If you keep up with tech news at all, or if you are like me and you were forced to watch a minute long YouTube ad about it almost every time you click on a video, you may have heard about the new iPhone XS and iOS 12. More specifically, you may have had to witness the latest bastardization of the emoji, cutely named Memoji.
For those that haven’t yet witnessed it, the Memoji is the latest product of the refined face recognition feature, that the U.S. National Security Agency most certainly isn’t making use of, on the iPhone. This feature allows iPhone owners to not only craft an emoji after their own likeness but also superimpose it over their own face to be used as a sort of techno-mask. The resulting effect is rather disorienting and funny, in an off-kilter way, but it also conjures questions as to where exactly all of our technological advancements are leading us.
Emojis have been around since the beginning of online chat rooms where the early internet colonists discovered the first emoticons as they attempted to find shortcuts to emotional nuance. In 1999, the first real emojis were created for use in Japan, twelve years later Apple added the first emoji keyboard to their operating system and the rest is history. As of today, emojis are a part of a global vernacular, “a lingua franca for the digital age” as WIRED magazine coined it. In a 2017 study by Edge Hill University, researchers found that as much as 92% of internet users are making use of the new language.
Although emojis consist of relatively simplistic images, researchers found that emojis serve an important purpose in the online conversations that have become such a dominant part of human interactions because they take the place of nonverbal interaction. Emojis are to online discourse as a smile or a middle finger are to face-to-face interaction; they supply nuance to the verbal communication. The effectiveness of emojis relative to regular nonverbal communication isn’t clear as the study admits that legitimate research into emoji use is limited. While one could certainly make the case that the increase in online interaction could result in a decline in literacy in nonverbal communication, a 2017 CNN article cites a study in which it was found that those who made regular use of emojis were more sociable, empathetic and approachable.
This is all to say that emojis have not been effectively shown to have a negative effect on the state of human interaction and if anything has simply brought a new aspect to it. That said, Memojis bring the use of emojis to a new, creepy place. Memojis as an idea are rather playful, a funny little trick along the lines of Snapchat’s face swap, but seeing that idea brought to life is disconcerting, to say the least. While there is nothing to suggest emojis are problematic for face-to-face interaction, this is because those faces and caricatures remain in the textual realm. Memojis emerge as problematic, even if only symbolically, because they represent technology quite literally standing in between face-to-face interaction, altering it beyond recognition.
The immediate response to this neat trick is to laugh; it’s merely an absurd toy that will get old within a few months. The issue lies in its representation of a growing comfort in society with altering our natural interaction with something utterly unnatural, a forged image endowed with the features we think, or more problematically, we wish we had. As the language of the internet becomes more and more necessary, and as technology evolves, we may have to ask ourselves: How far are we willing to go?