How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

Japanese Shigetaka Kurita, the creator of emoji charachters. Kurita sketched out one of the first emojis in 1999 for an early mobile Internet platform. (AFP)
Updated 17 July 2019

How emojis dominate the world’s chatrooms

  • Considered one of the fastest growing languages in the world, emojis are getting more and more popular among different age groups
  • A language expert says while the emoji fad will not die down just yet, it will not replace words

DUBAI: What started as a Japanese invention has taken the world by storm, including in the Middle East where the use of emojis, a modern picture-based form, often features in online and phone texts.

Today is World Emoji Day, marking the rapidly evolving system that some suggest is a “major throwback” to primitive picture-based communication forms.

And the use of emojis in the Middle East has shown how these simple images help to cross language barriers — there’s little confusion over the smiley face, although the same cannot be said for some of the other images.

The culture of emojis has become so significant that a film has been made about them, “The Emoji Movie,” which was the first feature to receive a public screening in Saudi Arabia when the ban on cinemas was lifted in 2018.

The concept was created in 1999 by a Japanese artist, Shigetaka Kurita, to convey information such as the weather and traffic without having to spell out words like “cloudy” or “traffic jam,” for an early mobile Internet platform.

 Big tech firms such as Apple and Google picked up on the trend, which eventually led to its worldwide use.

The use of emojis, like any language, is constantly evolving, and the California-based non-profit corporation Unicode Consortium, the international body that regulates the use of text in digital platforms allowing users from all over the world to view web-based text in different languages and scripts, has devised a system that has standardized the process.

The fad quickly reached Arab and Muslim mobile users, who in 2015 were recognized in a new set of emojis that were culturally relevant to them — the Kaaba, prayer beads known as masbaha, and the flag of the Palestinian territories. In the Unicode 2017 update, the hijab emoji was added, demonstrating how emojis become relevant for different communities.

“Emojis help us express our feelings, in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language themselves,” Omar Sattar, a language professor at Skyline University Collegein Sharjah, UAE, said, adding that emojis “sometimes convey more than words.”

“Words are not as effective, as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words,” said Sattar, referring to the human inclination to use symbols and pictures to communicate.

Some linguists say that emojis are comparable to prehistoric communication systems, when the first humans carved symbols on cave walls, using them to convey and store information.


Linguist Vyv Evans, writing for the British newspaper The Guardian, suggested emojis were like the Egyptian hieroglyphs, the formal writing system of ancient Egypt.

Today, in an almost 360-degree turn, humans are using pictures again to talk to each other, especially when in 2007 emojis were officially recognized by the Unicode Consortium.

Tech giants Apple and Google then created a separate keyboard for emojis, further normalizing their use. Others adopted it, with organizations such as the EU using in official communications.

“Emojis have become part of our lives,” Sattar said. “We use them on a daily basis. Everybody uses them to express their feelings and emotions. Using them in official communication has become normal, especially when it comes to marketing and customer service. People actually react more when they see pictures.”

He said emojis, now at about 3,000 in number, have become a universal language that “transcends borders,” given that people “don’t have to learn grammar and or alphabets to be able to use emojis, as opposed to an actual language like Arabic or English.”

But Sattar said emojis were not going to replace words. “We have more and more emojis, and it’s going to be very difficult to remember all of these things, what they mean exactly, and how to use them correctly,” he said.

“We also need to remember that different platforms use different pictures — they are not the same. It’s going to be really difficult to remember and memorize all of these different emojis that would sometimes mean the same but would look different.”

Culture plays a crucial role in understanding and using emojis, said Sattar, explaining how one emoji can mean different things to people.

He said although emojis are a modern way of communication, they are still governed by cultural norms and can easily be taken out of context — in some cases to the point where people are jailed.

Reports by UAE dailies Khaleej Times and Emarat Al-Youm said a man was accused of defaming his colleague when he commented on a social media post with a fox emoji. The fox emoji signified cunning, deceit and trickery for the receiver, who filed a case against the sender.

Another problematic emoji in the region is the middle finger, which under UAE law is considered a form of indecent communication and could cause legal trouble for senders or land them in jail.

However, courts consider the relationship between the two communicating sides before giving a final verdict, ensuring there is a genuine intent to offend, lawyer Hamad Al-Debani told Emarat Al-Youm.

There are other emojis that could be deemed offensive in the region, including a number of animals, food and gestures.

Emojis help us express our feelings in terms of happiness, anger, surprise, shocks and so on. Emojis, right now, are considered a language in themself.

Omar Sattar. Language professor at Skyline University College

Since Muslims are prohibited from consuming pork and consider the pig as a dirty animal, the emoji should be used with caution. Dogs are another animal that can be used as an insult or a curse against other people in Arabic.

