Emoji as a language of cuteness
First Monday

Emoji as a language of cuteness by Joel Gn

This article develops a case for emoji as a ‘language’ of cuteness, by building a framework for the relationship between their communication design and use in computer-mediated communication. In view of the technical standardisation and cross-cultural reception of emoji, the article also examines the structure and play of these pictograms in and out of messaging platforms. It further argues these movements parallel the contentions that are intrinsic to the aesthetic of cuteness. This approach supports the notion of emoji as a systematised form of cuteness that circumvents the complexity of inter-subjective differences.


Cute relations
Visual languages: Past and present
Structures and systems
Playful remixes
Conclusion: Cuteness in the global village




If one compares the text generated from a computer some decades ago with the social networking sites and messaging platforms of the present, it is likely they will notice the significant change in the quality of visual elements on our screens today. Aside from ASCII artworks constructed on bulletin boards, users commonly typed sentences with the alphanumeric characters available on the keyboard, and few assumed that paralinguistic features could include anything more than the entry of punctuation marks (McCormack, 2013).

From smileys to eggplants, the introduction of graphic emoticons — or emoji as they are recognised in popular discourse — has transformed the contemporary landscape of computer-mediated communication (CMC). Along with emoticons and in-app messaging stickers, these visual objects constitute both ideographic and logographic vernaculars that are primarily designed to inform the receiver of the sender’s intent or emotional state (Flavelle, 2017). The impact on the formality of text messages in CMC has been tangible; for even as our digital exchanges have become more casual and entertaining, there is also speculation that we are on the threshold of a universal symbolic language, where pictures replace words as the basic unit of communication (Azuma, 2012).

Emoji, stickers and other software-based paralinguistic tools have enabled us to exercise greater agency and communicative fluidity within platforms (Lim, 2015), but their appeal is also a question of communication design and its impact on our technological condition, which may be observed from the following issues. First, the extent to which emoji can simulate embodied tone and gesture in CMC is in part determined by how these pictograms correspond to users’ needs (Bennett, 2014). Second, emoji can be flexibly used within and outside the context of text messages, but users may not edit the designs of the characters. Instead, they are visually consistent products that are standardised according to the decisions of the platform developers, as well as the affordances of operating systems. Although the Unicode Consortium has taken steps to define and implement new emoji characters across multiple platforms, these images are still designed to fit the software’s aesthetic, instead of conforming to one standardised character set (Cunningham, 2016). Regardless, the stylistic evolution of emoji characters across most platforms also point to a growing preference for simplicity, fun and affection. Hence, the third issue is concerned with the over-arching ideals expressed by emoji, and how they are understood as products of a systematised aesthetic (Stark and Crawford, 2015; Danesi, 2017).

By delineating the role of communication design in the appearance and use of emoji, this article will build an argument for emoji as a ‘language’ of cuteness. This approach to language is derived from the theories of semioticians Ferdinand De Saussure and Roland Barthes, who understand language to be a ‘social institution and a system of values’ [1]. In the context of emoji I will illustrate how this system is fundamentally mediated by their cuteness which materialises through our relationship with the platform. My understanding of cute design will neither be focused on a culturally specific variant (e.g., Japan’s kawaii culture) nor undermine other forms of stylisation; rather, it builds an argument from aesthetics, semiotics and the philosophy of technology to consider cuteness as a structure concerned with the appearance of the lovable, and how this unique aesthetic adapts to and subverts the paradigm of the platform.

In view of these aims, the article sets out to explicate the relationship between emoji and cuteness in four sections: First, it identifies the functions of emoji that are aligned with the principles of cute design. Second, it will connect the stylisation of emoji to earlier visual languages. Third, it elaborates on the structure of cuteness, and explains how its systematisation is demonstrated in both emoji and other examples. Fourth, it provides a contrast to the structure in the third section, using examples that exemplify the playful innovations of cuteness. Lastly, the concluding section draws on the ideas of the preceding sections to explain how emoji, despite their increasing flexibility of use, remain conduits for affections that are complicit with the structure of the information economy.



Cute relations

To begin: what exactly makes a thing ‘cute’? The Oxford English Dictionary defines cute as ‘attractive in a pretty or endearing way’, but it remains vague about how we can identify a cute object, or the features or conditions that contribute to the experience of cuteness. Sociocultural differences aside, one can observe that cuteness is not strictly a matter of individual preference, but also consists of relatively rudimentary criteria tied to our sensory dispositions. These include but are not restricted to rounded, infantilised physical features and a clumsy, vulnerable demeanour (Morreall, 1991; Ngai, 2005). Given its appeal, it can be argued cuteness is both a manipulation of the subject’s affection for the object, as well as an outcome of sensory perception (Gn, 2016). Teddy bears, for example, are often regarded as ‘cute’ because they are designed, or endowed with an appearance that evokes sentiments of affection. This solicitation also points to a certain craft or fabrication on the part of the object and/or its producer, and is traced to an earlier understanding of ‘cute’ as a derivative of ‘acute’ which refers to ‘mental alertness, keenness and quickness’ [2].

