Digital is getting younger

‘I don’t want to grow up!’ – A return to childhood in the digital age.

Is digital getting younger a response to the increasingly younger digital native? Or is it, instead, a ‘head-in-the-sand’ response to the demands of a bleak, everyday reality?
There is an undeniable comfort in the escape to an illusory reality where expression can be executed on the most basic level. The refusal to adhere to the societal conventions of language can be seen as a form of social rebellion, a refusal to accept the current state of things, and ultimately, an indication of the desire to return to a romanticized and idealized state of innocence.

So why, when adulthood is associated with freedom and the ability to exercise personal autonomy, are we being constrained by an abundance of social media norms that prescribe a certain way of living that does not conform to modes of independence? A ‘like’ has become the currency of choice, and we slavishly communicate with followers, not friends.
This is the paradox of social media. Conceived to bring us closer together, it appears to be doing the opposite. The terminology ‘social media’ is in itself is a misnomer, with the emphasis not on networking or true human connection but on how we ‘brand’ our social identities to the world, selectively choosing the best parts of our lives to upload and share whilst discarding or ignoring those that don’t quite make the cut. This form of self-marketing has become progressively easier thanks to the increasingly wide-spread practice of visual communication.

Emoji and gifs (both static and animated) are replacing the written word, distorting the boundaries of age in the social media world. Text speak is no longer in fashion, with the rise of the emoji overpowering and eclipsing all forms of previous (and now out-dated) ‘txt spk’.

Emoji are universally recognisable, transcending language barriers and simplifying the way we communicate on a global scale. The unprecedented popularity of the emoji in 21st century communication was consolidated at the end of last year with the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’ winning ‘Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015’.
This award heralded the peak in a year of emoji frenzy, which saw the emojification of Moby Dick and Alice in Wonderland as well as brands such as Toyota and Coca-Cola using branded emoji on twitter as part of their marketing campaigns.

The word ‘emoji’ comes from the Japanese ‘e’ 絵 (picture) and ‘moji’ 文字 (character). Japanese telecom leader NTT DoCoMo first introduced a very basic form of the emoji in Japan in 1999. These rudimentary pixels soon grew into a more recognizable form of the emoji as we know it today, adhering to the Japanese concept of ‘kawaii’ or the quality of being ‘cute’.
This phenomenon is deeply rooted in a Japanese cultural tradition, which spans decades. Emerging in the 1970s, kawaii was initially conceived as a form of youthful rebellion against Japanese culture, demonstrated by the informal and cute writing style invented by Japanese students. This style of writing adopted the Western direction of writing left to right, as well as a liberal scattering of exclamatory symbols, hearts, and smiley faces. This trend was mainly popular amongst the female student population, continuing through to the 1980s where it manifested itself in many aspects of Japanese pop culture, highlighting the desire for immaturity and fun over the more rigid-structures of adult life and responsibility.

Language, then, becomes the medium of choice through which to protest against imposed social structures without resorting to aggression or violence. Defying the conventions of written and spoken language through visual communication may seem a passing fad, but given the speed of change in a globalised world, it will not be long before a new, faster, and more direct communication trend comes to the fore.

What does the future of social media look like? Does it mark the beginning of a journey to a society where post-language becomes the vernacular? Given the rapid speed of transformation and change, this is not an unlikely scenario, seen already with the evidenced crystallization of Internet related verbs including ‘google’ and ‘facebook’ as well as the transliteration of text speak and emoticons such as ‘LOL’ and ‘sad face’.

It should not be out of the question, therefore, to claim that someday, maybe soon, it will be the common acceptance that ‘an emoji speaks a thousand words’.

  • Digital is getting younger