Emoji: the modern ideogram language

If you read any amount of online material about emoji written by someone older than the age of 25, much ink is spilled lamenting the state of modern language and the infiltration of emoji and emoticons into it. “I don’t know what these kids are saying!” and variations on that theme are the primary complaint.

Yet if you look over the long history of language, emoji and emoticons are nothing new. In fact, they’re very, very old from a conceptual perspective. Emoji are small pictures used in place of text; their meaning is inherently based on the image selected, and may or may not have any associated pronunciation.

Does this sound familiar? If you’re a scholar of languages such as Egyptian, Sumerian, or Chinese, emoji should sound like very familiar territory. These languages and many other early languages are ideogram or logogram languages, in which the characters began their lives as actual pictures.

Here’s an example of modern emoji and their Chinese equivalents:


At the top are the modern emoji. Below that are the Chinese characters for sun and moon. Below that is the compound ideogram for brightness, a combination of sun and moon.

As a marketer, what should you take away from this? Treat emoji not as a passing fad or something that only “young people” do. Treat emoji for what it is: another form of language.

MFA Mummies
Original emoji from Egypt at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Like any language, emoji usage has a syntax and structure; more powerfully, because the images are literal and not symbolic, emoji transcend word-based language barriers. A piece of marketing creative that used emoji exclusively could probably be read in more countries than a piece of creative using only your native language. Consider how, instead of closing your mind to emoji, the language could open many more doors for your marketing.

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Sometimes you do need better tools

On September 27, 2015, we got a chance to experience the Super Blood Moon, a full lunar eclipse while the moon was at perigee, its closest point to Earth. This is an event that happens infrequently; prior to 2015, the last occurrence was 1982, and the next occurrence will be 2033.


More than a few people remarked online that their smartphone wasn’t cutting it. This is absolutely correct; think of the smartphone as more or less a great landscape camera. It’s good at wide angles. Smartphones are what photographers refer to as sneaker zoom cameras – to get a better close up, walk closer to your intended subject.

Obviously, when the subject is in outer space, this is significantly harder to do. That’s when you do need better equipment.

Normally, photographers of all stripes – myself included – will say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and that’s generally sound advice. There are rare occasions when only good quality, specialized equipment will do, however, and a super blood moon is one of them.

However, even in the case of a super blood moon, the equipment is not enough. The equipment is the table stake, the bare minimum you need to get in the game. You also need the knowledge of how to use the equipment properly. The super blood moon – and many other astronomical events – require knowing about exposures, shutter speeds, apertures, and ISO settings to get the most out of the equipment.

The super blood moon required significant changes during the event, going from capturing only some of the light (because the moon was so bright, it was easy to overexpose) to capturing every last photon available at the peak of the eclipse.

The super blood moon required the right tools and the right skills in order to maximize the opportunity. Obviously, if you had only a smartphone, you did your best. If you had a DSLR with a zoom lens, you could do more. If you knew the inner workings of your camera, you got the most out of your setup. When opportunity arrived, the results you got were proportional to the investment of resources and knowledge you had.

This is also true of your marketing, and anything else you do. The better prepared you are, the more you can leverage every opportunity that comes your way. Always do your best, but recognize that sometimes,

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Find your spirit, and no challenge will keep you from achieving your goals

There’s a quote of mine from a while back that’s become fairly popular:

find your spirit.png
“Find your spirit, and no challenge will keep you from achieving your goals.”

What does this mean, exactly?

In the Japanese martial arts, we often refer to mind, body, and spirit. We seek to improve each:

  • To sharpen our minds to see answers under difficult, stressful situations
  • To build endurance, health, and strength so that we can overcome challenges
  • To develop our spirit, the energy that gives us resilience in times of trouble

The quote above reflects the latter. Our spirit is the essence of who we are and why we fight (when we have to). A strong mind and a strong body are largely unhelpful if your spirit withers easily under duress, if you give up too soon, if you can’t withstand difficulty.

How do you find your spirit? One of the best exercises I’ve done is a simple inquiry-based meditation, where you make a list of all the things you think you are. You are brave, you are strong, you are good-looking, you are smart, etc. as exhaustively as possible over the period of a few days. Then you start considering how true those statements are, whittling away at them.

  • Are you brave? Are there conditions under which you would not be brave?
  • Are you strong? Are there life circumstances that could render you not strong?
  • Are you good looking? For how long?
  • etc.

When you’re done, repeat the exercise with new inquiries. If the first round of attributes are transient, inquire within yourself for things that are less transient, things that have always been there, and then whittle away at those.

Repeat the process until there’s nothing further you can do, and what you have left is you, the essence of you.

That’s how you find your spirit; after that, you need only work on strengthening it by testing yourself (usually under the guidance of an expert teacher like my teachers Mark Davis and Stephen K. Hayes) until very little can shake you.

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