While cuteness is a prominent aesthetic of the artificial, there is likewise a sociobiological basis for some of its human and animal examples, especially when it comes to the bond shared between adult mammals and their young. John Morreall, for instance, claims the word ‘cute’ commonly refers to human infants and other mammals like dogs, cats and bears. Analysing their physical similarities, he argues that ‘the recognition and appreciation of the young’ is advantageous for the species’ survival [3]. Morreall approaches these patterns of cuteness as an ethological issue, whereby the appearance of the young is a stimulus for the attachment between a parent and child. These observations are a follow-up to the earlier notes made on ‘neoteny’ by Konrad Lorenz and Stephen Jay Gould, who assume the softening of physical features and a more juvenile appearance denote a ‘reversed ontogenetic pathway’ that enhances the appeal of the object [4].

In contrast to these earlier sociobiological analyses positing that cuteness and the subject’s affection is triggered by specific features, Gary Genosko (2005) contends that the perception of cuteness is a response to the sum of heterogeneous attributes. This means that the cuteness of an object is not based on recognising distinct attributes, but is brought about by the arrangement of features making up a body. In my view, Genosko’s remarks are firmly centred on the question of the subject’s perception of a Gestalt, and allow us to consider the transformations of cuteness brought about by other innovative designs, which may not incorporate features deemed relevant to the aesthetic.

At the same time, the experience of cuteness in artificial contexts suggests that the relationship between subject and object can be broader than the familial affection parents have for their child. Despite being inanimate, teddy bears, digital pets and social robots are usually perceived as cute toys, and one can often find users relating to or conversing with them as if they were objects of affection possessing thoughts and feelings. According to Gary Sherman and Jonathan Haidt (2011), this particular relationship highlights two pertinent characteristics relevant to the communication of cuteness: First, cute designs are not merely a nurturing factor, but an invitation to sociality; and second, the experience of cuteness inevitably includes an anthropomorphic response, where the subject interprets, or understands the object to possess humanised intentions.

Moreover, this attempt to comprehend the motivation and behaviour of non-human agents is an expression of the intentional stance, which is a cognitive strategy that is used to resolve the complexity of an object. Contrasting this strategy with two other approaches, Daniel Dennett argues that many objects do not just work according to physical laws of cause and effect (e.g., water becomes hot under fire) or their designated function (e.g., doorbell rings when a visitor arrives), but are derived from ‘patterns made to order for our narcissistic concerns’ [5]. Given this basis, the cuteness of an object is not simply a mechanistic function or result, but the performance of cues and gestures that convey positive or even lovable sentiments to the subject.

So if cuteness refers to the performance of cues and gestures that enhance sociality, how is such a view compatible with the operation of emoji within CMC? Combining both qualitative and quantitative methods to study the semiotics of emoji, Marcel Danesi describes two basic functions of emoji that are important for enhancing the sociality of the platform: First, emoji are phatic, which means they are ‘used typically for establishing social contact and for keeping the lines of communication open and pleasant’ [6]. In order to achieve this communicative lubrication, emoji should be sufficiently appealing for users to share them frequently in their exchanges. Second, emoji are emotive tools because they are also used to inform receivers about the sender’s emotional intent. For Danesi, the insertion of emoji in CMC is neither randomised nor abrupt, but occurs in a systematic fashion, ‘much like prosodic markers in vocal language’ [7].

Likewise, these two functions have a tangible effect on the performative qualities of emoji. The use of the term ‘performative’ in this context refers to the action performed by the sender with the construction of sentence, which is often used adjunctively with emoji. In his theorisation of speech acts, J. L Austin explains that ambiguous words, usually found in ‘apparently descriptive statements’ also support the circumstances and expectations of the words used [8]. Hence, sentences are performative not in the sense of being true or false, but that their utterance or expression is part of a physical gesture, as seen in some common phrases such as ‘I give item A’, or ‘I take item B’. To use a couple of examples that expresses these gestures with emoji:

  1. Peter might be wrong. 😕.
  2. Peter might be wrong. 😉.

The use of dissimilar emoji characters in these sentences results in two different readings. In the first, the addition of a confused face indicates uncertainty or confusion, with some anxiety as to whether the subject of the sentence, Peter, is right or wrong. The second sentence, however, ends with a wink. This makes it more suggestive and ironic, and shows how the sender is more inclined to and amused about Peter’s possible error. In both cases, meaning is not just derived from the contents of the sentence, but through the appearances and performances of emoji in the entire exchange.

