Millennials text almost exclusively with them. Even your mom has managed to master the smiley face/red heart combo. And now, they’ve entered MoMA‘s collection—perhaps the most canonical grouping of modern artworks anywhere.

Whether you feel they can express your true feelings better (or at least more concisely) than words ever could, or deride them as an unmistakable marker of our society’s degeneration, emojis are here and here to stay. As Paul Galloway of MoMA’s Architecture and Design department notes, “Filling in for body language…emoji reassert the human in the deeply impersonal, abstract space of electronic communication.”


 The original emoji set, already looking downright quaint


This visual language of 176 images was originally developed by Japanese telecom company NTT DOCOMO, under the supervision of Shigetaka Kurita, in 1999. The number of symbols would greatly expand after Apple adopted it in 2011, and seems to do so exponentially with each software update. When NTT DOCOMO “donated” the imagery to MoMA (where it was recently displayed in the lobby), naysayers denounced the exhibition as schlock, a publicity stunt, an insult to the Rodins standing feet away.

True, an emoji may not hold the visual impact of, say Starry Night; but communicating with symbols is as old as civilization, from Egyptian hieroglyphics to cave paintings at Lascaux. Keeping track of our digital history is essential; it’s human history now, and in an age where so much information and communication is transmitted wirelessly, having some record of our path is all the more important.