"I don't need no words"

Are emojis really ruining our ability to sincerely express ourselves?
 Beauty and the Beast , 1991,   film still 
 Photography Kimi Hammerstroem Artwork Eve at the Digi Fairy Styling Pandora Lennard Courtesy i-D
 Still from Keeping up with the Kardashians

If 72% of 18 to 25-year-olds say they can express their feelings better though using emojis than words what does that mean for the future of written language? Dean Kissick discuses Starbucks conspiracy theories, ordering Domino’s pizza and if heartbreak can be conveyed by pictures of anthropomorphic food.

Beauty and the Beast (1991) is a wonderful movie but who among us would have imagined that its particular sort of twee-romantic Disney animism, its cartoon vision of laughing teapots and wise-cracking candlesticks, would eventually begin to subsume written language? And yet today our most popular form of entertainment, Facebook, encourages us to communicate with one another through meaningless sticker packs of, say, kitchenware with faces, and these are organized according to the emotions that they’re supposed to convey because as a civilisation increasingly we’re compelled to broadcast all our inner feelings out to the world. It seems that a picture really might be worth a thousand words. Except, not. Because if you’re feeling rotten and miserable, if you’re actually heartbroken about that somebody and cannot sleep and your stomach is constantly churning with despair, would you really choose to express that through a cartoon of an anthropomorphic fried egg holding its yolk in its hands?


Nonetheless, from the bilious oyster to the revolting cat baked out of ham, many of these sticker packs revolve around food and drink, which has taken on an unexpected role in our lives as something to be reimagined as a cartoon character, and as something to be photographed and proudly shared, as though the ability to order brunch in a cafe is something to trumpet about from the rooftops. According to the corporate conspiracy theorists, Starbucks baristas are told to misspell our names on purpose in the hope that we photograph our paper cup and share that too. The coffeehouse experience has become a ceremonial giving of hot drinks and new names, and a farther undermining of the sanctity of words. Also I have read that Domino’s now allows you to order a pizza simply by tweeting the pizza emoji at it, which seems like a mouth-wateringly symmetrical bringing together of two abstractions of pizza: one a text-speak pictogram, the other a circle of congealing processed cheese perhaps stuffed with hamburgers and hotdogs.


So this summer a survey by a British mobile phone provider found that 72% of 18 to 25-year-olds say they can more easily express their feelings through emoji than through text, and this seems absolutely bonkers to me, but then I’m older than that. The only moving emotional narrative that I’ve ever seen expressed in emoji is this Oneohtrix Point Never video; which, to be fair, is awesome and once filled me with a profound sadness in the way that great art should. What I find most frustrating is that in Facebook messaging there’s a button just for making thumbs-ups in all sorts of sizes and in Instagram chat there’s a button just for peppering heart symbols everywhere, and honestly how has the idea of the heart, of loving something, been so debased?

These new forms of communication are steeped in a mechanism of positive affirmation, and wholly inappropriate levels of joy.

In the past schoolchildren were taught, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (a preposterous instruction) and now in this sugary, candy-coated world of symbols it’s not even possible to say anything that’s not nice, everything is pretend kindness and sweetness (which is perhaps characteristic of the Japanese culture from which emoji, as well as half of me, originates). Many of these abstractions of language are essentially meaningless, and so for those with nothing to say conversation is easier than ever. If you use a lot of sticker packs and emoji and you’re not a child, then quite possibly you are an idiot.

Oneohtrix Point Never - Boring Angel from Warp Records on Vimeo.

“The way he used to write his music was pretty crazy. He would just draw what he wanted to do on paper. That’s how he used to record; he would draw, like, a picture,” Atlanta hip hop producer Dun Deal has recounted, explaining what it’s like to work with Young Thug, who has a more interesting approach to the universe of symbols. “Weird signs and shapes. He’d be in the booth looking at the paper, and one day I went in there and looked at it and said, ‘You didn’t write any words down.’ He looked at me and said: ‘I don’t need no words.’” 

For a rapper he certainly has an unusual relationship with words and in songs like Constantly Hating with its frequently mumbled, whispered inarticulations arranged around a sparse beat, actually a lot of the time it’s impossible to make out anything he’s saying, and these moments of misunderstanding are key – it’s like all those made-up words in James Joyce’s Ulysses, nobody really knows what they mean and we just have to make of them what we will. Writing for Wired, Charley Locke compares these songs to avant-garde interpretative dance, describing them as a “warble rap” of coos and purrs and croaks that somehow communicates a feeling, and suggesting, “He’s the latest step in the genre’s linguistic evolution: Young Thug expresses his feelings more purely through sounds.” As a songwriter he’s finding another way of speaking without words, and charging his music with sexuality and underlying menace in a way that cannot be evoked through emoji, nor found in the tediously played-out lyrics of most modern rap.

Speaking at Frieze Art Fair in 2011 the documentarian Adam Curtis commented on how scripted reality television (Keeping Up With The Kardashians and its ilk) evokes the novel form in its compulsion to make internal dialogues external; in these shows vaguely fictionalized versions of actual people meet up and talk about their feelings, often at absurd length, and this is like what happens in a novel. Now, more than ever, we’re obsessed with expressing our hidden emotions but rather than adopting the forms of literature or even trash television, we’re finding new ways of expressing them without words, occasionally very well and often very poorly. Although if we’re going to open up our gaping hearts to the cruel world, I suppose we’re unlikely to regret hiding what we’re really thinking behind as abstract a language as possible.


Dean Kissick is a writer based in Los Angeles.