The announcement itself was laden with irony: The Oxford English Dictionaries’ statement read: “That’s right — for the first time ever, the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year is a pictograph.” In other words, it was an emoji, specifically the Face with Tears of Joy. If that left many lost for words, never mind, I’m sure there’s an emoji for that.
This is certainly not the first time that an image-centric term has risen to the top of these charts. In 2013, it was selfie, as smartphones turned people onto compulsive ego-clicking. The previous year, the American word of the year was Gif, which at one time during the early years of the internet, meant an extension of a variety of image files, or if animated, garnish for the garish layouts of Geocities homepages.
The selfie remains active, as does the gif, now reanimated courtesy social media. And, of course, what was once the humble emoticon, that smiley face that required only a semi-colon, a dash and a bracket, unlike its descendants that sometimes need more characters than those in a complex piece of legislation, is now in its emoji avatar.
You could argue that the world of words has never been as prolix as it is at this time when every digital denizen with typing skills (or not) and a social media account has an opinion and opts to express it. But, in its traditional form, it is gradually diminishing, as newspapers, magazines and books continue to haemorrhage readership. Is it worth going through a thousand words of detail and nuance when a picture will suffice? That’s reason enough for bookstores, the few that still exist in brick, to stock stuffed toys and stockings to stay liquid, while those that started out as online booksellers, like Amazon, are content offering 20% off on shoes, clothing and more.
In effect, the act of stringing together a sentence has turned into such a chore that even email is dated for the millennial generation. As the website TechCrunch noted this year, “it’s only a matter of time until email becomes another period marker on the timeline of communication technology.” But for those grappling with inbox overload, rest assured the spammers will still keep you occupied.
Among the alternatives to email are instant messaging apps for those with the aptitude for textpk with its irritable vowel syndrome. Beyond that, there’s a growing switch to apps like SnapChat or Instagram, if not Vine and Pinterest, where, once again, photos and videos dominate. In fact, people have even taken to naming babies after Instagram filters — in the US, among the names that have seen a spike in popularity are Lux and Willow.
It’s not just the kids who are wandering in the wonderland of pix. Recently, the newly-elected President of Argentina Mauricio Macri’s Facebook introduction to his Cabinet came complete with emojis allotted to each portfolio. If the Make in India initiative has its own emoji, the COP21 summit in Paris notched up as many as three. A picture has to be worth more than 140 characters, right? Even Canada’s national broadcaster CBC released personalised emojis for its roster of talent. As that list of adoption grows, the emoji-nation boggles with such offerings as Apple’s Eye in Speech Bubble or the Gmail bug that showed the Skull and Crossbones. Maybe Google’s own emojified version of Edward Munch’s The Scream is a coping mechanism for pictograms gone wild.
As we head back into the hieroglyphic age, even regular textual material is posted in the form of image files, and comments have turned into stickers, like the Wanna Fraandship? types proliferating on WhatsApp.
Visuals have obviously always been a major force of communication in human history. But it’s a tad ironic that after centuries of civilisation and technological progress, we’re heading back to an age of scrawling on walls. Pictures may have been how lasting communication started, and now they are back to have the last word. Get the picture? But I vote for the written word. And, obviously, there’s an emoji for the very act of writing.
Anirudh Bhattacharyya is a Toronto-based commentator on American affairs. The views expressed are personal.