Emoji and emoticons are not the same thing and the continued confusion of the two will not stand.
In the New York Times, under the headline “At Silk Road Trial, Lawyers Fight to Include Evidence They Call Vital: Emoji”, the two were treated as interchangeable.
“At issue” in the court’s debates “was a piece of information that [the Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht’s] lawyer suggested was critically important, yet was omitted by federal prosecutors: an emoji.
“And not just any emoji, or emoticon, as the symbol is sometimes called — it was the gold standard. A version of a smiley face.”
And on the BBC, under the headline “Emoticons in texts can rack up huge bills” is a news story which exclusively discusses emoji.
An emoticon is a typographic display of a facial representation, used to convey emotion in a text only medium. Like so:
Invented multiple times over human history, its internet-era genesis is widely considered to have occurred in September 1982, when computer scientist Scott Fahlman suggested to the Carnegie Mellon University message board that 🙂 and 🙁 could be used to distinguish jokes from serious statements online. Shortly thereafter came the name, a portmanteau of the phrase “emotion icon”.
In contrast to the grassroots creation of the emoticon, emoji were created in the late 1990s by NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese communications firm. The name is a contraction of the words e and moji, which roughly translates to pictograph.
Unlike emoticons, emoji are actual pictures, of everything from a set of painted nails (💅) to a slightly whimsical ghost (👻). And where emoticons were invented to portray emotion in environments where nothing but basic text is available, emoji are actually extensions to the character set used by most operating systems today, Unicode.
In essence, emoji are treated by the computer as letters from a non-western language, in much the same way as Japanese and Chinese characters are. But that also means that the software has to explicitly support them – otherwise it is forced to display a placeholder icon, or even just a blank space (which you might see between the brackets in the paragraph above if your browser doesn’t support emoji).
It also means that each company has to provide its own interpretations of what the emoji descriptions should actually look like – and they don’t always agree. Take the implementations of the “dancer” emoji: for Twitter and Apple, it’s a female flamenco dancer. But for Google, it was, until recently, a John Travolta lookalike dancing disco style. And now it’s a weird blobby thing. So if you’re about to tell someone “you look gorgeous, like a 💃”, make sure they aren’t reading it on a new Android phone.
To complicate matters, some emoji are also emoticons. The standard for the characters breaks them apart into sets by theme. Most are filed under “Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs”, but the emoji which depict emotive faces are separated out as “emoticons”.
Although the name’s not much used in the west, it’s probably best to distinguish kaomoji from emoticons in general. Independently invented around the same time as emoticons, they make the most of the fuller character set necessary to write in Japanese, and can be read head-on. They may be as simple as (*_*), or as complex as (ﾉ◕ヮ◕)ﾉ*:･ﾟ✧. or ಠ_ಠ.
Oh, and then there’s stickers, the custom pictures used in a number of instant messaging clients such as Facebook Messenger or Line. Some apps refer to them as emoji, but they’re fully specific to the app, and can’t be cut and paste anywhere else except when they’re treated as an image.
With that much variation, is it surprising that people get a little (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ if you confuse 🙂 with 😃?