Taken together, both the phatic and emotive functions of emoji enable messaging platforms to be more interactive and positively humanised, insofar as users’ affections are coded and represented within the platform’s structure. As noted by Ludwig Jäger and Jin Hyun Kim (2008), a medium is perceived to be transparent when its material difference (i.e., the user’s perception of operating a device) is negated by the form of affection that the medium attempts to simulate. In the case of emoji, this transparency is determined by the ways their phatic and emotive utterances result in a more affectionate connection between sender and receiver, given that both parties are under the impression that they are in touch with one another, and not the device.

Although the phatic and emotive flexibility of emoji may point to more fluid expressions of user agency, it should be noted emoji characters are neither individually created nor modified. Rather, their recognition within the platform is an outcome of a standardised visual lexicon that is as regulated as it is contested, and earlier visual languages were primarily designed and built for other intents and purposes that have a bearing on the current development of emoji. When Shigetaka Kurita created the first set of emoji characters for Japanese mobile company NTT Docomo in 1999, many of the characters were inspired from Japanese popular culture and public signage used elsewhere (Negishi, 2014). This illustrates that the structure of emoji also resonates with older visual languages such as Isotype and Wingdings. The next section will trace the development of these earlier forms and their stakeholders before the growth of CMC, and analyse the impact of their influence on emoji design.



Visual languages: Past and present

Developed in the 1920s, Isotype is a prominent example of a visual language that was widely accessed before the introduction of font groups and emoji. Pioneered by the philosopher Otto Neurath, Isotype was designed with the aim of circumventing the challenges of language and literacy. Besides their simplicity, isotype symbols had specific referential properties, which allowed them to be consistently applied in maps, charts, and eventually public roads and buildings. Visual languages influenced by Isotype are used with little to no ambiguity in various countries, and this should be understood as the result of localised design initiatives and the expanding movement of commodities, services and ideas across countries and cultures (Heller, 2014). Despite their broad reach, Isotype-related lexicons were highly generic and restrictive in their use — the symbolic or indexical qualities of the characters were useful for public signage, but the lack of CMC-based platforms also meant they could not be applied in written communication.

As personal computers became the technology of convention, however, software companies began to produce ornamental font groups like Wingdings, which contained characters that could be used and exchanged between users via the appropriate word processor or text editor. Users could swap words for Wingdings characters by changing the font of the text, but their appeal and function at that time were significantly different from emoji. The label ‘Wingdings’ is a combination of ‘Windows’ and ‘dingbat’ [9], and this emerged with the advent of the printing press, centuries before the digital era. In a featured investigation on the history of Windings, journalist Phil Edwards points out printed ornamentation was laborious and costly, thus dingbats were a welcomed solution to the process as they ‘included a variety of reusable shapes that could be slotted into text and used as ornamentation in a book’ [10]. This technological innovation, I would add, is relevant to the acceptance of emoji, given how their images are converted into standardised, repeatable characters that circumvent the sender’s efforts to compose texts and draw images manually.

Although Kurita’s emoji can be connected to these trends, it seems inadequate to exclusively attribute the current appeal of emoji to the veneer of universality espoused by Isotype and the efficiency of ornamental fonts. The stylisation of emoji has evolved substantially since, and I contend that the demand for greater platform engagement and sociality has permitted the aesthetic of cuteness to play a very pivotal role in their reception. This structural approach to the cuteness of emoji is based on the notion of semiotic systems as theorised by Barthes, who writes:

‘... in most other semiological systems, the language is elaborated not by the “speaking mass” but by a deciding group. In this sense, it can be held that in most semiological languages, the sign is really and truly ‘arbitrary’ since it is founded in artificial fashion by a unilateral decision; these in fact are fabricated languages, “logo-techniques”’ [11].

In the context of emoji aesthetics, the ‘language’ in question differs substantially from Unicode’s aims, as emoji characters sharing the same denotation do not appear the same when used in a different operating system or messaging platform. For example, the bright green, more child-friendly squirt gun from iOS may be a cuter pistol emoji than its counterparts in other platforms, but its particular design may also introduce ambiguities in interpretation, especially when one has to differentiate between an actual firearm and an attractive toy (Cunningham, 2016). Regardless, there is a variable, but noticeable sense of cuteness expressed in all emoji characters across various sets.

To elaborate, we will consider the basic features of cuteness that are used in emoji designs for platform engagement and sociality. Emoji are not photorealistic representations, but are skeuomorphic caricatures of their referents. This is evident in the rounded, colourful, and non-threatening design that the images assume. Although emoji can certainly be used to compose offensive messages, I argue their cute designs do not make them repulsive to users when a character is interpreted in isolation, since a completely disagreeable appearance runs the risk of reducing the attachment between a user and the platform. Emoji thus have to be visually consistent with the overall sentiment communicated by their stylisation, which is an issue of expression, rather than depiction.

