous (and have been for some celebs) – though it makes a good case for not automating or syncing your apps!


Some of that ambiguity has led to changes in emojis such as ‘geek’ (or ‘nerd’), which has been scaled back to a subtler (less ‘toothy’) image of a person with special interests. That’s less fun though, isn’t it? Does it really get the point across now? Isn’t the point of emojis that they exaggerate for emphasis? And then there was the controversy over skin tone, leading to a range of skin colours to choose from. And gender – so now there’s a male and female for everything. Again this strikes me as trying to make them more like actual people, instead of caricatures that reinforce your words. Is this paving the way for replacing words with emojis and whatever their successors end up being? (Don’t get me started on emotisounds.) After all, they’re increasingly used in place of text rather than alongside it. Will there come a point where we don’t need the words at all? Will we just liaise through a wall of cartoon faces? Is that the wind outside or am I hyperventilating?

Naturally, there will always be a level of ambiguity with words as well, but at least when we send text we know the recipient is seeing the same thing we are. But that doesn’t account for tone and meaning, which every brain will absorb differently. As a Brit with a typically sarcastic output, I run into this problem a fair bit.

The gif that keeps on giving

I’ve rambled on for ten paragraphs and I haven’t mentioned gifs or memes yet – and perhaps these are a better example of replacing words completely. Replying to people with an image is so common on social media now. My Twitter timeline is peppered with it, and I get it – an intriguing visual makes a user stop in their tracks – text involves reading, and we don’t have time for that. (Rein.) I’ll admit, though, that I enjoy the propensity for subtle humour and cult references that come along with it. If someone replies with a still from a TV show or film that you would only recognise if you were a fan, it’s fun. It’s like you’re in on it.

But another thing about memes is that they proliferate so quickly. The same meme will pop up countless times in a million different contexts, rendering it pretty meaningless and not attached to anyone in particular. Its original owner was lost about 100,000 users ago. No one has ownership of anything anymore, and I can’t help but think that would be less of a problem with words. Words don’t spread so easily, and people aren’t as inclined to reproduce big chunks of someone’s writing as they are to posting an image as their own. Images seem to carry more anonymity and less liability; a wordy sentence or paragraph is more unique and specific than a single visual frame. People can hide behind pictures, but words are more personal.

And you know, less lazy. (Reins snapped.)

In all seriousness, I know we need to move with the times. And we are mostly talking about social media here and, as I said before, not about formal communication. I think the turning point (and my descent into despair) will come when we see those lines beginning to blur. In the meantime I’ll continue using emojis and images in my conversations with people while trying to keep a balance with actual, meaningful sentences where it matters.

If you’ve read this far without slamming into a wall of fatigue, you might notice there aren’t any images in this piece. That’s intentional, to make my point. What it probably, actually, means is that this is my lowest ranking post, ever. *sweaty-faced emoji*

2 thoughts on “Where did all the words go?

  1. Wow, so much to unpack. Great article as always and while I personally don´t think that because most of us use these things in a lighthearted way they don´t have to neccessarily bleed over to other areas of writing (at least I hope so) there are a few interesting topics I have some thoughts about.

    The age of emojis: I remember you occasionally using the x or xxx which stand for kisses. I still remember when they were used in text messages a lot. The funny thing is that they even predate the internet or electronic communication altogether. There are Victorian Age letters where (mostly women) would sign off with these heartfelt “xx” symbols. So obviously the need for a wordless pictogram is very old even used in times we generally consider rather “wordy”. The precursours to the emoticons and emojis we know today are obviously very old indeed.

    Gifs and movie references: My favourite example is the scene at the end of Jeremiah Johnson where a bearded Robert Redford knowingly nods at the indian in peaceful agreement. I bet the majority of people who use that scene which may be one of the most overused GIFs ever don´t even know that. They even thought for a while that was Zach Galifanakis (oh so they look the same, huh? That´s beardist!).
    If I do use a reference I always make sure I at least know what it is and preferably the recepient knows it as well so it works the way it is supposed to be. But I don´t like overusing them myself. Still I guess posting a gif or picture is a safer bet than just writing down a quote.
    The whole meme problem and the lack of creativity in wit is big with gifs and pictures but not limited to it. You can see that with the 1000nd person who think they´re clever by copy pasting a Patrick Batemen quote when they think it applies even just a little bit, eurgh…

    Identity Emojis: I´m just so annoyed by having a select a skin colour and gender for every other emoj nowadays. I always pick the yello face eventually because these are neutral emotions with no race or sex and not avatars for me. They have such specific family combinations and at the size they come in a size I have to squint to be able to tell what they are. But do people really use them like that? How is a family portrait an “emotion?” Or is just adding a new varation a way for a company to make themselves look good (insert cynical smirk face here).

    In the end I myself try keeping the balance and I think it works well the way we do it for fun with people we know. But when I communicate with somebody I don´t really know and they just throw memes at me I start feeling like Captain Picard in the episode “Darmok” where he is stranded on a planet with a member of a race who (as he finds out) communicate solely by referencing their planets ancient mythology in varying context. The idea behind that is surprisingly close to people chiefly communicating via memes.

    Now is the danger of that ever happening bigger than, say, leetspeak taking over (which obviously never happened, but I was afraid of that for a short while myself)? Maybe by a little bit, but not much. At least I hope so(I said that earlier, didn´t I?).


    1. Interesting point about ‘xx’, though I don’t put them in the same category as emojis (and they’re much less ambiguous). They’re almost like punctuation in comparison.

      Yes I bet a lot of people recycle gifs without knowing their true origin. Zach Galifanakis, heheh!

      This is what I mean re identity in emojis – either people are now using them for a different purpose, or the people that create them are assuming so (or both). The yellow ones were fine to me, and neutral like you say.

      As for words disappearing completely, let’s hope you’re right!


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