We'll Soon Communicate Without Words

A new messenger app uses no words at all. 
The new picture book?

I ignored the Yo app -- yes, the one that lets you send the word "Yo", and nothing else, to another person -- even after it was covered by Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal. I ignpored 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 The Game of Thrones.

I knew Yo could only be a passing fad, and statistics seemed to bear me out: the app that reached 4th place by number of downloads from the U.S. App Store -- not in any particular category, mind you, but overall -- dropped to 269th place by Monday, according to App Annie.

Now I'm not so sure, 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 in which words are not allowed at all, -- not even "Yo" or "Hodor!" -- only emoji icons. The app's creators, Matt Gray and Tom Scott, list "Yo" as an inspiration for their product. "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 looks like this: ????????. I suspect it will be difficult soon to get a two-character one: There are only 943,812 such permutations in a set of 972 characters (that's how many emoji there are in Unicode 7.0).

Apps for non-verbal communication have been created before, but they were meant for autistic children and other people who have difficulty getting their thought across through the use of words. Emoj.li is a communication tool for a growing group of people who dislike words or are no good with them: members of Generation Z, people born in the 1990's, talk in symbols (see Slide 35), and emoji are one of their first choices. 68 percent of schoolteachers say digital tools make students more likely to take shortcuts and put less effort into their writing, and why should they when a picture is worth a thousand words?

We old-fashioned verbal people can also have fun with emoji, turning our communication into an endless guessing game, devising elaborate emoji puzzles for verbose 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. And here's how 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. She doesn't need the discipline of being unable to use anything else: that is her natural preference.

The speed with which we now communicate is driving us to simpler forms of interaction that dehumanize exchanges. Using pictures alone lends itself easily to the kind of mechanical mathematical analysis that natural languages have long resisted. When humans start communicating 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 zero-word trend develop. There is still room for hope, however: Perhaps a hybrid form of language that is part verbal and part pictorial can even be more expressive and nuanced than either of the two pure forms.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.