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July 2, 2014

A messaging app that doesn't use words at all

I ignored the Yo app — yes, the one that lets you send the word "Yo" and nothing else — even after it was covered by Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal. I ignored it when it passed 1 million downloads and raised $1 million in funding. I kept ignoring it when clones proliferated, one of them only able to say "Hodor!" like the laconic character in "Game of Thrones."

I knew Yo could only be a passing fad, and statistics seem to bear that out. The app, which on June 20 reached 4th place overall in number of downloads from the U.S. App Store, had dropped to 269th by June 30, according to App Annie.

I'm not so sure the latest app craze will prove so transitory, however. About 10,000 people have signed up for usernames for a chat app that isn't even out yet: Emoj.li. It's an instant messenger app that uses no words at all — not even "Yo" or "Hodor!" Instead, it employs only emoji icons. The app's creators, Matt Gray and Tom Scott, list "Yo" as an inspiration. "We weren't sold on it until we realized that usernames should be emoji too," the founders told Forbes in response to written questions. "At that point, we burst out laughing and realized we had to build it."

My username is two emojis — a pig and a penguin. I suspect it will soon be difficult to get a two-character one: There are only 943,812 two-character permutations of the 972 characters in Unicode 7.0.

Apps for non-verbal communication have been created before, but they were meant for autistic children and others who have difficulty communicating with words. Emoj.li is a communication tool for a growing cohort that dislikes words or is no good with them: Generation Z. Members of Generation Z, born in the 1990's, frequently prefer emoji to communicate. (Perhaps at a cost: 68 percent of schoolteachers say digital tools reduce the effort students put into their writing. Why should they struggle when a picture is worth a thousand words?)

We old-fashioned verbal people can also have fun with emoji, turning communication into an endless guessing game, devising elaborate emoji puzzles for lengthy novels and complicated plot lines. Last year, the Library of Congress accepted the novel Emoji Dick, engineer Fred Benenson's remake of Herman Melville's masterpiece. Mashable.com has translated 20 great novels into emoji.

In other words, not only the verbally challenged can play this game, which is why I signed up. (Well, also because my 11-year-old daughter uses more emoji than words in her text messages; that's her preference.)

The speed with which we communicate is driving us to use simpler forms of interaction that dehumanize exchanges. When humans communicate primarily in icons, computers will be much more likely to pass the Turing test because emoji messages are much more vague and open to interpretation than natural-language ones. Algorithms meant to discern emotions, too, will have an easier time of it: A smiley face is a smiley face, and a sad one is a sad one. Sarcasm can be expressed with emoji, but there is a risk that even the person it is meant for will not get it.

I make money writing stories, so I'm a bit uncomfortable watching the evolution of the zero-word trend. There is still room for hope, however: Perhaps a hybrid language — part verbal, part pictorial — can become even more expressive and nuanced than either form by itself.

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