What does heart ❤️ followed by ghost 👻, robot 🤖 and LOL mean? What about googly eyes 👀 followed by the peace sign ✌🏻? This is a trick question really because the answer is… it depends. It depends what was said (or typed) before, who said it, who is replying and what the context is that they are saying it in.
The incredibly rapid take up of emoji as a form of communication – symbolised by World Emoji Day – has led researchers to wonder what status to give emoji as a type of language. Is it a new language, or even a universal one?
Our paper, entitled ‘Emoji and Communicative Action’ – argues that the study of emoji as a component of language must look carefully at the context of interaction where they are used. It is a mistake to think of emoji as having inherent meaning. For example, we can’t assume that heart ❤ always means love. It could refer to the physical heart, it might be the symbol for a person, or it could have an esoteric meaning particular to a group of people. Like all language, emoji have meaning because people give them meaning. These meanings change over time and vary according to the groups who use them. As researchers, or as everyday emoji users, to understand the symbols we have to think about their contexts of use.
Research into emoji has shown that they are seen by people as being very important for helping them to express their emotions, to show how they feel about what they are writing. However, paradoxically, studies have found that people interpret emoji in very different ways. For instance, a survey in the USA found significant disagreement among study participants of whether an emoji was positive or negative, as well as on the actual meanings of the emoji.
Our paper explored this paradox by looked at just one emoji – the ‘face covering hand’ emoji 🤭 – and analysing the role it played in interaction. We collected data from a reading community in china who used mobile phones to discuss weekly readings in Mandarin.
This face covering hand emoji has all kinds of associations, such as bashful, cheeky, and other implications relating to concealing laughter. The meanings of such associations are culturally varied, so that in China, for instance, the emoji could carry connotations of avoiding open displays of emotions and feelings. Our work used techniques from conversation analysis to look at the specific contents that the chat members used the emoji and found that it was very difficult to give clear evidence that these meanings were relevant to these particular contexts. Instead, the emoji most commonly operated in a similar way to laughter, showing, for instance, that a question was rhetorical, or that a particular phrase was ironic.
We suggest that that emoji have ambiguous meaning because their cultural associations vary and because these associations may lead people to try to see the emoji in ways that have no relevance to a given context. We do not argue that emoji are somehow problematic – their popularity of use shows that they clearly play an important role in communication. However, we need to understand much better how and why people use emoji, as well as the problems and possibilities that come from their use. Our research is part of a growing community of scholars who are interested in the ‘microanalysis’ of online communication. Researchers in the Microanalysis of Online Data (MOOD) Network are developing new tools and concepts to think about how to study these types of textual communication.
To return to our question, in terms of their global popularity, Emoji might be becoming a universal component of written language, but this most certainly does not mean that their meanings and uses are universal.