The History of Emoji, GIFs, Stickers, and Avatars. How Nonverbal Communication Went Digital

In today’s digital age, communication has evolved beyond just texting. With the rise of social media and messaging apps, we have entered into a whole new world of digital “words” that have revolutionized the way we communicate online. From the humble beginnings of emoticons to the explosion of memes, gifs, stickers, and avatars, all of these digital assets have become a universal language that transcends borders and cultures.

With the involvement of VR/AR, 3D, and AI, these digital assets are becoming even more dynamic and personalized. In this article, we will explore the world of nonverbal digital communication and how it has moved from the real world to enhance our experience on the Internet.

The Beginning of Emoticons 

The precursor to an emoji is an emoticon (short for “emotion icon”). This is a combination of characters or punctuation marks that represent facial expressions. You may be surprised to learn that the very first recorded use of it was in the 17th century, during the early modern period. The English poet Robert Herrick wrote:

Tumble me down, and I will sit 

Upon my ruines (smiling yet:)

Teare me to tatters; yet I’le be

Patient in my necessitie.

Robert Herrick

Experts have since debated whether the use of the colon was intentional in order to represent a smiling face, or whether it was just a coincidence. The same thing seemed to happen with the transcript of one of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches, where the audience reaction was noted as “(applause and laughter ;)”. Was this a typo or an expression of laughter? The question is still open, and these are not the only examples of text markup that have been the subject of experts’ debate ever since.

In 1881, the Warsaw-based newspaper Kurjer Warszawski published “a typographical art” that could be considered as emoticons.

The Internet Gold Rush of the 1980s was the turning point for emoticons from being “art” to becoming a “means of communication”. Here’s how it happened.

In 1982, students and professors at Carnegie Mellon University were discussing a variety of topics on an internal forum.

“The problem was that if someone made a sarcastic remark, a few readers would fail to get the joke, and each of them would post a lengthy diatribe in response. That would stir up more people with more responses, and soon the original thread of the discussion was buried. In at least one case, a humorous remark was interpreted by someone as a serious safety warning.”

— recalls Professor Scott Fahlman in a blog post about the invention of emoticons.

He was the one who suggested using typographical marks to indicate whether a message was a joke or not. In a forum thread, he proposed using the sequence of : – ) to mark jokes and the sequence of : – ( to mark something that was not a joke. However, the latter soon evolved into a marker of disappointment or anger.

The idea spread dynamically across the university and other schools around the world, spawning thousands of variations. Since then, emoticons have become ubiquitous on the Internet (text messaging, email, forums) and in SMS.

Forty years later, in 2021, the first digital smiley was sold at an NFT auction for $237.500.

Emoticons Evolve Into Emojis. The Rise of Stickers, Gifs and Avatars


Since emoticons were originally created with just basic characters on a keyboard, the next step in their evolution was to replace their textual representation with images. Since the 1990s, some of them have been added to the Unicode standard, which is used to display characters in different languages consistently across all devices and platforms.

Over the years, emoticons have evolved into emoji, which represent not only facial expressions, but also places, common objects, food, flags, geometric shapes, and more. The word “emoji” comes from the Japanese e (絵, “picture”) and moji (文字, “character”), and is a reference to its predecessor “emoticon.” They became widely used in the 2010s after being added to the keyboards of mobile operating systems. As of today, emoji are represented in Unicode as a separate character block with 3.633 glyphs.


In 2011, the South Korean messaging app Line allowed users to send stickers — illustrations that could be thought of as anime-style emoji. They were larger and more detailed and could also include characters, objects, scenes, and even textual remarks. It was like taking stickers off your laptop and moving them to a messaging app.

Not only did this feature help users better communicate emotions, it also personalized their experience and saved them a lot of time writing messages. Instead of typing “OK” or “See ya!” (ideographs are tricky to type on a smartphone!), you simply tap a sticker with a cute character and send it to your friend. In addition to the Line app, the feature has been adopted by other messaging apps in Asia — Kakao Talk and WeChat.

Stickers tapped into the anime, comics, and cartoons that Asian users had always loved. Sticker’s characters became iconic. Some of the most popular are Milk and Mocha. They were everywhere — on plush toys, stationery, billboards, and TV.

Line has made millions of dollars from stickers alone: the company revealed that nearly one-third of its Q1 2013 revenue came from stickers, or as much as $17 million, according to The Next Web

In the Western region, Path, Facebook, Viber, and other services followed a suit and added stickers as a feature on their platforms. With these apps, stickers soon started to spread beyond the Asian markets. Even Mark Zuckerberg’s dog Beast got his Facebook sticker pack, which was lovely.

The financial success of stickers was not only based on selling stickers within an app. In addition to the merchandising strategy mentioned above, apps offered users gifting features and also charged brands to add their own sponsored sticker packs. 


Another revolutionary form of nonverbal online communication is GIFs — looping animated images. The format itself was invented in 1987. Once web browsers started supporting it, GIFs were widely used on blogs, forums, and websites as a useful tool for delivering memes or humorous clipart. They were relatively small, supported autoplay (though not audio), and could be viewed on any platform.

They nearly died out in the late 1990s due to patent issues but were resurrected in the early 2000s to reach the modern era. The rise of messaging apps and social media played a major role in their growth. In 2013, the launch of Giphy, a search engine for GIFs, made it possible to pull GIFs from anywhere on the Internet and bring them directly into the conversation within users’ messaging apps. If you needed to respond to a colleague’s email, why reply with a simple “Thanks!” or “Great news!” when you could insert a perfectly timed and expressive GIF of Michael Scott from The Office dancing in celebration?


The next turning point for GIFs was when social media giants started supporting GIFs on their platforms. Tumblr was one of the first to do so in 2012. Pinterest and Twitter followed a suit in 2014.

Facebook, which had been used to avoid supporting the format because of the risk of flooding its feed with low-quality memes, gave up in 2015. Ironically, having been hostile to GIFs from the start, it eventually acquired Giphy in 2020. The deal was opposed by British regulators, who forced Meta to sell the service.

In its purpose to protect the deal, Giphy has controversially confessed that GIFs are becoming outdated, and the company is seeing a decline in interest from both users and content creators. This, they believe, makes Giphy less attractive to buyers. However, researchers have been predicting the end of the GIF era since 2013, but the format is still alive and kicking, with a share of more than 20% of usage on websites, even if it has lost a large part of the share since 2012.


Much of the work in shaping the new visual language of the Internet has been done by avatars. The origins of the virtual representation of Internet users can be traced back to forums and video games. In social media, an avatar is often a photograph that reflects a user’s real-life personality. In online worlds or video games, it’s a two- or three-dimensional virtual simulation of a person.

In the early days, personal avatars could be created with a simple application like Bitstrips, which took social media by storm when the team released Facebook and mobile apps in 2013. You could go through dozens of rounds, choosing the shape of your face, eye color, or haircut — all drawn by the app’s creators. Bitstrips got a title as the most downloaded app in 40 countries and had over 30 million avatars created by its users in just two months after launch. Bistrips soon introduced a new app. Bitmoji allowed users to create stickers based on their own photos. The company sold the new product to Snapchat for a reported $100 million in 2016.

All of these forms have changed the way we communicate online, allowing us to express ourselves more easily and bringing non-verbal signs to online communication. Today, the sticker, gif, avatar, and emoji creation industry is embracing the next generation of technology. As technology continues to evolve, they are incorporating AR or AI features into their products, giving users the ability to add their items anywhere, from smartphone keyboards and smartwatches to video games and virtual worlds.

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