This notion can be further illustrated with emoji depicting negative emotions such as anger and sadness. While they clearly denote unpleasant feelings and are often used to describe negative experiences, their designs alone do not disturb senders or receivers. Stylistically, the rounded, brightly-coloured and caricatured form of the emoji character is one of fun and affection. As theorised by Nelson Goodman, such an expression is a form of symbolisation that adopts a different trajectory from denotation:

‘... expression, like representation, is a mode of symbolisation; and a picture must stand for, symbolise, refer to, what it expresses. The symbolisation or reference here runs, as we have seen, in the opposite direction from denotation — runs up from rather than down to what is denoted.’ [12].

The emphasis from what is depicted or denoted to a cuteness figuratively expressed can be examined by comparing emoji characters from different platforms denoting the same object. For the platforms carrying the emoji character of a cat’s face [13], the images used are all distinct in terms of colour and contour, but apply three design interventions that are consistent with the aesthetic of cuteness. First, the characters retain their iconicity, with features that are minimally necessary for depicting the face of a cat. Second, intimidating features, like fur, pigmentation, nostrils and sharp teeth are omitted. Third, the rounded shapes and humanisation of the character’s gaze softens and sanitises their overall appearances. In sum, these similarities adequately show how the cuteness of emoji modulates the foreign and unapproachable, by modifying the actual physicality of the object being denoted.

Another useful example is the stylistic transition of individual emoji characters from earlier to later iterations of platforms. Earlier visual languages used unambiguously iconic characters, but their sharper outlines and conservative use of colour made their images more sombre and impersonal than current emoji designs. As observed in the automobile emoji in Windows operating systems, the differences in contour and colour indicate a transition that softens and arguably enhances the cuteness of the object. While the version in Windows 8.0 [14] has the monochromatic appearance of the Wingdings font group, its more recent counterpart in Windows 10 (Creators Update) [15] is endowed with a brighter colour scheme and cartoonish design that would also be suitable for children’s books.

The evolution of emoji design is one of the many ways cuteness has been systematised and even made more recognisable, but on a more critical note, these manoeuvres of standardisation also signal a foreclosure of subjective questioning and expression. Emoji can visibly enhance user agency within a platform, but they are continuously configured as standardised units to improve the efficiency and transparency of the platform and its interface. In their response to the structural implications of this phenomenon Luke Stark and Kate Crawford remark that emoji operate within a relationship in which ‘affect is captured by capital through proprietary cultural representations’ [16]; so even as social ties are enhanced with the appearance and use of emoji, it can be argued that they are rigid instruments of capital, and a means to ‘lure consumers to a platform, to extract data from them more efficiently, and to express a normative, consumerist and predominately cheery world-view’ [17]. In my view, the effects of this structure parallel the contentions within the aesthetic of cuteness, which I will explore in the next section.



Structures and systems

So how is cuteness understood as a technical structure? While the perception of cuteness can be a subjective experience, we should not neglect the effects of sociocultural consensus. If cuteness is tied to a shared understanding of what is or isn’t pretty and endearing, then it will be possible to delineate the structures underlying these decisions, along with the ways certain versions of cuteness can be effectively systematised within the logic of commodification. To systematise, in this case, is to formalise an idea or an aesthetic as a symbolic resource, because the decorative value of the object is not tied to a defined physical need, but adapts itself to artificial expectations (Adorno, 2001).

This argument can be illustrated using character-based franchises. Dick Bruna’s Miffy for example, was initially drawn and animated for children’s books and the television screen, but her image can be manufactured and experienced in a wide variety of physical objects. As Brian McVeigh remarks in his case study of Hello Kitty, products of different form and function and be brought together through a ‘unifying theme, emblem or motif’ [18]. By being branded with the image of the character, these essentially disparate objects can be thematically linked and made coherent to consumers, who purchase them not only for the sake of utility (e.g., a mug for drinking, a T-shirt for clothing), but primarily for the representation of the character or even idea.

By converging different products within a single image, character or theme, Miffy also simplifies multiple connotations into an icon that is intuitively understood and consumed by the target market. Although her design is a basic representation of an anthropomorphised little rabbit, it is not restrictive in its application. Through a variety of consumer objects such as plush toys, stationery, furniture and food, Miffy’s cuteness is made more ubiquitous, as consumers can experience the same character (and its values) in more ways than one. Although these mechanisms of distribution add to a character’s visibility, they are not without complications. For one, these images inevitably become resources of a particular technique that builds and commercialises a worldview impervious to movements not processed according to its commodity-based logic. As argued by the philosopher Jacques Ellul:

‘In reality, it is not the ‘wishes’ of the ‘producers’ which control, but the technical necessity of production which forces itself on consumers. Anything or everything which technique is able to produce is produced and accepted by the consumer. The belief that the human producer is still master of production is a dangerous illusion.’ [19]

The production and consumption of an iconic character like Miffy is an example of how a particular version of cuteness is incorporated by techniques that occlude subjective consideration. Situating this argument within the aesthetic of cuteness, one can observe how certain versions of the aesthetic are easily more recognisable through the commercialisation in mass culture, even when these representations do not make an absolute claim about who or what is attractive and endearing.

