ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And we're exploring one way our communication is changing in All Tech Considered.
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SIEGEL: In this era of mobile messaging, emojis carry more and more weight. Emojis are those smiley faces, thumbs up and other icons that are worked into texts, tweets and Facebook posts.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
During the Japanese prime minister's visit, President Obama counted emojis among Japan's great cultural exports.
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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Like karate and karaoke, manga and anime and, of course, emojis.
SIEGEL: Emojis sparked a firing a few days ago in the NBA. During game five of the playoffs between the Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, heard here on TNT, the teams' twitter feeds were rooting them on.
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SIEGEL: In the fourth quarter, a Rockets tweet quipped, don't worry, it'll all be over soon, and featured two emojis, a pistol aimed at a horse's head. It earned thousands of retweets. It also cost the Rocket's digital communications manager his job.
BLOCK: That gun emoji is highly controversial, and Youth Radio's Tylyn Hardamon has been talking with teens about it.
TYLYN HARDAMON, BYLINE: A few weeks back, I sat in a booth at Youth Radio and looked up a website called Emoji Tracker. It shows you how people are using emojis.
I've barely even heard of any of these emojis and...
There was one emoji in particular I wanted to track. I scanned the website's grid full of flashing cartoon pictures until I found it - the gun emoji.
Jeez, some of these are aggressive.
I watched the list of Twitter messages pop up in real-time, a lot of them obviously written by teenagers. Messages like, no one better mess with me today, or, I hate school, next to a tiny, grey pistol. But it wasn't always clear to me why people were using a picture of a gun to express themselves. I asked some of my friends at Youth Radio if they use the gun emoji and, if so, how? Seventeen-year-old Savannah Robinson breaks it down.
SAVANNAH ROBINSON: Oh, like, my homework is killing me - gun, gun, gun. That means just that your homework's really hard and you want to, like, to kill yourself - not actually kill yourself.
HARDAMON: Is it harmless in some contexts?
ROBINSON: Now that I'm saying it - like, I never have said out loud, I'm going to kill myself or I'm going to kill you. Like, that just sounds like - that's definitely not what I mean.
HARDAMON: Emojis may seem playful on a screen, but when you start reading into their meaning, things can get really serious. In January, a teenager in Brooklyn was arrested and charged with making terrorist threats for posting an emoji of a police officer next to a series of gun emojis. The charge was later dropped, but it just goes to show you how hard it is to tell what someone means by the gun emoji. So with all the potential to read the gun emoji wrong, should teens stop using it altogether?
DONTA JACKSON: I don't buy that at all.
HARDAMON: That's Donta Jackson. He's 20.
All right, Donta, do you use the gun emoji yourself?
JACKSON: A lot - almost every day.
HARDAMON: Almost every day?
JACKSON: Almost every day.
HARDAMON: Like, in what context?
JACKSON: I pretty much use this for somebody getting on my nerves or I'm late for work, oh. You know, stuff like that because it's like the (making shooting sound) - the sound like you brushing it off.
HARDAMON: He says that whatever other people think, it's clear to him and his friends that it's not violent.
GRETCHEN MCCULLOCH: I think everybody knows it's a gun, right? The question is, what do you mean by it being a gun?
HARDAMON: That's Gretchen McCulloch. She's a linguist and writer who specializes in language and pop culture. She says that in general emojis can be really useful for adding context to messages and tweets - a winky face to show you're kidding, for example. But when you use the gun...
MCCULLOCH: ...It's - maybe it's not quite as clear what that conveys if someone isn't as fluent in emojis.
HARDAMON: The problem with the gun emoji, she explains, isn't necessarily that it's used too much. It may be that it isn't used enough for people to agree on its meeting.
MCCULLOCH: In general, it's good to exercise caution about what you're saying on the Internet before you say it.
HARDAMON: Talking to my peers about the gun emoji, it seems like most young people use it as a joke. But all it takes is one person to misinterpret it, and you're in big trouble. So the way I see it, the next time you're texting and your fingers hover over the gun emoji, if you're not sure how someone will react to it, go with the frowny face. For NPR News, I'm Tylyn Hardamon.
BLOCK: That story - produced by Youth Radio.
Well, how far can emoji go? Pretty darn far, as NPR's Elise Hu has found out. She recently moved to Seoul, South Korea, where she's seen that communication by emoji has overtaken the use of regular text. Hey, Elise.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: Hey there, Melissa.
BLOCK: And I'm looking at some screenshots of a conversation you've been having with your family that you've posted on your Tumblr. There are no words here. These are all super-stylized mega-emoji I think.
HU: That's right. My family communicates on a mobile messaging app called Line. It's very hot in Japan and Taiwan and Thailand. What's unique about Line is its super emoji called stickers. And so what I showed on the Tumblr was my husband sending an image, my father responding with thumbs up, my mother responding with star confetti, which is kind of how our conversations go.
BLOCK: So do you type in a word and it translates into a sticker or...
HU: You're exactly right. It basically defaults you into stickers because when you type something like happy birthday, it gives you options for cake or candles.
BLOCK: Is this the kind of thing, Elise, that's bigger in Asia in every way?
HU: Well, mobile messengers certainly are huge in Asia. Line, for example, adds 1.7 million new users a day...
HU: ...To give you an idea of its scale.
BLOCK: Are there some expressions that there really just aren't emojis for, where you have to go back to plain old words?
HU: I think that's true. I mean, I don't think we're ever going to get completely away from words. But I like this notion that certain stickers or images can evoke a shared pop culture understanding.
BLOCK: That's NPR's Elise Hu. She reports and blogs and emojis from Seoul, South Korea. Elise, thanks so much.
HU: You bet.
BLOCK: What is the verb form of emoji? I don't know.
HU: (Laughter) I don't either, but I kind of like it.
BLOCK: OK, so why not take all of this to its most extreme conclusion - emojis as a real language. Serious linguists might scoff, but Fred Benenson is working on it. He edited the book "Emoji Dick" back in 2009. It's a translation of "Moby Dick" entirely into emojis. Now he's working on something called The Emoji Translation Project.
FRED BENENSON: The hope is that at the end of the day, we'll have something like Google Translate for emoji.
BLOCK: Don't we all sort of interpret emojis in slightly different ways? I mean, my version of smiley face with a tongue sticking out might not be exactly your interpretation of that same symbol?
BENENSON: Yeah, and I think that's kind of OK. I mean, I've found myself in this position where everyone is saying that I'm trying to establish emoji as a language, and we could get there. I don't think we're there yet, but I think we are certainly capable of establishing more formal grammars around it.
BLOCK: You know, I'm looking at one of the blurbs on "Emoji Dick" from some years back. Somebody writes, that's astoundingly useless. Do you get that a lot?
BENENSON: Yeah. I mean, what happened was is that I'd presented this project as like, oh, here's a useful translation of "Moby Dick" into something that everyone can interpret. As soon as I started digging into it, it just felt more and more like an art project that had this absurd and provocative premise that I just had to continue and push to its limit. So the astoundingly useless quote was kind of exactly the point.
BLOCK: Well, Fred, thanks for talking to us about it.
BENENSON: No problem.
BLOCK: And you can't see me right now, but I'm giving you an emoji thumbs up and an emoji...
BENENSON: I'm giving you the...
BENENSON: ...Emoji wave (laughter).
BLOCK: Fred Benenson is head of data at Kickstarter and a software engineer. We were talking about The Emoji Translation Project for this week's All Tech Considered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.