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The Melting Face Emoji Has Already Won Us Over

There are times when words feel inadequate — when one’s dread, shame, exhaustion or discomfort seems too immense to be captured in written language.

That’s where the melting face emoji comes in.

The face, fixed with a content half-smile even as it dissolves into a puddle, is one of 37 new emojis approved this year by the Unicode Consortium, the organization that maintains the standards for digital text. Other emojis that made the cut include saluting face, dotted line face and a disco ball.

These new emojis will roll out over the course of the next year. But already the melting face has found fans on social media, who see it as a clear representation of the coronavirus pandemic’s vast psychological toll.

“This melting smiley face is quite the pandemic mood,” one Twitter user said.

Others viewed the new emoji as a visual proxy for climate anxiety. “Something tells me that in this climate change apocalypse era, we’re going to be using the new melting face emoji a lot,” another user wrote.

The melting face was conceived back in 2019 by Jennifer Daniel and Neil Cohn, who connected over their mutual appreciation for visual language. Ms. Daniel, who uses the pronouns they and them, is an emoji subcommittee chair for Unicode and a creative director at Google; Mr. Cohn, an associate professor of cognition and communication at Tilburg University.

Mr. Cohn had published some work on representations of emotion in Japanese Visual Language that caught the eye of Ms. Daniel. In Mr. Cohn’s research was “paperification,” which, according to him, is “what happens in a manga sometimes when people become embarrassed, they will turn into a piece of paper and flutter away.”

He and Ms. Daniel realized there wasn’t an existing emoji that evoked that visual convention, so they decided to pursue one and eventually landed on the melting face, which Ms. Daniel described as “more visceral” than turning into paper. The same idea is also sometimes depicted as a solid becoming liquid, they added.

Many of the best face emojis “rely on conventions that already exist in other places in visual culture, and one of the main drivers of this is comics or manga,” said Mr. Cohn. He also noted that many of the face emojis from the original emoji set use expressions from manga.

In 1999, the first emojis were created by a Japanese artist named Shigetaka Kurita, who found inspiration in manga. They were designed to facilitate text-based communication; NTT DoCoMo, the Japanese mobile phone company, had a 250-character limit on messages sent through its mobile internet service, so shorthand was key to getting one’s point across. The original set of 176 emojis designed by Mr. Kurita is now part of the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

Today, even without character restrictions, emojis can still communicate emotions with greater ease, speed and flexibility than words can.

The melting face is no exception. On the more literal side, it can be a way of expressing, say, the sensation caused by a broken air-conditioner. Figuratively, it can be used to convey how one feels after an embarrassing interaction with a crush, the exhaustion of living through a pandemic and, of course, sarcasm.

“It evokes a metaphoric frame or metaphoric knowledge base that should be relatively accessible to people — the notion of melting,” Mr. Cohn said. That concept can then be applied to all kinds of emotions.

All emojis “are usually designed with the intention that they can be used in flexible, multifaceted ways, in the same way that many words can be flexibly used,” Mr. Cohn added.

And visual language, of course, can be even more elastic than words. “Illustration can do things that reality can’t,” Ms. Daniel said.

Case in point: “melting face” and its myriad interpretations, many of them quite affecting.

“Emojis aren’t inherently deep,” said Erik Carter, the graphic designer who created the sample image for the melting face. “It’s how people use them that makes them profound.”

He offered a reading of his own. Many of us, he said, may feel hopeless because of things like climate change, or “our government’s inaction.” “Sometimes,” he said, “it does feel as though the best we can do is smile as we melt away.”

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