From The NYT:
Outside their native Japan, emoji have been available to in-the-know smartphone owners for some time via add-on applications. But now they may be on the verge of going mainstream in the United States, thanks in part to Apple's latest update to its iPhone software. The latest version, iOS 5, comes with an installed library of emoji that can be turned on as an "international keyboard" in the device's settings.... Emoji have long been popular among cellphone users in Asia. They first emerged in Japan in the 1990s, said Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how young people use digital media in Japan and the United States. Cellphone carriers first added the images to differentiate their phones from those of rivals, and they caught on as an efficient way to quickly convey a specific thought, mood or joke.

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