Likewise, this systematisation also occurs in the application of emoji-based features in social networks such as Facebook, where emoji characters are used to quantify reactions and label feelings and activities. These added features may provide users with more options to produce or respond with certain types of content, but they do not lead to a greater flexibility of expression — users are not permitted to change the emoji characters provided, and these added features are driven by algorithms that convert user preferences into information capital. Increasing the diversity of reactions on Facebook thus permits more precise analyses of user sentiments, which can in turn be used to reinforce, or even market group-based preferences to stakeholders and advertisers (Oremus, 2016).This shows the apparent affordance of agency is driven by a more efficient process of data exchange that reinforces the commodity-based logic of the platform. Theodor’s Adorno’s remarks concerning the negation of subjectivity brought about by such a mode of production is pertinent in this case:

‘The poetic mystery of the product, in which it is more than itself, consists of the fact that it participates in the infinite nature of production and the reverential awe inspired by objectivity fits in smoothly with the schema of advertising. It is precisely this stress upon the mere fact of being which is supposed to be so great and strong that no subjective intention can alter it in any way — and this stress corresponds to the true impotence of art in relation to society today — that conceals the transfiguration against which all sober objectivity gestures’. [20]

Like Ellul, Adorno adopts a pessimistic stance that aesthetic values are subsumed within this system of technical manipulation. While this clearly neglects the subjective interpretations and performances of cuteness, this argument is important because it identifies the underlying systematisation within these commercialised structures of cuteness, and by extension, emoji. Even as broader recognition might be regarded as an indicator of a consensus, their processes are not entirely implemented in an open source fashion by users of various interests, but are arbitrarily dictated by platform owners who for the most part are occupied with increasing the circulation of their products in the market, as well as intensifying the attachment these products share with consumers. Nevertheless, the tensions between affect and technology that cuteness engenders can likewise be observed in other appropriations of emoji, especially when the latter is adapted in ways that emerge in more localised or subversive communities.



Playful remixes

More than just surface embellishment, cuteness is determined by one’s sensitivity to the object’s appearance and behaviour. This performative aspect underscores the notion of cuteness as an appeal for human affection which in turn, makes space for the subject to deviate from more structural expectations. Documenting the early development of Japan’s kawaii culture, Sharon Kinsella notes that cute fashion and personas were emblematic of young women’s subversion of traditional norms in the 1970s. Using the fashion magazine CUTiE as an example of these embodied subversions, Kinsella comments that the pursuit of cute fashion and child-like behaviour reflected a ‘rebellious, individualistic, freedom-seeking attitude’ [21].

And in tandem with the popularity of cute fashion was the subculture of cute handwriting, which combined rounded Japanese characters with English words and iconic symbols like hearts and stars (Kinsella, 1995). While it seems likely that this stylisation of the written word is a precursor to the more standardised emoji, cute handwriting — with its horizontal alignment and emotive nuance — was indelibly a notorious disruption of the vertical and considerably more traditional writing convention of early post-war Japan. These cultural practices demonstrate that the aesthetic of cuteness is not simply a quality directed at inanimate objects, but can also be a self-directed performance of infantilism. For this particular demographic in Japan, cuteness was arguably a means to recover a child-likeness that was perceived to be more pleasurable and authentic than the artifice of adulthood.

Despite the rapid mainstreaming of cuteness in Japan, unconventional innovations playing with the boundaries of the lovable and grotesque still persist within more niche sectors. Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, for example, is a prominent performance artist who adopts an eclectic mix of cute and creepy images (e.g., eyeballs and monsters) to project a parody of kawaii conventions (St. Michel, 2014). Like many other characters recognised for their kimo-kawaii (grotesque-cute) aesthetics, Kyary’s performances depict a cute adaptation of more repulsive, aggressive and even anti-cute features that not only apply a more lovable frame of reference on the object, but in a more implicit sense, convey the disempowerment of the object who should but cannot retaliate against the subject who imposes such a relation upon it (Ngai, 2005). The visible dissonance of grotesque-cute characters does not undermine the positive effects of their appearance, but continues to draw these negative characteristics within the orbit of the lovable, while subverting previous iterations of cuteness that have been systematised. Cuteness, in this sense, occupies what Don Ihde describes as a hermeneutic relation, in which the object becomes a text that is determined by the instrument that frames it:

‘The symbiosis here is not so much between the observer and that which is observed, as between the veracity and reliability of the ‘text’, the representation produced by the instrument which is always presumably of the world. The instrument in this relation occupies a hermeneutic position. I must ‘read’ it and its result. The immediacy of embodied relations is here displaced by the necessity of a hermeneutic process’. [22]