Emojis of alcoholic drinks could also be seen as offensive, as they go against Islamic traditions. In some Arab regions, the hand gesture where the index finger and thumb form an “O” and which means OK in a number of countries, signifies a threat and warning to the receiver.

In 2015, a virtual keyboard app company, Swiftkey, conducted a study on how speakers of different languages used emojis. They concluded that Arabic speakers use flowers and plants emojis four times more than average, and, are among the least likely to use alcohol-themed emojis.

They are also likely to use fruit emojis, dancing lady in red and stars. The most-used insect emoji by Arabic speakers is the ant, and among the flowers it is the rose.

Despite the early popularity of emojis, they did not always have as much variety as they do now. Between 2012 and 2015, a wave of popular demand for emojis to become more inclusive and representative in skin color and other specifications was on the rise, and Unicode adopted a set of new icons. 

The new update made it possible for users to change the skin tone of some emojis, specifically those that represented people and not just emotions.

There remains a plethora of emojis with cultural significance that are missing from the selection. For instance, although a number of Arabic dishes have an international presence, such as shawarma and falafel, they are still absent from emoji options.

However, Unicode accepts proposals for characters and fonts to be added if a proposal has not been submitted earlier. This means that with each update, the selection becomes more diverse and inclusive.


Police shut Al Jazeera TV’s Tunis office

Al Jazeera television said on Monday that Tunisian police had stormed its bureau in the capital Tunis. (File/AFP)
Updated 3 min 46 sec ago

Police shut Al Jazeera TV’s Tunis office

  • “Around 15 policemen, some in uniform others in civilian clothes, entered our offices and asked us to leave,” Al Jazeera director in Tunis Lotfi Hajji said
  • The move came a day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended parliament

TUNIS: Tunisian police on Monday closed the office of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera television in the capital Tunis, its bureau chief said, amid political turmoil in the North African country.
“Around 15 policemen, some in uniform others in civilian clothes, entered our offices and asked us to leave,” Al Jazeera director in Tunis Lotfi Hajji told AFP.
He said the law enforcement officers gave no reason for the actions, but confiscated the keys to the premises and forced all staff to leave.
The move came a day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended parliament, following a day of street protests against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Hajji said the police told Al Jazeera staff “we are following orders.”
“What is happening is very dangerous, it is proof that freedom of the press is threatened. Today it is Al Jazeera, another day another media,” Hajji said.
AFP contacted the interior minister for further details but no immediate explanations were given for the closure of the outlet’s office.

Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding

Updated 23 July 2021

Concern mounts about possible Turkish law on media funding

  • Top aide to Turkey’s president said this week the country needs a regulation on media outlets that receive foreign funds
  • Negative social media campaign targeted independent press outlet Medyascope and its founder, veteran journalist Rusen Cakir

ISTANBUL: Press freedom groups expressed concern Friday about comments by Turkish officials about possible legislation to regulate foreign funding for media and the dissemination of fake news, saying it could further curtail independent journalism in Turkey.
A top aide to Turkey’s president said this week that the country needs a regulation on media outlets that receive foreign funds. Director of Communications Fahrettin Altun said foreign media funding merits scrutiny when it comes from countries that “openly express their intentions and efforts to design Turkish politics.”
“We will not allow fifth column activities under new guises,” Altun said.
Turkish journalists flying back from a state visit to northern Cyprus this week reported that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s party planned to review later this year whether the country needs a law against disseminating fake news. They quoted Erdogan as saying Turkey would have to fight the “terror of lies.”
The comments came as a negative social media campaign targeted independent press outlet Medyascope and its founder, veteran journalist Rusen Cakir, for receiving funds from the US-based Chrest Foundation. The private philanthropy group has also funded non-profit organizations and foundations working in arts, culture and diversity.
Media Freedom Rapid Response and 23 allied groups said in a statement Friday that foreign funding was a critical source of income for independent news outlets in Turkey as they face government pressure. Mainstream Turkish media is mostly run by businesses close to the government.
“Taken together, these statements create the impression that the Turkish government is preparing to introduce new legal measures that will further undermine media freedom and pluralism in the country,” the statement said.
But Altun said similar regulations apply in the United States, where media outlets funded by foreign countries must provide information on activities to US authorities. Turkey’s state-funded English-language broadcaster TRT World was required to register as a foreign agent last year under the Foreign Agent Registration Act for lobbyists and public relations firms working for foreign governments. TRT then said its performed new slathering and reporting like any other international media.
Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkey at 153 out of 180 countries in 2021. The Journalists’ Union of Turkey says 38 media workers remain behind bars.

