This Erasmus alumna & artist is researching emoji

It’s world emoji day! Yes, emoji have their own day – and it’s no surprise. Emoji have become an indispensible part of our digital communication. Who hasn’t sent a heart to a loved one, a glass of wine to a friend right before the weekend, or a sad face because you flunked an exam? But why do we like using visual symbols to communicate verbally? Erasmus alumna Lilian Stolk started a research project called Tears of Joy to find out.

Emoji were developed in Japan around 1998. In the Japanese language, the ‘e’ stands for picture and ‘moji’ for character. Emoji quickly developed into a visual language with a set of symbols that are shared all over the world, making it a quick and clear way to communicate. There’s even a Unicode Consortium: a non-profit organisation that approves or disapproves emoji. ‘Researchers suggest that 80% of mobile phone users use emoji and describe it as the fastest growing language,’ Stolk writes on her project website.  


‘How does the popularity of emoji influence our society? Is it the end of the dominance of words and will our alphabetic script change into a more hybrid version? And what are the social and psychological consequences of expressing our feelings in defined symbols? Lilian Stolk is currently collecting answers to all these questions, which she will publish in her book Tears of Joy’, states the website.

Stolk uses surveys for this, but also visited emoji’s ‘godfather’ in Japan: Shigetaka Kurita. There, she discovered that so-called 'stickers' (bigger icons – emoji 2.0, kind of) are already replacing emoji in Japan.

Poo with a smile

A fun fact about emoji is that, even though they are universal, they don’t mean the same in all cultures. ‘The poo emoji is a nice example,’ Stolk told NRC Handelsblad. ‘In Japan, a pile of poo is a symbol of happiness, because the Japanese word for poo starts with the same sound as the word for happiness.’

Designers are free to create their own version of an emoji – as long as the core shape remains the same. So while Apple decided to give the pile of poo-emoji a happy face, Google’s first design was just poo with some flies over it – no happiness connotation.

While this difference in interpretation may create some confusion, researchers do believe that emoji actually stimulate our brain in a similar way to a smile or an angry face. And, let’s face it: any message gets better and funnier with a pile of smiling poo behind it.


Lilian Stolk holds a Master in Media and Journalism (Erasmus University) and the Image and Language (Rietveld Academy, Amsterdam). Want to know more? Visit her website.

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