The flexibility of emoji use can also be understood as a more precise extension of these subversive affections with cuteness. Even though platforms may anticipate or even provide additional support for paralinguistic effects, various groups of users have applied, or re-mixed emoji in more substitutive ways that are neither within the primary objectives of the Unicode Consortium, nor the imperatives of the operating systems, thus allowing non-CMC objects and experiences to be interpreted according to the emoji aesthetic. Compared to both phatic and emotive functions, substitutive compositions — where emoji characters replace words and sentences — are a more recent practice that is mostly adopted by users with a sophisticated level of emoji literacy, in which the ‘semantic, syntactic, reinforcement, and conceptual aspects of the grammar interrelate with each other to produce the meaning behind (or underneath) the visual symbols’ [23]. In other words, these innovations are often densely coded with cultural nuances, which often deviate from the framework of standardised lexicons.

These complexities can be illustrated with 🚫☕ a simple emoji phrase that already entails a couple of assumptions about its senders and receivers. First, composing such a message implies some familiarity with the English language, because this emoji phrase can mean something else to non-English speakers; and second, the simplicity of the images also make the emoji phrase open to other interpretations in the same language. In less idiomatic situations, this phrase could mean a prohibition of hot drinks, but it can also be used figuratively to indicate that the object in question is not the sender’s ‘cup of tea’. Such ambiguity and treatment of emoji as a repertoire of fluid signifiers often occur outside the generic guidelines of the Unicode Consortium, and show how a standardisation of emoji meanings would be problematic across a wide spectrum of cultures and interests.

Other colloquial connotations of emoji characters can be also transposed from platform-based conversations to more political issues. Stringing the characters of a rice bowl and a rabbit’s face (🍚🐰) would likely have little logographic impact in English, but its combined pronunciation in Mandarin (mitu) has transformed it into an effective visual pun for users in China to support the #MeToo movement and evade state censorship (Yam, 2018). In countries where political expression is tightly regulated, emoji are an expedient resource for speech acts that may not be endorsed by the platform or government (Highfield and Leaver, 2016). More significantly, the affections and movements underlying these appropriations are in excess of the platform’s affordances, and create more opportunities for emoji to be understood in more localised and off-line contexts.

Finally, longer compositions of emoji have been used to construct narratives that are appreciated more for their visual arrangement than their paralinguistic effects. Compared with shorter phrases exchanged via text messages, these emoji-only texts often take the form of stories and poems that are eventually unhinged from the platform providing the emoji (Danesi, 2017; Tan, 2014). One notable example would be Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick, which is an emoji translation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. As commented by Danesi, a substitutive emoji text of considerable length may seem challenging or even juvenile to its readers, but it can also stimulate interest ‘through humorous devices that reach out to a new generation of potential readers, accustomed to emoji style’ [24]. The linear arrangement of characters in the pages of Emoji Dick supports this point, because readers are able to assume the narrative from a sequence of images by adopting a structure more similar to the images in comic books than the exchanges within a messaging platform (McCloud, 1994; Azuma, 2012). The transposition of emoji from the domain of CMC to the literary is therefore, another cogent example of how the appeal of emoji’s cute design may emerge from affections outside the grid of data-driven platforms.



Conclusion: Cuteness in the global village

The reception of emoji is never a straightforward outcome of access to the platform or the guidelines of the Unicode Consortium; rather, it also takes into account the application of an aesthetic that allows emoji characters to be attractive to users. The embellishment of cuteness contributes to the possibilities and problems of emoji, and this inquiry has sought to develop a thesis for how cute design can intervene in the perception and values of our digital exchanges.

To be sure, the use of emoji in messaging platforms is a development that humanises the device and conditions our affections. By simulating emotions, places and objects in our everyday life, emoji have become a user-friendly, visual language that augments communication within the platform. And while inserting emoji characters into a text message endows both sender and receiver with a point of view that repeats the pleasurable effects of the interaction, it is also the cuteness of emoji that compels users to adapt it as a tool for sociality, and even subversion. Hence, these innovations demonstrate how cuteness is fundamentally an affective response, even as it is also an enchantment that captures the imagination of the user (Adorno, 2001). As a systematic form of cuteness, emoji are rigid instruments of information capital; as compositional pictograms, they turn cuteness into an alternative linguistic tool.

Nonetheless, these tensions between structure and play are arguably symptoms of the agency and displacement that is intrinsic to our technological condition. For on the one hand, we have observed how cuteness and emoji are both circumventions of certain physical deficits — both are primarily concerned with making the other approachable, albeit in a questionable fashion. In the absence of a physical encounter, emoji vernaculars have not only added paralinguistic nuance, but have heightened the apparent intimacy and innovation of our online discourse. Yet on the other hand, the cuteness of emoji gathers, stores and re-applies the clichés of our interactions for further commercial use. In a global village where screens have replaced faces, emoji are becoming more vital to the affections fostered online, even as they mitigate and bypass the abrasive — and quite possibly, transformative — facets of our differences as persons. The underlying technology of emoji thus ‘projects a violent dismemberment of the natural body and an emptying of human agency’; along with the extension of human agency through the forms of technology that supplement it [25].

