Drawings and pictures far precede linear languages as a means of recording information. There’s no way of knowing what our distant ancestors learned first – drawing or speaking – but we know that they recorded the phenomena and beings they encountered in the form of drawings on cave walls and other media as early as 40,000 years ago. Later, pictures were replaced by words – means that are better at expressing concepts as opposed to tangible things – as the form of information recording of choice. But the use of pictograms – pictures that express a word or an entire sentence – has not disappeared at all. We see them even today in the form of signs, computer icons, emoticons, and emojis, these powerful means of communicating emotions.
Pictograms were used over history to express different things – and were proposed as means of expressing emotions and intent in written text long before the invention of computers. Vertical typographical emoticons were published in a satirical magazine as early as 1881 and were proposed to express the emotional aspect of words in 1912 by author Ambrose Bierce. Then, after a few attempts to reform written text, computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed the emoticons 🙂 and 🙁 for the first time in 1982, from where they started their global ascension to success.
At the same time, Kaomoji (emoticons that could be read without tilting your head) emerged in Japan, through an early online service called ASCII NET, in 1986. These Kaomoji could express a variety of emotions with the use of standard characters (think pictograms like (*_*) or (^_^) for example) and Unicode characters. These Japanese-style emoticons infiltrated the West through English-language Anime forums and were here to stay.
And in 1999, Shigetaka Kurita invented the emoji. The small pictures inspired by a variety of things, from stock symbols to Chinese characters and street signs were first used by the Japanese mobile operators NTT DoCoMo, Au, and SoftBank Mobile. Later, these spread to the rest of the world through the internet, with some emoji even being included in the Unicode Standard. But it was Apple that is ultimately responsible for their global spread: the Cupertino giant has introduced emoji in iOS 2.2 in 2008 but restricted its use to Japanese users. As you might expect, iPhone users all over the world discovered and started to use them in everyday communication. Finally, Apple gave in and enabled global emoji use in iOS after version 4.3.5 (2011).
Emoji are not used on a global scale – and pretty much the same way for speakers of every language. They are as close as we’ve got to a universal language, as they are simple and very easy to understand. They are understood and used by more than half of the internet users, and this makes them attractive for brands that try to turn their products into expressive pictograms to reach out to more potential customers.