Emoji keyboard (Screencapture by author)

CHICAGO — Instead of saying to yourself, “There’s an app for that,” repeat after me: “There’s an emoji for that.” In our technology-inundated world of constantly being glued to the glowing screens of our iPhones and Androids, more apps are not the answer to our first-world problems. What we need is more communication. What we need, in other words, is more emoji.

But first, just what is emoji? If you don’t have access to a smartphone, you may be unfamiliar with this 21st-century phenomenon. Emoji is the enhanced Japanese term for those same old emoticons or picture characters that we Americans are used to seeing in Gchat or on Facebook (which now forces users to experience emoticons in Facebook comments, not just messages). Emoji includes a much wider variety of predetermined mini-images than any Gchat emoticon-user could dream of. To enable emoji on your iPhone, go to Settings > General > Keyboard > Keyboards > Add New Keyboard. Then add the Emoji keyboard. Emoji packages are available for pretty much any smartphone these days, so poke around enough and you’ll find them.

Emoji first became available to iPhone users in 2008 through the 2.2 software update. A few months later, in February 2009, Apple issued a store-wide take-down of all App Store products that supported Emoji, according to Ars Technica. The reason? Emoji icons were “part of the device’s Japanese language support and not meant for general use around the world.”

To the iPhone user of today, this spat from three years ago is just a tiny slice of emoji’s history. Today iOS6 offers users a cornucopia of emoji options. For example, there are far more wild animal emoji in iOS6 than in the highly domesticated iOS5. One could even say that iOS6 is wild and exotic — finally, one can describe both an African safari and a trip to the Midwestern farm in the same message. Watch out for the head of a panda, the snout of a pink pig (not just the face), a bear head, the side view of a gray elephant, a snail, a ladybug, a bee with stinger pointing out, a cow, a magical white rabbit with red eyes (albino?), a crocodile, and a blowfish. The many cycles of the moon get attention too, great for those who need to talk about their astrological conditions. There’s a full moon, half moon, a sliver of moon and, best of all, a crystal ball (attention psychics!).

iOS6 also feels slightly gayer than iOS5, which forced all users to express “gay” solely through the tiny rainbow emoji. There are now gay couples pictured in emoji, including male-male and female-female; unfortunately, they are both seemingly white and not at all genderqueer. iOS6 also offers a have a happy, white, heteronormative family. And then there are the cats with emoji expressions (good for those who might identify more with animals than humans, so-called “otherkin”), can’t forget those. Choose a cat with heart eyes or a regular yellow smiley face with the same; a blushing cat or a humanoid embarrassed face; or a crying cat versus a tearful human.

All screencaptures by author

What the iOS6 emoji set lacks, however, is the ability to text emoji that are more diverse. I expressed this sentiment to a friend who feels the same way. Thankfully, we were able to incorporate some existing emoji into this conversation.

Emoji has transformed me from a moderate texter into an emoji-texting machine.  Here are three more reasons that should convince everyone, from cool iPhone-equipped grandma to that annoying punk cousin with a persistent drug problem to get it on with emoji.

1. Sometimes I don’t want to say how I feel

Imagine this not-so-hypothetical situation: You are attempting to express a feeling to your significant other or close friend rather than literally saying what you mean. As a writer, one of those phrases repeated over and over is the commandment to “show, don’t tell.” This might as well be “Insert emoji here!” Let’s say you are angry at your partner or friend. Inserting an angry emoji face rather than tip-tapping away on the iPhone’s delicate glass screen “I am really angry at you” may actually accomplish more — and save you additional angry textage.

2. Constructing visual stories is a neat way to get to know someone new

A new friend and I are getting to know each other through our shared love of emoji. We incorporate emoji into our conversations because I’m a regular emoji-er, and he is new to the iPhone. Adding these little pictures brightens the conversation.

3. Pictures just make things more fun

Why tell a story with straight words when you could add pictures? Constructing emoji-ified stories tests the brain in the same way that a crossword puzzle does. How can you say what you mean without using the words you were thinking of? How can you make a full sentence with subjects, verbs, and objects through only images, or even start inventing your own verbs? Like so:

There’s a whole world of emoji waiting for you out there, so:

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...

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