As Luke Thomas worked on building his software startup, Friday, he struggled to gauge the mood of his software engineers. Judging their morale was crucial--and not simply because Thomas considers himself to be a sensitive boss. Friday is an app designed to help supervisors manage remote employees via fast, simple, and routine questionnaires about their current progress and goals.
But unless you are professionally empathetic, divining far-flung team members' feelings about their work through a web form is tricky. So Thomas turned the job over to the 3,304 colorful, non-alphanumeric symbols found in the Unicode Standard--what most of us know as emoji.
Today, the "emoji question" appears at the top of every team member's daily Friday updates. It's also the most popular query among the thousands of employees who use the Friday app at organizations ranging from LinkedIn to the Tampa Airport. At a glance, managers know right away if their direct reports are feeling fired up, fatigued, or overwhelmed.
"Surface level, it feels cheesy, like something that only people who are dating do," says Thomas, whose company recently raised $2.1 million in seed funding in a round led by Bessemer Venture Partners. "But then you start using emoji, and you realize they're actually a very powerful form of communication."
That idea hits home even more these days, as millions of us have been working remotely since the pandemic exploded in March. "They create a visual language that conveys a hidden, unconscious meaning: Let's keep things friendly," says Marcel Danesi, professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of The Semiotics of Emoji.
Deploying the colorful smileys and ideograms serves as a parallel act of communication--"an informal visual dialogue," says Danesi, that assures the recipient that, no matter how stressful or confrontational a situation might be, everyone involved is still human and means well.
It's little wonder, then, that entrepreneurs like Thomas are glomming on to the concept and emoji themselves have found their way into everything from ads to customer correspondence to a company's core values.
Seriously Short and Sweet
Emoji date to 1999, when the first one was created by a Japanese artist; rudimentary forms, known as emoticons, in which standard text is used pictographically, go back even earlier in online communication. But like those older ;-) and =(, emoji became marginalized and were deemed frivolous and juvenile.
The smiley face has proved remarkably durable, however--getting a major lift with smart phones, as text messaging became more widespread and the Unicode Consortium, a global standard-setting group for computer text, began adding thousands of new emoji to its catalog over the past 10 years.
The endurance of emoji owes much to their ability to serve as shorthand for human feelings. Neuroscientists have found that the pictures work like hotlines to emotional parts of the brain, hopping over language processing steps to create an immediate effect in the amygdala, the almond-shaped mass in the brain understood to control primitive emotions such as the "fight or flight" response.
What's more, a 2016 study of people reading sentences with emoji while having their brain activity measured using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has shown that the little symbols activate both verbal and nonverbal parts of the brain, indicating that they enrich communication in ways normal letters and numbers can't.
Jeff Wilson sees the benefits of emoji on a daily basis. "They communicate an extraordinary amount of information and emotion in a very simple image," says Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Jupe, a startup that manufactures "off-grid shelters"--solar-powered, Wi-Fi-enabled, compact mobile homes. The company now uses emoji to represent each of its seven core values, such as an emoji of a rocket ship, which stands for "Follow first principles," to think about what's physically possible rather than what's been done in the past. Emoji are both efficient and fun, Wilson points out--precisely what his company is striving to do with the tiny living spaces it builds.
Some companies just like the efficiency of emoji. At a time when employees sift through endless messages on multiple platforms, emoji sort and prioritize information. Oscar Health, the 1,000-employee health insurer, tags specific departments with custom emoji in the company's Slack forum, helping employees quickly separate companywide announcements from team-specific directives. At Hotwire, a travel website, employees celebrate accomplishments using custom emoji of their CEO, Barbara Bates, performing at a company talent show in Wild West attire.
Not Everyone Is Smiling
The little icons aren't perfect. Business owners recount anecdotes of miscommunications and befuddled clients.
Kristin Marquet, CEO of Marquet Media, tells of dealing out rough justice to an employee who used the symbols too cavalierly in an email to a client. "I saw that this junior person's email contained three laughing tear emoji at the end of a sentence and then a smile emoji at the end of her response. This client is the CEO of a large family accessory business and is older (like my father's age), so this type of communication is inappropriate and unprofessional," wrote Marquet in an email. "I apologized to the client, removed this person from the account, and gave it to a more senior team member to handle."
Email marketers have gotten mixed results too. Alexander M. Kehoe, co-founder and operations director at Caveni, a digital marketing firm, initially saw a spike in open rates in marketing emails that included emojis. But the emoji effect wore off, peaking at around 75 to 80 percent open rates compared with 65 percent for emails with zero emojis, until it later slowed to 40 percent versus the 65 percent baseline.
Nevertheless, for impatient entrepreneurs, the emoji's time has come. "It's frustrating that they are taboo," says Brian Folmer, founder of FirstLook, a subscription box of business ideas, which he calls "Shark Tank in a box." The use of written language has exploded with the internet, leaving us begging for shortcuts, he says: "The fact that we haven't come up with a punctuation mark that falls between a period and an exclamation point is insane."
Perhaps it doesn't seem like one of the most momentous events, given the current condition of the planet, but business historians and linguists may pinpoint 2020 as the year the emoji became a serious part of everyday work. And as we all try to communicate amid the ongoing stress and sickness, it sure helps to put on a happy face.