Will the Apple Watch Reduce Messaging to Emoji and Stickers?

iOS 8 emoji skintone selector

Source: Apple.com

The Apple Watch isn’t the first smartwatch, but its launch has started a fascinating conversation about how wearables will influence our communication habits. Because of the small form factor of wrist-worn and other wearable devices, messaging apps will look to enable users to communicate as easily but as expressively as possible. But will messaging on the Apple Watch and similar wearables reduce our conversations to a shorthand of stickers and emoji?

Sam Byford reported for The Verge that messaging apps could be “the best thing about the Apple Watch.” He explains that Asian messaging apps like Line, WeChat, and Kakao Talk have set the pace for Silicon Valley. Additionally, all of these apps were on the Apple Watch at launch, where they’ve turned out to be a great fit for users’ messaging needs. And it all comes down to the popularity of stickers.

Most users in the United States have likely come across stickers, which Byford explains as “oversized emoji with more personality,” through Facebook Messenger. They’re a more prominent and essential feature for Asian users, and offer a quick and contextual way to enrich text conversations. Line, Kakao Talk, and WeChat all introduced similar Watch apps that enable users to reply to messages with stickers directly from the Apple Watch, and for users who are familiar with conversing with stickers, they can often be all you need to respond to a message.

“Stickers are a major reason that Asian chat apps are so engaging,” Bryant reports, “and that’s why they work so well on the wrist — it’s easier to convey delight with a deranged bunny grin than a clumsy sketch using Apple’s digital touch.” He adds, “it almost feels like stickers were made for the Watch.”

While a number of developers have created quirky and forward-thinking messaging apps for the Apple Watch, their ability to build compelling software has been limited because the WatchKit SDK doesn’t run on the watch itself, and instead depends upon the companion app installed on a paired iPhone, where all of the data processing happens. But native apps are coming with watchOS 2.0 and WatchKit 2.0, which will bring faster, more powerful apps to the Apple Watch, and likely demonstrate some of the device’s untapped potential as a messaging device.

With the limited screen size of the Apple Watch, communicating via emoji, stickers, and perhaps other short forms of messages are a natural fit. As Emma Bowman reported for NPR earlier this year, the usage of emoji across cultures and age groups suggests that “we’re entering an era of hybrid communication.” Asia’s most popular messaging apps actually encourage users to choose stickers instead of written words.

But the widespread use of all the pictures, in the absence of text to provide context and without a unified translation to clarify what they all mean, can actually complicate communication. That doesn’t look promising for the depth of conversations we’ll be having if messaging apps for the Apple Watch and similar wearables reduce our discussions to stickers and emoji.

Nick Stockton recently reported for Wired that emoji might be changing written English. And while languages change all the time, “the question is whether emoji will ride their cultural appeal long enough to become a discrete, complete means of communication” or if they’re destined to remain “a lexical fad.” Emoji aren’t a language, and in fact have many of the linguistic structural constraints of a pidgin, a new language created out of “extreme necessity” when people with two different languages come together.

You can’t use emoji to discuss a past or future event or a third party without setting up that subject with written words. The only way to pluralize is to add more emoji, and linking words like conjunctions and pronouns are completely absent. A pidgin gains those aspects only when it’s passed on to another generation and becomes a creole. Creoles have tense, nuance, and grammar.

Emoji is closer to slang than anything else. And like creoles or slang, emoji is used most fluently by youth. Emoji may seem like a new language to people who don’t use them natively, but adolescent linguistic fads “percolate out” in a few ways, as Stockton explains. “One, the people who used the lingo grow up. Two, older people catch on. Young people are the disease vectors in linguistic memes. Which is how emoji might die.”

How messaging apps for smartwatches and other wearables will evolve is just as impossible to predict as the future of emoji. But in both cases, it seems reasonable to hope that the modes of communication we experiment with won’t have a negative impact on our ability to have meaningful conversations with one another, whether we need to tap out a quick message from our wrists or are taking the time to pick up the phone.

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