In which we blog about the marvellous intricacies of writing and editing.

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Sunday, 27 July 2014

The Semiotics of Emojis

For my debut CT! blog I have chosen to write about a subject that is enormously dear to my <3 – the complex world of emoji semiotics. Cross-browser compatibility prevents me from utilising them in the prose, but please enjoy an enlarged version of my Muse Of The Day: the glorious Nail Polish (née Personal Care) emoji:

The Apple iOS version, possibly the most eloquent of all the renderings.

Wait, emoji? Is that like an emoticon?

Nope. No word pictures here. No words at all, in fact. Emojis are tiny picture icons that can be inserted into text messages, emails and tweets. First developed in Japan in the late 1990s, they have since been standardised and added to a range of different devices and services across the world including: Apple iOS, Android handsets, Twitter, LG and Samsung phones.

The Nail Polish emoji as rendered on different platforms.
Android going for the bold single finger here.

Just hold on here. I have left my youth far behind me and I do not believe this subject is relevant to me 

It's true that the emoji has been dismissed many times as the inarticulate language of adolescence, but if we examine things more closely, it seems a language of extreme subtlety and esoteric regional dialects is being born before our eyes. The most commonly used emojis (and the ones that come in for the most grief) are the evergreen smiley face and heart combos, but there are hundreds of emojis whose meanings shift and slide beyond the purely representational to an expressive form.

The most recently-used emojis on my phone.
This reveals more about my inner life than I am generally comfortable with.

Think of it like this: in the same way that the Japanese have a word for someone who looks worse after a haircut (Age-otori), emojis provide a way of expressing complex emotional states in just two presses of the thumb. In fact, even if you have the temerity to be over 30, a Futurecasting article from NY start-up site Alley Watch [1] posits that: "In 2014 we are going to see emojis ... go mainstream and beyond teens and millennials ... A job of the future is 'emoji semiotics.'"

There is a PhD contained within this pairing alone [2]
To the uninitiated, all this can seem an unnavigable minefield. Fear not, however – Copy That! is here to help. So let's look again at the Nail Polish emoji.

Why is this emoji significant?
The Nail Polish emoji stands at a particularly potent junction between gender, race and class, a position that shifts significantly when viewed on different technological platforms. By way of illustration, let my Twitter feed break it down for you.

This is the purely illustrative interpretation – the Nail Polish emoji can denote a particular type of 'prettifying' self-care, literally illustrating when the user has gotten themselves all fancy. There are plenty of tweets that bear out this interpretation. I spent an hour watching the real-time NP tweets on Emojitracker [3], which shows the rate of Twitter usage of every emoji in real time. Like all worthwhile experiences, there's an epilepsy warning:

As you can see, the users of Emoji in a literal context were, as you might expect, young women who wanted to show off their manicures. I estimated the age range at 15 to 25, based on profile photos. This is a perfectly legitimate way to use an Emoji, but it doesn't really showcase the expressive qualities that might require the mythical Emoji Semiotician of 2014. However, there is another commonly accepted usage that is almost solely the property of Black Twitter [4] :

Here the meaning lies somewhere between a studied diss, a putdown that implies the user has more important things to deal with than the comment, gesture or attitude they're responding to, and, as @varanine [5] put it:

 photo Barbara-Stanwyck-Denies-The-Pass-At-Her-In-Baby-Face-Gif_zpsab2f0843.gif
"Stanwyckian haughty disdain for the mooted proposition."

It can also be used as a faux-disinterested acknowledgement of praise – the example I've harvested below is from a male user – it says something about this emoji's elasticity that what seems like an overtly gendered symbol can be happily used by someone who self-identifies as ThePussyologist.

So what does this mean for copywriting? Well, it's arguably incumbent on anyone who has an interest in language to take a real interest in the evolution of emoji and their meanings, if only so they can keep abreast of the nuances in digital communication. We are still at a point that emoji semiotics are extremely malleable and where meaning can be actively created. This is especially true where the gaps between Japanese and Western culture have created a vacuum between original intent and subsequent interpretation, leading to a corral of seldom-used emojis, ready to have new meaning assigned to them. We're not even close to needing a full-time emoji semiotician – we're still in our caveman state, learning the rudiments of this new language. And this is a deeply exciting state to be in. The fretting over the emotional vacuum of a :), to be found in too many op-ed pieces [6], is the panic of writers who lack the requisite fluency and curiosity to take this mode of visual linguistics seriously.

But, y'know:

Clicking on all images of Tweets will take you to their authors' individual feeds.