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

Updated 25 July 2021

Inside OSN Streaming’s digital transformation

  • How OSN delivered a digital-first product in six months

DUBAI: A year after OSN rebranded its streaming platform WAVO to OSN Streaming, it has unveiled a brand new digital-first platform, putting technology and content at its core.
In October 2020, OSN Streaming changed its look and feel, but the technology remained the same. It was around the same time that the company decided to digitally overhaul the platform, delivering an entirely new user experience. 
“My early estimation was that we need to have 12-18 months,” Peter Riz, chief technology officer at OSN, told Arab News.
However, six months was a “very aggressive timeline” for a development such as this, he added. Riz and his team had to devise a hybrid approach using six different modules to achieve this vision. The next step was to find a way to bring together the modules in a seamless manner, because running them separately was not sustainable or cost-effective.
The two key areas of the rebrand were multiple user profiles — including dedicated children’s profiles — and content presentation focusing on enhanced search and discovery.
Content presentation and discovery were critical to the user experience, said Riz. The first layer was presenting content to each user based on the general interests of that audience segment determined by factors such as age and location. 
The second and more challenging layer was navigating personal user preferences. For example, Western expats generally watch movies and shows from the West, but also like watching certain Arabic dramas, explained Riz. The platform was also designed to learn from user behavior and tailor recommendations over time.
Riz said: “We wanted to show users the content we believe is relevant, so the question became: How do we do this quickly, and how do we give all this control to the editorial and marketing team?”

The answer came in the form of a custom technological component called the Customer Experience Builder (CXB). “The CXB is a new type of innovation from a technical point of view,” added Riz, because it enables the company to add new features and updates to various touchpoints — such as the mobile app, web browser, and TV apps — through one common system.
Digital disruption has been driven, in part, by a rapid change in user behavior, making it more important than ever before for companies to be able to adapt and improve their digital services quickly.
“OSN was not only able to deliver this new platform very quickly using the CXB, but we can continuously improve the experience,” said Riz. From building the CXB from scratch to writing new code, the new platform is a technological innovation for OSN.
“We changed the entire environment,” said Riz. “There is no legacy code in the new environment so every line of code that the engineers created to deliver the service is new.”
Since the launch of the new platform, OSN has been making tweaks through the CXB suite every two weeks. “Most of the logic, or ‘magic’ as we sometimes call it, happens on the backend,” he added.
Although these changes are almost imperceptible to users, they have a profound impact on how people discover and watch content on the platform, said Riz, resulting in OSN doubling content consumption on the platform.
Streaming companies reached their peak during the coronavirus disease pandemic, as more people spent time indoors and cinemas shut down. The surge in new users has forced these platforms to innovate in order to sustain their growth.
So, what is next for these companies?
“The real differentiator is still the content and how we present this content,” said Riz. “We are continuously working to find new content sources and secure current partnerships.”
Streaming platforms, including OSN, are also looking for new kinds of partnerships that will see them diversifying into gaming and audio. OSN, for instance, partnered with multi-player video game “PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds” (PUBG) to provide PUBG Mobile players an exclusive opportunity to access the OSN Streaming app.
On the technology side, OSN continues to measure multiple factors such as streaming quality, load time, lags, or delays, to constantly improve the user experience. When there is a new update on any operating system, the company immediately runs tests to see if it affects the performance of the OSN Streaming platform. It is also working on adding alternative payment methods, in addition to credit cards, to the platform.
But, behind it all, “you need to continue that invisible, seamless and perfect technology,” said Riz.
It is all about “continuous improvement and continuous innovation to bring the content to the audience, increase the partnerships and support the entire digital economy to grow and unlock all the potential in the region,” he concluded.


Can Facebook’s $1 bn gamble help it regain lost cool?

Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but a large chunk will reportedly be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor. (File/AFP)
Updated 23 July 2021

Can Facebook’s $1 bn gamble help it regain lost cool?

  • Facebook announced last week that it will pay $1 billion to content creators of popular posts, including fashionistas to comedians and video gamers
  • This attempt, however, is being seen partly as an attempt to regain cultural relevance and stem the youth exodus

PARIS: Like Internet personalities the world over, Kenyan TikTok comedian Mark Mwas was intrigued when Facebook announced a $1 billion plan to pay content creators like him.
But the 25-year-old, whose following surged past 160,000 as entertainment-starved Kenyans flocked to the app during the pandemic, is skeptical that fans would follow him to the older social network.
“In our market, Facebook is kinda old-fashioned,” said Mwas, who posts skits about campus life in a mixture of Swahili, English, and Sheng slang.
“Like, Mom is on Facebook and doesn’t know what TikTok is,” he told AFP in an email. “My content is suited for the millennials, who prefer other platforms.”
Announced last week, Facebook’s $1 billion will pay the creators of popular posts, from fashionistas to comedians and video gamers, through 2022.
It is the strongest signal yet that the US social media giant now recognizes the strategic importance of the “creator economy.”
YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat have waged an increasingly fierce battle to attract figures with big followings that can in turn attract serious advertising revenues.
Last November, photo and video app Snapchat began paying $1 million a day to top creators, although the payments have since tapered off. Popular YouTubers have been receiving a slice of the site’s billions in ad revenues since 2007.
Facebook has been comparatively slow on the uptake. While the site began paying popular video-makers in 2017, most vloggers have found YouTube to be far more lucrative.
Facebook-owned Instagram has meanwhile launched the careers of many a food blogger and fashion influencer, but the app only began sharing its advertising income directly with them last year.
Traditionally, the bulk of Insta-celebrities’ earnings has come through product endorsement deals negotiated directly with brands.

