The Universal Language of Social Networking: the Emoji

By Mary-Frances McCafferty at toneapi

Did you know that nearly half of the messages posted on Instagram contain emojis? In fact, Facebook posts with emojis get 33% more comments and shares, as well as being “liked” 57% more often than posts without any emojis.

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For the confused among us, I will give a quick overview of emojis, their history (emojis date back quite some time!) and the effectiveness of inserting a few here and there, as well as providing practical examples of how it can be used by both content creators, content analysts and researchers to their advantage.

So let’s start at the beginning: How are Emoticons and Emojis Different?

· An Emoticon is usually a collection of text characters, such as punctuation and symbols, which, when viewed sideways, show facial expressions. Examples of emoticons are: :), :P and ;).

· 15 years on, the Emoji appeared (Japanese for “picture character”). These are actual pictures, such as animals, foods and faces, which convey meanings and emotions.

Where Did the Emoji Originate From?

The yellow smiley face, first introduced in 1963 by Harvey Ball, created uproar in the business world, which praised that “the power of a smile is unlimited”. The emoticon is thought to have first emerged online in 1982, when Scott Fahlman, who was frustrated by the lack of emotion in written language, suggested that the emoticons :) and :( could be used to distinguish between jokes and serious matters.

The emoji was created in the late 1990’s by the Japanese communications firm, NTT DoCoMo. The creator of the emoji, Kurita, claimed that without emojis, “you don’t know what’s in the writer’s head”. The introduction of the iPhone in 2008 created the demand for emoji regulation; and with it, the Unicode Consortium.

Unicode Consortium

The Unicode Consortium is a non-profit organisation (made up of 11 full members) who set a scale of standards for emojis, aimed at resolving problems such as the incorrect translation of pictures from one demographic to another. There are now 722 emojis, which Unicode have standardised. Leading websites use these standardisations, which work across most domains.

How Does an Emoji Work?

Usually an emoticon can be inputted using characters and transferred into an emoji. However, if the software does not understand and support these characters, a placeholder icon or a blank space is presented on screen.

Facebook and Emojis

Ireland and Spain are currently piloting a new Facebook feature, which involves “reaction emojis”. Instead of the basic “like” button, Facebook now includes a variety of reactions to status updates. These 6 reactions include “love”, “haha”, “yay”, “wow”, “sadness”, and “anger”, as well as the traditional “like”.

Facebook recently paid its $18,000 annual membership fee and are now full members of the Unicode Consortium, giving the company voting rights within the organisation. The new Facebook reaction feature currently does not conform to the Unicode Consortium; emojis do not obey the rules set out by the society. Facebook is only one business to be treated with scepticism for its use of emojis for easy data analysis.

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Sceptics to the notion of emojis on social media claim that the concept is used by companies to collect easy data about users’ actions and feelings. Essentially, this simple emoji symbol makes an individual much easier tracked, categorised and numerated. Emotions are key drivers for action. If advertisers can serve up relevant adverts which align with a mood of a person at the right moment, common sense says there is a higher likelihood of taking an action to click the advert.

An example of this …

Since 2013, Facebook users can “check-in” emotions. By picking an emotion, extracting and analysing individual data takes mere moments, making it easier for companies to market more efficiently. Indeed, a recent example of how emotional tracking was used by Facebook occurred last year during the emergence of its intrusive emotional-contagion study.

So what do the academics say…

Three academic papers discuss the use and effectiveness of emojis during social networking, and agree that these emojis can provide crucial information, which the text it accompanies cannot convey itself.

Novak, Smailovi, Sluban and Mozeti (2015) found that sentiments captured from emojis are generally positive; especially popular messages.

Kelly (2015) warned of the high possibility of misinterpretation, and advised both sender and recipient to be cautious of context and mood. This view point reiterates the importance of careful application of emojis, in order to use them effectively within social networks.

Faltings, Musat and Pu (2013) claim that emojis are useful predictors of tweet sentiment. Ignoring the emoji at the end of a message could result in complete mistranslation (and perhaps incur an uncomfortable atmosphere!)…

As Adoreboard’s “Toneapi” can exhibit, ignoring emojis can change the context of a sentence.


Adoreboard’s latest software product, Toneapi, can now capture and analyse over 1,000 types of emoticons and emojis.

The below example shows how emojis can influence the emotional characteristic of a sentence. When inputted into the software, the sentence below created an overall content negativity score of -39.

The two emojis, as well as the sentence, generated 47% emotional language.

In addition, an example where emoticons influence the emotional characteristic of a sentence is given below. When we run an A/B test comparing the sentence, “Just finished my last exam. 8D” (emoticon for ‘laugh’), against the sentence, “Just finished my last exam. v.v” (emoticon for ‘disgust, horror or dismay’), we get the following outputs:

Both sentences contained 71% emotional language but the first one was exceedingly more positive than the second:

In summary, both content creators and researchers need to be aware of how language is evolving online and the benefits of using emojis. The touch of humanity it distils into what can often be the robotic, online world gives the writer the opportunity to edit personality and emotion into a message, and the researcher a rich insight into the mood of a person at any given time.