hilary reid

A couple of years ago, a trend popped up on Instagram: posts with screenshots of recently used emoji. In these posts, eggplants, dancing women in red dresses, and grinning purple devils were juxtaposed with palm trees, hands together in prayer, and that all-knowing pair of googly eyes. A fashion editor who I follow had recently used a cigarette, a martini, and a bomb. The idea was simple: our emojis provide insight into our inner lives. Who cares what we’ve actually said when an eggplant and a knife are worth a thousand words?

A Tumblr called “Emojianalysis” appeared, and the creator, a copywriter for the ad agency Droga5, wrote analyses of these screenshots. A double-heart paired with a face screaming in fear elicited the reply “What went wrong?” And in response to an octopus: “I'd love to tell you the Octopus is the sign of a great multitasker. But, the truth is, it's a sign of somebody who gets way too attached.” When I looked at my own recently used emojis, I didn’t need an analyst to tell me that the progression from affectionate-winking-kissing-smiling-face to eyebrows-raised-wailing-in-despair-face to the simple eye-roll-face reflected the course of a breakup earlier in the year. Figuring out the meaning of the oft-used Greek trophy and wheat blowing in the wind might take some free association.

Of course, Emojianalysis’s reports are tongue-in-cheek, and psychoanalyzing these tiny, everyday images satisfies the same kind of navel-gazing impulse as personality quizzes and daily horoscopes. But a more generous reading might render recently used emoji, and emoji overall, as a kind of digital Rorschach test for our time. I thought of this when I read about one of the Museum of Modern Art’s most recent acquisitions: the original 176 emoji.

Released in 1999 by the Japanese national carrier Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, NTT DOCOMO, the original emoji are the 12-pixel by 12-pixel, blocky, rudimentary cousins of the emojis we currently use. They were designed by Shigetaka Kurita, and first used as symbols of commerce—the martini glass simply signaled “bar”—and for weather reports. In 2010, emoji first appeared in Unicode, an encoding standard that allows the pictographs to be sent between phones in different countries and across servers without any change to the visual presentation of the image. Apple added an emoji set to the iPhone in 2011, and since then the standardized collection, with lighting bolts, pineapples, and black holes, has grown to nearly 2,000 emoji.

When MoMA announced the acquisition, I joked with a friend that we now had mini-art collections in our phones. It’s a fun idea, but not entirely true. In an email, Paola Antonelli, senior curator in the museum’s Department of Architecture and Design, clarified that Emojis are “great examples of design—not of art.” The emojis will join ball bearings and propellers, Post-It Notes, the @ sign, and digital typefaces in the Design Department, where the intent is “the celebration of simple objects of everyday use.” Still, Antonelli calls the original emojis “humble masterpieces.” The airplane—blue, pixilated, reminiscent of a fleur-de-lis—is her favorite.

Technology often has an anachronistic quality, even when new. Why is it that virtual reality headsets look as if plucked from a 1970s sci-fi film? Products like the Apple Watch or Amazon’s Echo pods have this effect, too: new objects that still betray a vision of the future we think we’ve been waiting for. They’re dated before they come into existence. And yet – somehow the original emoji elude this kind of anachronism. Perhaps it is because they are so simple. The current iteration provides an updated look, but no wit or verve would be lost if we returned to communicating with the originals. Something might even be gained: the original emoji fuse design with just a hint of emotion, and let us interpret the rest.

This winter, the original emoji will be on display in the lobby of MoMA, shown as 2D graphics and animations that connect the 1999 set to the present generation. The museum lobby strikes me as a particularly fitting place for the emojis: it is MoMA’s outward face where we buy tickets, check our coats, text our friends that we’ve arrived and are waiting downstairs. Visitors use their cell phones throughout the museum, but the lobby offers our last encounter with Manhattan beyond MoMA’s revolving glass doors. We slouch on Richard Shemtov’s amoebic red leather seats and send off a few last texts before ascending the stairs into the museum’s world.

Just a few floors above the museum lobby, another collection of faces is on display: those in the photographs of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency. A collection of 700 pictures taken in New York, Boston, and Berlin in the late 1970s and 80s, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is what Goldin calls “the diary I let people read.” I’ve spent three afternoons in the darkened room where images of lovers with mouths full of crooked teeth and spit pair with others whose now vacant, now joyful eyes meet the viewers’. We don’t know these people, and yet they are familiar. Each visit I’ve left feeling grateful that these faces of delirious happiness and brutal disappointment have been preserved, and each visit I’ve left with a different impression of who they might be.

The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is moving in a way that the emoji won’t—can’t—be. But like the visages in Goldin’s Ballad, the original emoji are a collection of faces and symbols from the past. They provide context to a digital present that can feel as if it fell from the sky, all at once. They give us an idea of the images—faces and otherwise—that we are just beginning to save for posterity. We might not know yet what a pixelated tennis racquet that looks like a lime can tell us about the way we communicate. But the two googly eyes are there, too, peering at us all walleyed and weird.