Returning to emoji (and by the same token, cuteness), it remains to be seen if the digital augmentation of sociality is synonymous with the strengthening of interpersonal communication. Given the diversification of emoji and the introduction of in-app messaging stickers, it is clear that an efficiently administered visual lexicon will resolve certain encumbrances in linguistic diversity and on occasion, bring about political statements or literary innovations that challenge the paradigm of the platform. I would however, maintain that these prospects are not without their drawbacks, for the benefits we reap from emoji still require an extraction of our affective labour that is perpetually complicit with the structure of the information economy (Hardt, 1999).

To conclude, emoji are a form of communication that sanitises the uncertainties behind our screens. Still, one is left with the messy, complex and irreducible difference of the other person, which are neither errors in the communication process, nor blemishes in our objectifications. There will be the awkward silence in a face-to-face encounter, or the ramifications of words and gestures that are misconstrued, but are these vulnerabilities also not opportunities where we can relate to the other person without the tethers of the information economy? If we still recognise deeper affections are possible if one embraces the physical presence of the other, then we ought to wonder if the smiley on the screen has brought us closer to, or further away from, a more intimate point of view. Emoji have given our words faces, but they say nothing more of the person we are addressing them to. The conversation continues. End of article


About the author

Joel Gn is Lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences. He writes about aesthetics, technology and East Asian popular culture.
E-mail: joelgnhz [at] suss [dot] edu [dot] sg



I would like to thank my co-editor, Crystal Abidin (Deakin University), Alisa Freedman (University of Oregon) and three anonymous reviewers for their support and input in my development of the article.



1. Barthes, 1983, p. 13.

2. Ngai, 2005, p. 827.

3. Morreall, 1991, pp. 39–40.

4. Gould, 1980, p. 97.

5. Dennett, 1987, p. 39.

6. Danesi, 2017, p. 19.

7. Danesi, 2017, p. 25.

8. Austin, 1962, p. 3.

9. The origin of the word is uncertain, but dingbat is similar to the Dutch dingus (thing) and may have an onomatopoeic relation with the sound of metal pieces falling on the floor (see Edwards, 2015).

10. Edwards, 2015.

11. Barthes, 1983, p. 31.

12. Goodman, 1968, p. 52.

13. See https://emojipedia.org/cat-face/.

14. See https://emojipedia.org/microsoft/windows-8.0/automobile/.

15. See https://emojipedia.org/microsoft/windows-10-creators-update/automobile/.

16. Stark and Crawford, 2015, p. 3.

17. Stark and Crawford, 2015, p. 8.

18. McVeigh, 2000, p. 228.

19. Ellul, 1964, p. 93.

20. Adorno, 2001, p. 63.

21. Kinsella, 1995, p. 230.

22. Ihde, 1979, p. 33.

23. Danesi, 2017, p. 88.

24. Danesi, 2017, p. 146.

25. Seltzer, 1992, pp. 170–171.



Theodor Adorno, 2001. The culture industry: Selected essays on mass culture. London: Routledge.

J. L Austin, 1962. How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Junichi Azuma, 2012. “Graphic emoticons as a future universal symbolic language,” Approaches to Translation Studies, volume 36, pp. 61–84.

Roland Barthes, 1983. Elements of semiology. Translated by Annette Lavers and Colin Smith. New York: Hill and Wang.

Jessica Bennett, 2014. “The emoji have won the battle of words,” New York Times (25 July), at https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/27/fashion/emoji-have-won-the-battle-of-words.html, accessed 1 June 2018.

Andrew Cunningham, 2016. “As emoji grow more popular, the ‘language’ also risks fragmentation,” Ars Technica (17 August), at https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2016/08/emoji-are-getting-ever-more-expressive-but-not-without-growing-pains/, accessed 1 June 2018.

Marcel Danesi, 2017. The semiotics of emoji: The rise of visual language in the age of the Internet. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Daniel C. Dennett, 1987. The intentional stance. Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press.

Phil Edwards, 2015. “Why the Wingdings font exists,” Vox (26 August), at https://www.vox.com/2015/8/25/9200801/wingdings-font-history, accessed 1 June 2018.

Jacques Ellul, 1964. The technological society. Translated by John Wilkinson. New York: Vintage Books.

Mack Flavelle, 2017. “The sticky truth about modern written language,” Digital Culturist (5 March), at https://digitalculturist.com/the-sticky-truth-about-modern-written-language-dde65c2854af, accessed 1 June 2018.

Gary Genosko, 2005. “Natures and cultures of cuteness,” InVisible Culture, number 9, at http://ivc.lib.rochester.edu/natures-and-cultures-of-cuteness/, accessed 1 June 2015.

