At first, they were imprinted on cave walls – perhaps as part of sacred rituals. Many, many years later, we started noticing them in urban sceneries, as community rules. Today they’re used in most of our written messages, in interactions with people around the world: pictographs, evolved into what we now call emoji – “the fastest growing language” in history.

They preceded language and abstract thinking and have never ceased to be part of our communication since – Visual representations of what surrounds us, following an evolutionary process of their own, have known a worldwide adoption in the digital environment. It all started in 2011 and since then, the world has been “emojified” – to the extent that these little guys are now an integral part of our digital language, spoken by more than 3.4 billion people.

Reason enough for them to be taken seriously. And indeed they were. For starters, one emoji – more precisely, the ever happy 😄 was crowned Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015. Today, emojis can be used as cause for lawsuits and are a favourite new marketing toy for brands around the world. Naturally, they have also become Hollywood’s latest sensation, with the Emoji Movie announced for August 2017.

But how did the characters originating in Japan’s late ‘90s end up being adopted by a worldwide audience less than 20 years later?

Tech infrastructure played a major part in the process, allowing almost 2 billion people today to own pocket computers many times more powerful than NASA’s combined computing power in 1969, the year that the first man ever set foot on the Moon. Internet, likewise, a visual-based communication channel that has redefined the way we live, nurtured the use of an image-centered language, both functional and appealing for tech-savvies.

However, the DNA of the emoji phenomenon lies in our basic communication needs. Human expressions – indicators of our emotions – cross geographical, political and cultural borders: a smile is a recognizable sign on every coordinate, whether you’re in New York or Bujumbura. Most of the time not even realizing it, we use these expressions in our face-to-face encounters to add nuance and, in some cases, even substance to what we say. In fact, nonverbal messages are responsible for more than 80% of each act of communication we engage in.

Texting, on the other hand – increasingly more preferred as the main communication form – takes nonverbal cues out of our language. And so, the entire emotional load of our messages, the subtlety of our thoughts or the nuances which colour our interactions, are all passed in the emoji realm. Quite effectively, given that they hijack increasing percentages of what we write.

While far from being a language on its own terms, emojis are currently developing a specific syntax, with culturally-determined differences in the way they are used.

Authenticity is what emojis bring into our online interactions and it is precisely the reason they are no longer a trend, but a universally-understood alphabet – one which imports bits of reality into our digital universe – Cristi MIHAI, Managing Partner, STRATEGAD.