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We all love to emoji, but why? In a new essay in the New Inquiry, technology scholars Kate Crawford and Luke Stark count the ways.

“They are the signs of our times,” Crawford, of the MIT Media Lab and Microsoft Research, and Stark, from NYU, write, just as two social networks just for emoji take off: Emojili, announced in June, and Makemoji, which launched in the Apple App Store this week.

They trace a brief history of the emoji, from the roots of the smiley face in 1960s corporate America, through smiley faces on T-shirts, to the character wars between Japanese telecoms, each racing to include a copyrighted character set for their customers.

Emoji give us a chance to soften the end of an email, and add a sprinkling of humanity in otherwise distant online interactions.

But there’s a flip side, too. They’re yet another way for companies to gain tidy spoonfuls of data about what their users are doing, and how they’re feeling:

“…if a feeling can be summed up in a symbol, then theoretically that feeling can be more easily tracked, categorized, and counted.”

But, by speaking for us in a way, they also limit what we want to say.

Lots of neat stuff. Read the whole piece here.

Image of emoticons via Shutterstock

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and innovation for BetaBoston. Email her: nidhi at betaboston dot com Follow Nidhi on Twitter - Google+

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