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The Social Science of Emoticons, Modern-Day Hieroglyphs

  • [등록일]2017-02-16
  • [조회] 939

“Let’s begin our Thumb Talk test.” A group of panels consisting of men and women are gathered in the studio of a broadcasting station. They are competing over how text messages should be used in order to maintain a romantic relationship. During the discussion the panels try hard to come up with different range of lip services that would be best used in a relationship. Among them, the most favored messages show that actions speak louder than words. However, how can you show your actions in a text message? The secret of “Thumb Talk” is using witty emoticons at the right moments.

Emoticons were once considered as a special language that is exclusive to younger generation. However, nowadays emoticons have become an online language for online community, SNS, and group chat rooms that are used beyond race or generations. Every day, over 70 million emoticons are sent via KakaoTalk, a popular texting service in Korea. The number of emoticons used daily reaches 6 billion worldwide. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary Compilation Committee in the United Kingdom selected an emoticon expressing a “face crying with joy” as the word of the year. What makes emoticons so special for people to use?


Emoticons called 'KAKAO Friends'


Emoticon is a term that combines the English words emotion and icon. It began as a simple combination of letters and symbols combined together to give an impression of a human face that conveys emotions. Some forms of emoticon existed even before the emergence of online communication such as SNS. In 1881, in Puck, an American magazine, peculiar letters composed of Morse codes appeared. Most of the readers quickly realized what it meant. They were meant to express different emotions such as pleasure, depression, indifference, and surprise. Emoticons visualize the emotions of people such as those depicted in the Disney animated film, “Inside Out.”




As personal computers emerged in the 1980s, people gradually communicated over computer screens. While communicating online, some thought, “It would be nice to insert a funny comic strip when writing a document. Sometimes, it is more economical to simply use a picture than to use words when describing thoughts and feelings.” In 1982, Scott Fahlmen, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, came up with an interesting idea. He put “:-)” and “:-(“ on a computer bulletin board to express emotions and named them smileys. Smileys became famous immediately and a thousand of others were created.

Initially, emoticons were combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols that resemble facial expressions. Along with different combinations, ASCII art, a clever way to draw cartoon-like characters by meticulously aligning letters and symbols, became popular as well. The collective intelligence of Internet users has turned constraints in technology into a fun game by using their wits and humors. Many witty people created various emoticons. Although it began only as an interesting game for a few tech geeks, emoticons quickly penetrated into the daily communication of ordinary people.

In Japan, an emoticon is called kaomoji, which means “face” or “character.” Emoticons that use pictures are called emojis. In Japan, before smartphones became popular, using short text messages on mobile phones was a trend. But the unique manga (Japanese cartoons) culture were added to the trend, and the use of emojis became popular. As emojis are small images, some OS did not support them. However since Western companies, such as Apple, Yahoo, and Gmail, added them to their platforms in 2010, more than 1,000 emojis appeared in Unicode.

KakaoTalk and Line, which are popular texting services in Korea, took emoticons one step further. These services provide larger selection of characters with personalities instead of simple pictograms. In addition, these characters are animated and added with sound effects. In Korea, all types of emojis and character stickers are collectively referred to as emoticons.


With the widespread use of smartphones, everyone has a platform for making video calls. Although people can talk face to face from a distance, the primary means of communication among smartphone users are not video or voice calls but text messages. People seem to feel more comfortable when face-to-face interaction is not involved. In particular, when people talk in groups instead of one-on-one, they need to use a group chat room. However, there is a major flaw in this type of communication. According to Professor Albert Mehrabian of the University of California Los Angeles, linguistic elements account for only 7% of the impression on the other person when communicating. Facial expressions and gestures account for 55%, and auditory elements, such as voice, have 38% of impact. Text messages conveys only the linguistic part. In other words, with text messaging, where facial expressions and gestures are absent, people experience difficulty understanding each other’s emotions. This is where emoticons come in handy.

Emoticons bring nuance, which is lacked in communications made through screens. “Please” and “please ㅅ.ㅅ” and “I think I am late” and “I think I am late ㅠ.ㅠ” can bring different emotional responses. Emoticons can also serve as a highly effective means of communication. In a famous episode, Victor Hugo, a French novelist, sent a telegram to his publisher, stating nothing but “?,” wondering whether his book, “Les Miserables”, was selling well. In return, the publisher sent “!.” Sometimes, emoticons can save us from writing long and complex messages.

