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Our latest stakeholder magazine, Dialogue, is out NOW and here is one of our articles featured in the Spring 2016 edition.

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The way we communicate online has seen rapid changes over the last few years.

Emma Pugh takes a look at the image evolution.

Text messaging and social media have led to some of the most dramatic changes in our use of everyday language in any period of time.

Who has time to write a letter or even a lengthy email anymore? If a shortcut is available, it seems most people are happy to take it, even if it’s to the detriment of good, old fashioned English. Initial stages of omitted letters conveying ur xlnt wknd and letters for words when you could no longer c y u needed to write everything out were followed by numeral homophones (l8r), shortening (wot), colloquialisms and logograms (&). As for poor old punctuation? 4get abt it!

From the moment the social media scene took hold, a myriad of acronyms and initialisms appeared from yolo (you only live once) to gtg (I’ve got to go) and hagn (have a good night). It became all too easy to make gaffes if you didn’t keep up with the fast changing pace, as many celebrities and politicians found to their detriment. David Cameron famously signed off emails to Rebekah Brooks with lol – until she explained it meant ‘laugh out loud’, not ‘lots of love’. Such mistakes had those in the know rofl (rolling on the floor laughing).Then, just when everyone was getting used to the new terms, an increased use of predictive text and spelling checkers on both iPhones and androids led to a significant reduction in abbreviations. All change again.

But now, it seems there is no need for words at all. Not when a picture can speak a thousand. Enter the era of the emoji. Originating from Japan and described as the ‘first truly global language’, there are hundreds of images to choose from to convey an endless array of emotions and situations. Billions are sent out each day, and, with Facebook upgrading its ‘like’ buttons to a choice of six emojis, the icons’ popularity continues to grow.

Many were incredulous when the Oxford Dictionary 2015 ‘word’ of the year was revealed not to be a word at all but an emoji. The ‘tears of joy’ emoji usurped pretenders such as fleek (attractive) to take the top spot. This had some displaying, well, emoji tears of despair. While it may seem bizarre that the word of the year wasn’t even a word at all, there’s no denying that in the digital age emoji culture appears to be well and truly embedded. Whether you’re feeling romantic, angry or bored, it’s easy to convey and images are available to depict everything from flora and fauna to lunch options and travel destinations.

It’s part of a changing environment where communication in general has gone from being text based to much more image led, with photographs, images, screengrabs and emojis all increasingly taking the place of words.

Mike Thelwall, Professor of Information Science at the University of Wolverhampton and leader of its Statistical Cybermetrics Research Group, believes this change is part of an ongoing evolution. He has analysed extensive images shared on platforms such as Twitter, with personal photographs used to show what users are doing. A photograph of a new pair of shoes can now serve as a reminder to a friend about an arranged night out, taking the place of traditional text communication.

“I think people are becoming less verbal and more visual. They are communicating more and more through pictures rather than words,” says Professor Thelwall. “If you like a song you’re listening to, 20 years ago you might have called a friend to tell them about it, five years ago you might have texted, now, people just take a screenshot on their smartphone and send the image on. A picture says it all without needing to speak.”

He says that sending an image is so easy and inexpensive now that it’s easy to see why it has become so commonplace.

“I don’t think it’s either a good thing or a bad thing – it’s just an evolution,” he says.

In terms of language, University of Wolverhampton students will be able to examine the emoji effect further,with linguistics academics planning a new module which includes detailed consideration of computer-mediated interaction. So, it’s time to embrace visual communication. It’s here to stay. A yellow face, panda or photograph of some shoes may just convey exactly what you needed it to.

And everyone smiles in the same language.




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