[2] Start your journey here.
[3] Emojitracker: they're not kidding about that flashing thing.
[4] There are lots of people more qualified than I am to talk about this phenomenon, which, like any community, is highly nuanced and multi-faceted. Start here and branch out.
[5] Source:
[6] Here's a recent example from The New Republic: Ambiguous, superficial, and cute, they’re perfectly suited to a generation that sends Hallmark e-cards ironically, circulates step-by-step guides to "being deep," and dismisses "deep meaningful conversations” as "DMC's." [link]

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Art versus Copy

True story: I’ve just won a major poetry competition. I’m about to get a profile boost. People will be googling my name and stumbling on my website. Good! I’ve been writing poems and making books for a decade now, and the more people know about them, the better.

But my website, like many writers’ websites, has fallen into disrepair. Not only is it not up-to-date; parts of it have stopped working altogether. Before I can celebrate, I’ve got to fix the old girl up, and in doing so, enter into an uneasy negotiation with myself about the merits - and the perils - of self-publicising.

By and large, writers - by which I mean fiction writers and poets - are bad self-publicists. They’re bad because they’re reluctant, and they’re reluctant because so much of the business of self-publicity seems grubby - even, dare I say it, shameful. Shameful that you aren’t important enough for someone else to be doing it for you. Shameful that you’re stooping to ‘sell’ yourself like a brand of washing powder. Shameful because what you really want to write about is other people, other subject matter. If you were an attention seeker, you’d have gone into stand-up comedy. As a writer, you want people to look at you only so that they can then look where you’re pointing. There’s something inevitably absurd about your name being rendered in imposing letters at the top of a web page, as if people were coming to watch you dance or make a speech.

But to think of self-publicising purely as a matter of touting one's credentials, or 'brand' management, or placing oneself centre-stage, is to miss the opportunity to treat it as a creative enterprise. Art and publicity are not on opposite sides of the fence, the former for dreamers, the latter for schemers. Good copy shares much in common with good poetry - it is memorable and concise. Both can be used to tell the truth or make a beautiful lie. The point is to bring people closer to something.

One of the hardest parts of renovating my website is cutting down the word count. I’ve written a lot of poems and made a lot of books, employing different techniques and making use of, so I’m told, ‘a wide frame of reference’. Every project is different. Heck, every poem is different. But I can’t expect a visitor to want to pick their way through a full run-down in the hope of finding something that piques their interest.

I have to start by introducing myself, just as if I were meeting them in person. If I want them to follow my outstretched finger, I have to be an engaging guide. It's just like the first page of a book, or the first line of a poem - nobody likes an infodump. A brief summary of what I do and some examples of the range I cover can, I find, be folded into a short explanation of the layout of the site. I do want visitors to wander, and become lost, eventually. In this respect, I intend to be treacherous. But initially, at least, I would like them to feel they’ve got the measure of me, so that the (inevitable) majority who only stay for the briefest of visits can go away with an accurate impression.

Complications and setbacks can provide an impetus to do something unexpected. wasn't available when I was shopping for domain names, so I had to settle for Not as catchy, but at least I can have some fun with it. I add randomised text above the masthead, so that instead of just being my name in bold type, it reads 'Go to your room, Jon Stone' or 'Go crazy, Jon Stone'. This performs two additional functions: it's a little self-deprecating, which weighs against the egoistic focus of the site, and the randomisation means the site looks slightly different on each return visit.

I deploy endorsements, but try to choose ones that accentuate something odd or unique about me, rather than general praise. I keep the menu headings simple, but use subheadings so that I can add a variety of content. I want the site to look neat and navigable, but to have hidden depth. This is, after all, the first creation of mine that some people are going to encounter, I reason, so it should reflect the skill and attention that characterises my best work. It should not seem like something perfunctory, something that exists because a publicist told me I had to have a website.

And that's it, right there. Self-publicising is grubby when it's treated as an artless enterprise. Say it with feeling, and it need not be so.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Steven Pinker on Academic Writing

Writers and editors might be interested in this lecture by Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker on style in academic writing, which I revisited yesterday ahead of the release of Pinker’s The Sense of Style, a style and usage guide informed by evolutionary biology. There’s lots of useful advice here, some of it familiar (keep in mind the "reader over your shoulder", show a draft to a non-specialist reader, and so on), and some of it quite surprising or radical-seeming, at least to this occasional academic writer. For example, Pinker advises against starting an article with a paragraph that positions the discussion within recent developments in the field ("In recent years, an increasing number of researchers have turned their attention to [XYZ]", etc.), on the grounds that most readers are interested not in what academics have been doing over the past few years but in the actual phenomenon under question. He is also no fan of "hedging", the insertion into sentences of qualifiers such as "somewhat", "fairly", "to an extent" and "in part", which obviously serve to protect the writer against accusations of overstatement, but which, Pinker claims, are not really necessary ("You can count on the common sense of readers to fill in the missing hedges"). In response to a question at the end, Pinker admits that conforming to all these principles may be a tall order, especially given the expectations of other academics, and that most authors will have to "muddle through in a middle way". But academic writing, like many things, is compromise; the value of well-reasoned advice is that it helps us recognise the opportunity to do better when it is there.