Emojis are officially museum pieces

emojis NTT MOMA

About 2.1 billion people this year – that’s everyone with a smartphone – probably speaks emoji. And now the little squiggly illustrations that pepper everything from WhatsApp conversations to blog posts to cushions are museum pieces.

The AP reports that the original set of 176 emojis released in 1999 by Japan’s Nippon Telegraph and Telephone company have now found their way into New York’s Museum of Modern Art, that arbiter of all things cool. They’re a gift from NTT apparently.

The tiny 12-by-12 pixel designs — smiley faces, hearts of the intact and broken variety, cats, and so on — were created in 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese computer program technologist. They remained a largely Japanese fixture until 2010.

That’s when the Unicode Consortium, which now controls emoji standards, translated the emoji into the Unicode standard, which means that a person in France, for example, can send an emoji to a person in the US and it will look the same.

The little icons are so popular that the Oxford Dictionary named the smiley face the word of the year in 2015.

Even better, one professor — yep, an actual serious person — attributes their popularity to the fact that they allow people who speak different languages to communicate with each other. “We are living in a post-alphabetical world, and there is not just one form of literacy,” says Marcel Danesi, a professor of linguistics and semiotics (the study of behaviours in communication via symbols and signs).

Whether this new museum induction means the cool kids will all adopt a new language soon remains to be seen!