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Should Governments use emojis to communicate?

Is it appropriate to use emoji in official communications? Is the use of emoji a universal form of expression or a corruption of language? What purpose do emoji serve beyond what we can achieve with formal English? While many may dismiss emoji as unprofessional, it’s worth weighing up the potential benefits they offer.

Consider the roots of communication through symbols. Hieroglyphs were essentially signs that were given phonetic value. In Egyptology these are called ‘determinatives,” as they determine how written words should be understood. Are emoji’s simply modern-day hieroglyphs? Some modern Asian languages use “syllabograms” in everyday writing—single symbols that can express words, or entire thoughts and emotions.

The emoji really became mainstream through platforms like Twitter where the character limit was initially limited to 140, so the one character 🤔 replaces the 28 required for ‘Hmm, I don't know about that’. They were also popularised by character limits in early SMS pricing for phones. The intent behind a single emoji can be extended when paired with others; for example 🤔💭 or 🤔💡 can represent thinking, (having) ideas, and learning.

The youth of today would argue that emoji simplify intent that can often be lost in text. For example, the statement ‘that’s funny’ doesn’t fully confirm the user’s reaction – was it just ‘LOL’ 😂 or 🤣 ‘rolling on the floor laughing funny’. In text, this can easily be mistaken by a sarcastic “that’s funny” 😒.

It is important to note that unlike emoticons, which are a user-created arrangement of keyboard symbols, the choice of emoji is determined and limited by the Unicode Consortium- the organisation that governs the emoji the world gets to use, (adding 59 new emoji in 2019). The non-for profit organisation’s role is to enable people around the world to use computers in any language. Emoji are not dictated by corporate interests and are designed to help people communicate clearly and effectively.

So if the purpose of emoji is to enable communications across languages and cultures, this begs the question: should Government’s use emoji to ensure all members of their community can understand intent?

Governments have been using symbols similar to emoji since well before social media. Take road signs, for example. The reason road signs are in symbols is to signify meaning to everyone regardless of language barriers, but also to express intent quickly, as the driver needs to understand a complex message within a fleeting glance. Let’s consider other environments that Governments could use emoji to quickly and mono-linguistically give directions.

  • In border control centres emoji could be used to communicate rules like “no using mobile phones.” 📵

  • In medical centres, emoji could identify critical conditions or signify dangerous areas and important rules. 😷 was used during the SAR outbreak.

  • Emoji have been useful as an international symbol for people in authority, as different countries have different official uniforms, but 👮 is always understood as a police officer.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was renowned for using emoji on Twitter. She used emoji flags for the countries she was referring to, and often peppered her sentiments with emoji that better conveyed her intent. Although it did cause some diplomatic issues when she used 😡to describe Vladimir Putin, it made for much clearer communication that recognised the importance and effectiveness of these symbols.

Some have argued that the proliferation of emoji isn’t helping the current poor literacy rates among Australian youth in certain areas of the country. There is a very real challenge within our remote Indigenous communities: in some Northern Territory communities nine out of ten people lack literacy skills when it comes to the English language. While not dismissing the huge political and cultural complexities around why these statistics are as they are, this makes it challenging to convey important community messaging within areas of low English literacy. Consider the following examples:

  • With huge rates of Rheumatic Heart Disease in Indigenous Australians, notification of monthly lifesaving 💉could be sent via text or social media.

  • With many remote communities being in cyclone prone areas, notifications in social media could be expressed as 💨.

Recently, Captovate worked with some youth groups in a remote Territory community. The original intent was to understand how they used social media to communicate amongst peers. But an interesting insight emerged, and it involved emoji use.

Many young people in this community don’t have access to their own mobile phone, as device sharing amongst families is very common. However, a lot of them use social media and private messaging to communicate with their youth workers. These social workers had built a trusted relationship with these young people, who often contact support staff when they need help. This might include needing access to medical services, legal services, or help during times of vulnerability, such as in cases of domestic violence. As they often share mobile phones with the perpetrator of the violence, they have developed an agreed-upon code to indicate a need for help. Using emoji they might send a simple 💫, which suggests they had been hit and are feeling unwell and are potentially concussed. 🏝️ is suggestive of feeling suicidal. 🍔 is to inquire when the youth meet up is on, as they supply food.

The use of these symbols evolved organically, and no single person developed a list of agreed symbols. They have emerged based on the needs of the community. It’s a strong example of the effectiveness of emoji as a form of communication.

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