Joe Gagliese, co-founder of international influencer agency Viral Nation, said it was not surprising that Facebook’s efforts had lagged behind competitors’.
Founded in 2004, Facebook had already built a hugely lucrative advertising business by the time the phenomenon of full-time Internet celebrities emerged at the end of the decade. Courting influencers wasn’t crucial to its “primary business,” Gagliese said.
But as creators have headed elsewhere, their predominantly young followings have followed — contributing to a sense that Facebook, in the eyes of Gen Z, has become an irredeemably uncool website where their parents hang out.
Facebook’s user base is indeed aging. The proportion of over-65s has shot up roughly a quarter over the past year — almost double the average, according to the Digital 2021 report from media companies We Are Social and Hootsuite.
In the meantime, Chinese-owned TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app in the first half of 2021.
It has largely replaced Facebook as the driver of international social media crazes — not least during the pandemic, as bored millions have turned to its dance videos and cooking trends for light relief.
In this context, Facebook’s $1 billion gambit is being seen partly as an attempt to regain cultural relevance and stem the youth exodus.
“The only way for these platforms to keep their relevance with younger generations is to understand what resonates with them and keep up with the pace of innovation,” said Claudia Cameron, head of marketing and insights at Amsterdam-based influencer agency IMA.
“Creators are a very important part of this equation, as they set the tone for what’s cool.”

While young users from Iran to Brazil have been flocking elsewhere, industry insiders say it is far too early to regard Facebook as doomed.
“You can’t underestimate them, because they are so powerful when it comes to the tech,” said Gagliese.
Facebook’s vast income — it raked in $84.2 billion in advertising revenues last year, more than the GDP of some countries — gives it huge funds with which to innovate.
It is also, despite its relative loss of street cred, still growing, with 2.8 billion monthly users worldwide.
Gagliese suggested Facebook should be spending far more on its efforts to lure Internet stars from other platforms.
“Unless Facebook leans in really hard — I’m talking, ‘way more than a billion dollars’ hard — it’s going to be very hard for them to attract all these new creators,” he said.
Facebook has yet to outline detailed plans for the $1 billion, but Cameron pointed out that a large chunk will likely be distributed via Instagram, which still enjoys a “cool” factor.
That would be good news for TikTok comedian Mwas, who also has a sizeable following there.
“I’m taking a wait-and-see approach,” he said.

Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content

Twitter has been subjected to a punitive slowdown in Russia for posts containing child pornography, drug abuse information or calls for minors to commit suicide. (File/AFP)
Updated 25 July 2021

Russia fines Facebook and Twitter for failing to delete content

  • Russia fines Facebook, Twitter and Telegram for failing to delete illegal content
  • This comes as the Russian government attempts to regulate tech giants by imposing small fines for content violations

MOSCOW: A Russian court fined US social media firms Facebook and Twitter on Thursday for failing to delete illegal content, the latest salvo in a standoff between Russia and Big Tech.
Russian authorities have taken steps in recent months to regulate technology giants more closely by imposing small fines for content violations, while also seeking to force foreign companies to open offices in Russia and store Russians’ personal data on its territory.
Moscow’s Tagansky District Court said it had fined Facebook a total of 6 million roubles ($81,320) for two different administrative offenses related to stipulations that website owners delete banned information or face penalties.
The court fined Twitter a combined 5.5 million roubles for two offenses. Messaging app Telegram was also ordered to pay a total of 11 million roubles for three offenses, the court said.
Facebook, Twitter and Telegram did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Other countries have called upon social media firms to do more to police content. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met representatives of platforms last week and warned that they would face fines amounting to 10 percent of their global revenues unless they removed hateful and racist content.
Twitter has been subjected to a punitive slowdown in Russia since March for posts containing child pornography, drug abuse information or calls for minors to commit suicide, state communications regulator Roskomnadzor has said.
Twitter denies allowing its platform to be used to promote illegal behavior, and says it has a zero-tolerance policy for child sexual exploitation and prohibits the promotion of suicide or self-harm.