Confessions of an Emoji Novice

Image Credit: N Engineer
Image Credit: N Engineer

You’re in Slack, and you’ve been chatting. You like these people, have so far managed to pass yourself off as a moderately intelligent and generally decent human being. And then someone posts something deep, somewhat confessional perhaps–something that just happened to them in the real world (or, IRL as kids would say), and you don’t know how to react.

So you wait, hope that someone else offers a reaction that you can click on and add your signature to, like the office birthday wish for that guy you just barely know down the hall. But wait. What does that picture even mean? Do you pick it to just go with it and not be caught as the last person in the room to get the joke, mistakenly try to pretend you’re in on some inside joke that totally predates you so you’d have absolutely no way to know what they’re talking about (you know, like the spork casserole, nudge nudge), or do you try to out-react everyone else, and search through the options to find the right one?

But now it’s been too long, and the conversation has moved on, and who’s really going to go through and look at these reactions anyhow other than people later to the game than you are, and who cares what they think, right?

Alas, there’s nothing like emoji to make a girl feel old. There was a time in high school when I was learning to conjugate verbs in French, English, and Hindi. And I was good. And then, in grad school, I found that I could pick up programming languages (I had to). I wrote in LISP, C, C++, Java, Tcl/Tk, OpenGL, whatever the required class and assignment dictated. I understood the design of the language and could substitute the particular syntax as needed.

I am a person of language. Not a translator who’s fluent in, like, eight languages, but I am someone who’s passionate about paragraphs, whimsical about words, and who thinks grammar is great. And who used to dream in computer code.

In my mind, the thing that links together programming and writing is rules. The complex structure of language–both human and computer–provides a framework upon which larger works can be structured, and which, when properly understood and harnessed, can produce works of all sorts. The same building principles produce huts and high rises, Minesweeper and Minecraft, Good Night Moon and Great Expectations.

But somehow, emoji confound me. They make me feel old. Sure, I can use the Facebook reactions. And while texting, I can respond with a smile or a frowny face.

There’s a board game called Concept. In it, you use the icons on the board to convey your clue, laying out descriptors to help the other players guess your card. And that, in the context of charades or Pictionary, makes sense to me.

And then there’s Slack, which lives somewhere between e-mail and texting, allowing real-time interaction or coordination only among those who are interested in participating in a particular conversation.

In Slack, I can react to anything anyone writes from a humongous repository of reactions. And that’s one thing I struggle with. How can I tell if a statement warrants one finger up, two fingers up, a smile, blush face, or what? The level of detail and sheer number of choices is overwhelming (see image above, which isn’t comprehensive). And yet somehow never enough.

In the era of easily obtainable emoticon, it seems that I should be able to find the perfect image to represent my every thought and feeling, no matter how complex or contradicting. If I want to say Ouch that hurt but I’m proud of you for how you handle the situation, I feel like there should be an icon for it. I suppose I could double up on the reaction, have the emoji frown icon alongside an applause, but what if they don’t get it?

Of course, perseverating over the emoticons takes away from the benefit of the medium if you end up spending so much time looking for the perfect emoji that the efficiency of using Slack is gone. And yet, with the reaction functionality, you’re able to follow conversations without having to scroll through screen after screen of each person typing out identical reactions to the same statement.

So I get it, I do. I understand the value of the graphical emoji reaction within Slack. And I understand them in the context of using them as a substitute for words. I just can’t seem to master the finer points of the language so as not to feel like I’m wandering in and coming across as illiterate. So I ask: is there anyone out there fluent in emoji who could offer me a primer? Perhaps I should pursue a course of study in hieroglyphics, but I fear that by the time I figure it out, we’ll have moved on to the next form of communication, whatever that is.