Smile please: How emojis spawn civilization

By Liu Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/9/21 20:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT


When the network emerged in the 1960s, it would take more than half a day to send text messages, not to mention pictures. Quicker transfer speed of the network and bigger network capacity make pictures play an increasingly significant role in the Internet world. It can be said that the Internet brings people into the "era of reading pictures."

With the rapid development of the Internet, the emergence of social media has spawned a popular image culture - emoji. Social media has short content and limited text. For the convenience of users, developers have designed varied emojis denoting happiness, frustration, guffaw, frown and so on. It can easily replace text.

Although social media offers a lot of emojis, expressions that denote personal feelings are hard to be found. As a result, many people make their own simple images that represent a special mood. Such simple images conveniently and vividly express their feelings with simple words, and become popular meme on the Internet.

It is interesting to note that from a historical point of view, characters or the absence of it determines the level of civilization. Archaeological studies have found that many ancient cultures often used graphics and pictures to express various meanings before they produced characters. When meme came in, it seemed to signal the decline of a civilization.

Literal expression needs the abstract to glean the essence behind what appears on the surface. Graphic images are more sensitive and easier to comprehend.

In fact, the emergence of this phenomenon cannot be completely attributed to the network. Since the birth of film and television, obtaining information from the provided image instead of words has become one of the most popular forms of mass culture.

In the era of picture-reading, whether meme culture will weaken the capacity of comprehension and expression is difficult to say. There is, however, an overlooked difference behind this question.

The vast majority of characters in the world are phonographic that use the letters to record voice. Therefore, alphabetic writing is significantly different from graphic images. Hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt have disappeared in history, but only Chinese hieroglyphs remain. Characters and graphics are placed under the category - pictograph. Experts talk of the superiority of pictographs and phonograph. From a different perspective, whether the symbolic expression of modern popular graphic images can be regarded as a reference to the hieroglyph when phonography cannot be used for proper expression begs a question.

Thus, we seem to understand a phenomenon: Why the spontaneous meme culture is more popular and thriving in China than in other countries? The reason probably is that Chinese hieroglyphic writing has enabled countless Chinese people to form a natural habit and a natural affinity to expressing ideas with simple graphics.

In fact, meme originally came from abroad. But the emojis, also called emoticons, of Western social media have been regulated by official and commercial organizations. And the active self-made meme in China's network indicates that Chinese netizens, based on the pictographic tradition, have more freedom and creativity in expressing their deep emotions.

Even so, meme is only a convenient way of expression and is not a substitute for in-depth thinking or argumentative logic and distribution. Now, plenty of media integrate images, pictures, sounds and characters together by taking meme as illustrations. If the interviewee sheds tears, the video media reporter would push the camera for a close-up of his face and the reporter would write, "He cried."

This hybrid information dissemination has blurred the frontiers between print media, radio and television, offset pure text's boredom and its deficiency in emotional expression.

For example, why does he cry? It needs a precise description in writing so that readers really understand the emotion. The most powerful photos, at least with concise text, can convey a hidden meaning.

Similarly, though meme is simple, it is universal and conveys a clear meaning with text. However, meme is like news pictures which are more representative of an emotion or mood, and are difficult to substitute for reasoning and complete facts. Mood or emotional expression of meme can often only make perfection still more perfect. A meme that praises gourmet with slobber cannot replace a chef's cooking skill; a meme that rebukes others' nonsensical behavior cannot really confute the fallacies. To make people know black from white, in addition to emotional expression, one also needs fair persuasion.

The author is a Beijing-based scholar.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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