The harbingers of Friday's Spring Festival, at least for me, are not the ubiquitous traditional red lanterns nor my parents' busy preparations in my home province Anhui for the family reunion dinner. Instead, they are emojis, the most exciting segment of China's digital economy.
Emojis are making sure millennials－people like me, born in the late 1990s and 2000s, and the mainstay of cyberspace－wouldn't miss out on all the spring-time fun.
These days, my WeChat space is saturated with a plethora of festive emojis, be it an adorable duck shaking its head and saying "Happy New Year" or a cutesy meditating monk waiting for a red envelope gift.
I find these to be great mood elevators. Besides, emojis I down-load or receive from friends inform me about certain aspects of Chinese culture, history, leg-ends, heritage and language. They are also big business－read my stories alongside for details.
There's an emoji ecosystem out there－individual artists, groups of illustrators, content firms, IP marketing and licensing specialists, apps, websites, manufacturers, product peddlers, retailers, service providers … all working in tandem at various levels, to make millions of users smile, laugh, enjoy, share happiness, express emotions … through emojis.
If they like an emoji, users tip its creator(s). Sometimes, users pay to download these stylized sets of images. There is money in emotions.
I can spend a whole day communicating with my friends through instant messengers without ever keying in a single word. An army of animated emojis of funny boys, girls, men, women, imaginary creatures and objects stored in my smartphone can do all the talking.
And I'm beginning to suspect they express what I want to convey better than any lines that I may write. Accuse me of being lazy, unimaginative or whatever, if you will. I'll forgive you if you say I've outsourced part of my personal communication tasks to emojis.
The other day, I learned my best friend is going to get hitched soon. I congratulated her by sending an emoji of a girl hugging another girl, with tears of joy rolling down their cheeks. When a colleague helped me finesse a rather difficult news story, I expressed my gratitude by messaging an emoji image of a chubby duck blowing kisses of red hearts.
There are emojis for every occasion, every mood, every emotion. Besides their utilitarian value, emojis often rescue me from embarrassing or delicate moments, when written messages may be perceived as insincere or inapt. For instance, when I wanted to apologize for not being able to help a friend, I messaged him an image of a little soldier saying "Sir, I'll help you next time!"
I can't probably thank emoji artists such as Liu Wenjia enough for enriching and simplifying my life. Liu, 27, whose Weibo (Twitter-like microblog) account appears under the pseudonym Liu Ayuan, has been creating emojis for a year now. Her squab duck emoji has been downloaded by WeChat users more than 17 million times.
"Emojis are developing rapidly in China. More businesses are paying attention to this segment, more artists are creating emojis, and more consumers are buying them. Besides merely using them in their messages, users are falling in love with emojis, and tipping their creators," said Liu.
Agreed Chen Jialu, who works with an internet-based firm in Beijing. "I tip emoji artists often because their works are really interesting. I use them so often in my messages that not tipping the artists might seem unfair. After all, their creativity and hard work are adding value to my communications and life."
He said paying for products and services you use is normal. Small wonder, money that WeChat users tipped to emoji artists last year rose 13 percent to nearly 14 million yuan (.2 million). That is estimated to grow rapidly going forward.