Joel Gn, 2016. “A lovable metaphor: On the affect, language and design of ‘cute’,” East Asian Journal of Popular Culture, volume 2, number 1, pp. 49–61.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1386/eapc.2.1.49_1, accessed 16 August 2018.

Nelson Goodman, 1968. Languages of art: An approach to a theory of symbols. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.

Stephen Jay Gould, 1980. The panda’s thumb: More reflections in natural history. London: W. W. Norton.

Michael Hardt, 1999. “Affective labour,” boundary 2, volume 26, number 2, pp. 89–100.

Steven Heller, 2014. “The utopian origins of restroom symbols,” Atlantic (24 April), at https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/04/the-utopian-origins-of-restroom-symbols/361162/, accessed 20 September 2016.

Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver, 2016. “Instagrammatics and digital methods: Studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to memes and emoji,” Communication Research and Practice, volume 2, number 1, pp. 47–62.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1080/22041451.2016.1155332, accessed 16 August 2018.

Don Ihde, 1979. Technics and praxis. Dordrecht: D. Reidel.

Ludwig Jäger and Jin Hyun Kim, 2008. “Transparency and opacity: Interface technology of mediation in new media art,” In: Uwe Seifert, Jin Hyun Kim and Anthony Moore (editors). Paradoxes of interactivity: Perspectives for media theory, human-computer interaction, and artistic investigations. Bielefeld: Transcript, pp. 44–61.

Sharon Kinsella, 1995. “Cuties in Japan,” In: Lise Skov and Brian Moeran (editors). Women, media, and consumption in Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, pp. 220–254.

Sun Sun Lim, 2015. “On stickers and communicative fluidity in social media,” Social Media + Society (11 May).
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115578137, accessed 16 August 2018.

Scott McCloud, 1994. Understanding comics. New York: Harper Perennial.

Tom McCormack. 2013. “Emoticon, emoji, text II: Just ASCII,” Rhizome (30 April), at http://rhizome.org/editorial/2013/apr/30/emoticon-emoji-text-ii-ascii/, accessed 1 June 2018.

Brian J. McVeigh, 2000. “How Hello Kitty commodifies the cute, cool and camp: ‘Consumutopia’ versus ‘control’ in Japan,” Journal of Material Culture, volume 5, number 2, pp. 225–254.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/135918350000500205, accessed 16 August 2018.

John Morreall, 1991. “Cuteness,” British Journal of Aesthetics, volume 31, number 1, pp. 39–47.
doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/bjaesthetics/31.1.39, accessed 16 August 2018.

Mayumi Negishi, 2014. “Meet Shigetaka Kurita, the father of emoji,” Wall Street Journal (26 March), at https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2014/03/26/meet-shigetaka-kurita-the-father-of-emoji/, accessed 29 September 2017.

Sianne Ngai, 2005. “The cuteness of the avant garde,” Critical Inquiry, volume 31, number 4, pp. 811–847.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1086/444516, accessed 16 August 2018.

Will Oremus, 2016. “Facebook’s five new reaction buttons: Data, data, data, data, and data,” Slate (24 February), at http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2016/02/24/facebook_s_5_new_reactions_buttons_are_all_about_data_data_data.html, accessed 1 June 2018.

Mark Seltzer, 1992. “Review: Writing technologies,” New German Critique, number 57, pp. 170–181.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.2307/488446, accessed 16 August 2018.

Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, 2011. “Cuteness and disgust: The humanising and dehumanising effects of emotion,” Emotion Review, volume 3, number 3, pp. 245–251.
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1754073911402396, accessed 16 August 2018.

Patrick St. Michel, 2014. “The rise of Japan’s creepy-cute craze,” Atlantic (14 April), at https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2014/04/the-rise-of-japans-creepy-cute-craze/360479/, accessed 1 June 2018.

Luke Stark and Kate Crawford, 2015. “The conservatism of emoji: Work, affect, and communication,” Social Media + Society (8 October).
doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305115604853, accessed 16 August 2018.

Dorothy Tan, 2014. “Awesome emoji poems that are surprisingly brilliant,” Design Taxi, at http://designtaxi.com/news/363558/Awesome-Emoji-Poems-That-Are-Surprisingly-Brilliant/, accessed 1 June 2018.

Kimberly Yam, 2018. “How coded language and emojis are helping China’s feminists skirt censorship,” Huffington Post (4 June), at https://www.huffingtonpost.in/2018/04/06/how-coded-language-and-emojis-are-helping-chinas-feminists-skirt-censorship_a_23405254/, accessed 1 June 2018.


Editorial history

Received 8 August 2018; accepted 9 August 2018.

Creative Commons Licence
This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Emoji as a ‘language’ of cuteness
by Joel Gn.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i9.9396

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.