Meanwhile, emoticons are gaining popularity among middle-aged men. It is commonly accepted that females and children express their emotions more freely than males and adults. This comparison is even clearer in the Korean society. Even TV programs that feature middle-aged fathers, such as the recently aired show, “Take Care of My Dad”, portray the difficulty middle aged men goes through even when they spend time with their family. However, when dads are in a group chat, they seem to act quite differently. Ho-Dong Kang, a middle-aged Korean entertainer, has confessed that he had never participated in a group chat before in “New Journey to the West”, a reality show in Korea. In one of his missions during the show, he downloaded an online messaging app and, quite surprisingly, learned how to use it very easily. Not only did he learn fast, but he fell in love with it as well. He said that it is “heartwarming” to be able to exchange emotions by typing the keyboard for a few times. Those who have a hard time expressing their emotions out loud and are afraid of saying simple words of gratitude and apology, such as “thank you,” “I am sorry,” and “I love you,” feel very comfortable using cute characters to convey their feelings.


Emoticons that use pictures to depict facial expressions, objects, and situations can be used in various cultures. However, emoticons that take the form of an image are slightly different in context. Researchers at the University of Minnesota University GroupLens Research Team have found out that emoticon users have different ways of interpreting them, which could lead to misinterpretations. According to the manufacturer of a smartphone device, even the emoticon for expressing a smile can be seen differently and can cause each user to feel different emotions.

Moreover, there is a cultural difference as to the way of using emoticons. Emoticons in the Western and Eastern worlds have taken a different form since the beginning. In the West, the face lies sideways, whereas in the East, it is facing the front. Sometimes, a symbol could mean different things. The same hand gesture may be interpreted as a form of greeting in one culture but could be insulting in another. It should also be noted that, in the West, emoticons are not usually accepted in formal settings. On the other hand, in Korea, it is generally accepted to use emoticons in business e-mails or formal chat rooms.

In East Asian countries, such as Korea, Japan, China, and Taiwan, the diversity and use of emoticons are particularly phenomenal. Some say that this is because they are accustomed to using hieroglyphics, that is, Chinese characters, whereas others claim that it is because they are already good at using cartoon characters. Korean emoticons use unique Hangul characters, which add diversity to the expression. Thanks to the Hallyu craze, foreigners also use the Hangul keyboard skillfully and use emoticons such as ㅠ_ㅠ (crying face) and @ㅗ@ (rolling eyes).


(left) Mascost of Goyang-si, (right) Mascost of Daejun-si


Korea boasts the most vibrant emoticon industry in the world. They use messengers both in public and private domains, and are pioneering on the development and commercialization of character emoticons. Some cartoonists earn more revenue from emoticons than from webtoons (digital comics available online). There are even a variety of original cartoon characters intended to be used only as emoticons. Koreans have actively interacted with cartoonists and illustrators in other countries, and have successfully launched new emoticons in the local market.

Recently, photo emoticons have emerged as Hallyu stars are increasingly gaining popularity in the Asian market. Photo emoticon services portraying EXO, Big Bang, and Kwang-Soo Lee (also known as the “Asian Prince”) were launched on WeChat, the biggest messaging service in China, which has over 650 million users. The use of emoticons is easily converted to the purchase of character products as users tend to have an emotional attachment to them.

Public organizations, corporations, and social organizations are trying to develop their emoticons quite competitively. Some provincial governments developed their own characters but did not use them wisely. However, nowadays they have added interesting figures on their collection and found the way to adopt them user-friendly.


In a small group conversation where members share the same taste and interest, they may use emoticons of their common interest. For example, a group of cat lovers may use cat emoticons, whereas fans of the drama “Descendants of the Sun” may use emoticons of Captain Si-Jin Yoo.

The entertainment industry is currently utilizing emoticons to promote their entertainers. The girl group EXID has released their own emoticons in the midst of various collaborations with different media, when they made a comeback just recently. Moreover, the film studio Sony plans to release a film that features emoticons in 2017.


Emoticon is a language that represents the mobile network era. Its status is being upgraded, and its use is continuously increasing. Even the US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton asked voters on SNS to express their opinions on student loans using “less than three emoticons.” Finland has introduced “national emoticons” that symbolize saunas, head banging, and more. In today’s tightly connected networks, emoticons serve as hieroglyphs. Anyone can easily convey their emotions, which cannot be expressed in words, by using cute characters and pictures. Sometimes, simple symbols and images can be more powerful than a hundred words. It is not an exaggeration to say that emoticons reveal the characteristics of the modern society.


※ This article is published in webzine 'Hallyu Story', issue of September 2016, a specialized monthly webzine about cultural industry.

▷ Check Korean version of 'Hallyu Story'


  • name  : Myung-Seok Lee
  • profile : Cultural Critic