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I'd realized with horror that he had been sprinkling smiley faces into the messages he sent to his friends, relatives and even business acquaintances, so I sat him down for a stern conversation about the crippling un-coolness that the habit conveyed. At the time, I congratulated myself on being a caring daughter who'd saved her father from looking like a fool. Emoticons and their more intricate Japanese cousins, emoji, have been enjoying a renaissance, while stickers -- cartoon-like digital illustrations -- are carving out a niche of their own.
The growing popularity of all this cutesy communication is usually attributed to the difficulty people have conveying emotion and nuance via quickly-typed text. In the past year, frowny faces, clinking beer mugs, adorable chicken legs and other illustrations have become virtually omnipresent online. Facebook recently launched its own breed of emoticons, a stable of yellow faces depicting feelings of disappointment, annoyance and the feeling "meh" that are based on research done by Darwin. And while my father still isn't the typical emoji and emoticon user, emoji use in Japan spread from teenage girls, their early adopters, through all demographics. As we continue communicating more consistently, with more people, in more places, than before, we've turned to images as a way to transpose some offline customs, like comfortable silences between friends, into the online realm.
Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist researching technology use at the University of California, Irvine, explains that while email and desktop correspondence tends to be focused on completing a set task, a great deal of mobile communication -- given how frequently we have our hands on our phones -- is about sharing an "ambient state of being." People tend to text a great deal with just two to three people they know well, but they simultaneously seek to maintain a "virtual co-presence" with nearly a dozen acquaintances.


As people come to rely on emoji to translate face-to-face habits into the digital sphere, many have picked out a favorite emoji they return to over and over again.
The ambiguity of emoji can also make them frustratingly passive-aggressive, allowing people to send a response that's not a real answer. Companies pushing stickers in their apps boast that their huge (and growing) selection of images ensure an illustration for every occasion, or a sticker pack for every personality.
It's high time there was a German word for the pleasure derived from using a particularly obscure emoji in a particularly clever way.
This story appears in Issue 54 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, in the iTunes App store, available Friday, June 21. But emoji and their ilk are more than elaborate punctuation marks, and in fact part of their appeal is precisely their indefinite meaning.
My Instagram feed frequently has more emoji than photographs: Snapshots are captioned with a sprinkling of emoji, which range from the mundane (heart, kissy lips, crying face) to the poetic (bowl of ramen, power plant, dancing girls in black leotards and cat ears). Lango notes that its users are currently about 40 percent male, and between 15 and 25 years old on average.
A friend complained that her boyfriend has adopted a maddening habit of sometimes answering her specific questions with "." It's an evasion, albeit a friendly one.


Enthusiastic emoji users take pride in showing how much they can do with very little, and part of the appeal is seeing how a limited cast of emoji characters can be repurposed in unexpected ways. They're a way to say something to someone when you don't have anything to say, a digital alter ego that establishes a virtual presence with another person, without any specific purpose besides "hi." Using emoji, in a sense, is like hanging out online. An app created by Snoop Lion, aka Snoop Dogg, sells $30,000 a week worth of digital stickers, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Emoji are like the smile from a colleague across the room, or the small talk you make walking to get coffee. A friend says she's partial to the "cheek guy" -- a smiling yellow face -- while another finds himself returning to the ghost sticking its tongue out.



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