Extending The Alphabet: Memes As Language

We are rewiring our brains to use images as language. Through technology, we are extending the alphabet – in practice, and in our minds.

Extending The Alphabet

Twenty-six characters are no longer the sole building blocks of the English language. And it doesn’t apply to this language alone – we’ve extended the alphabets of practically every language that is still in use.

This process started with online “smilies” – 🙂 – way back in the early days of the internet. The Japanese pushed this even further, as they are prone to doing. But instant messaging in the nineties really brought widespread adoption of the extended alphabet – especially through “emoticons”, icon-style images of various expressions that were available on a separate text entry window.

Today, emoji are just as much a part of the alphabet as the letters A through Z are. It’s not just young people – older technology users as likely, if not more so, to use emoji. Many sent messages are composed entirely in emoji, and they’re frequently used as an easy way to open or close a conversation.

Challenging Language

Emoji themselves are becoming outdated, giving way to even more expressive images. A large part of this is seen in the rise of “memes”, as they’re understood by the general public. Regular readers will know that memes are units of information, but that certainly includes the image macros and GIFs which fit the average person’s definition.

Memetics means we won’t speak the language of the future, as computers communicate with one another. But increasingly, we’re unable to even speak the language we use to communicate with one another online.

How do you verbalize an emoji? How do you verbalize a GIF?

Rewiring The Brain


I found this tweet hilarious, as many others did. But it’s funny in part because it touches on something we’re all familiar with: the internet is changing how our brains work.

Our brains are efficiency machines. If they don’t need to remember things, they outsource memory to Google. If all sources seem the same, we forget to distinguish between information sources. If we don’t need to use words, we stop thinking in words.

You might be familiar with GIPHY Keyboard. It’s a separate keyboard app that allows for rapid search, retrieval, and sending of animated GIFs. I’ve used it at work, as an extension for the Slack instant messaging app, and personally, as an iOS keyboard extension. While using it, especially in group chats, you notice that eventually all conversations degenerate into GIF-filled back-and-forths. Images speak a thousand words, and they are more powerful memetically. This means they’re selected for, which means they end up dominating words in conversation. It’s easier to be funny, or witty, with images, especially when you can rapidly scan the entire web with a single keyword and instantly insert a relevant image. Images get more likes, take more space in the conversation, and get better reactions. Our brains begin to bias themselves towards communicating in images.

Where does this path lead? Time will tell. But there’s a couple things I’d expect:

  • Successive generations will become increasingly poor at using words to communicate, having grown up with memetically superior image macros and GIFs
    • Anyone who’s had the misfortune of reading a couple BuzzFeed articles will recognize this is taking place already
  • We will begin to think in images first when communicating
    • You have probably defaulted to emoji-first thinking a couple times, and almost definitely been on the receiving end. Worse, you may have received a message from a friend that lists out the name of a gif, filename included; showing that they’re thinking in gifs. I’m ashamed to admit I’ve sent a few myself. For example: “duck_laugh.gif” to refer to this:
      duck_laugh.gif

Once you notice this, you’ll start to see it everywhere. These are interesting times for language. Slang ain’t just words any more.


I promise to keep my articles word-heavy, until we stop using them. Join thousands: subscribe for email updates and follow me on Twitter, where I also post daily.

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