QR Codes in China, Voice memos in Argentina, and Emoji everywhere 🚀

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Photo by Thomas James Caldwell

There is a website dedicated to “Pictures of People Scanning QR codes.” The joke, of course, is the page is blank.

The scanning of QR codes – those strange black and white barcode-style graphics you sometimes see on printed ads and packaging – has not taken off in any meaningful way in the UK.

QR codes have always felt like a solution in search of a problem. Something that made sense in a marketing brainstorm, but added little value in the real world.

The idea of downloading a dedicated app and awkwardly scanning a code with your phone to access online content has always seemed like a whole load of faff for little reward, when you can just Google what you want instead.

The cause was not helped by the appearance of QR codes in ridiculous places – I once passed one on a London Underground escalator; I saw another high up on a billboard.

But QR codes are used in a multitude of creative ways in China, including as a means to check the provenance of food and drink; as a method to identify lost pets; as an alternative to swapping business cards; and as a way to make payments through hugely popular apps like Alipay and WeChat.

It is fascinating to see how cultures utilise technologies in different ways.

In Buenos Aires it is common to see people talking into their phones in what look like one-sided conversations – until you realise they are recording and sending voice memos. It is considered, in some scenarios, to be more personal, and less open to misinterpretation, than a simple text message.

But perhaps the best example of something that took root in one culture to the initial bafflement of everyone else, before spreading far and wide, is emoji – the colourful cartoon style icon set used to communicate, well, almost anything.

Emoji began life on Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s. A few years later a standardised set had been agreed upon and it became possible to write messages packed with emoji almost anywhere.

Maybe one day, then, “Pictures of People Scanning QR codes” will finally feature a smiley face.

Photo by Projeto Sticker Map

This article first appeared as a weekly column in the Lancashire Post, Lancaster Guardian and the Blackpool Gazette.

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