Cher is the Queen of Emoji even if she isn’t [Data analysis]
It is universally recognized by experts that Cher is the Queen of Emoji. (Hail, Cher.)
But as far as I know, no one has (a) performed an actual analysis to prove this, nor has anyone (b) performed an adequate interpretive dance to Dark Lady. I once tried to tackle (b) at a retreat near Big Sur, but today my focus is (a).
Maybe you’re not the biggest Cher fan. Fine, I guess. The post still offers stuff about the statistics and linguistics of emoji. And it has the predilections of lots of other celebrities: singers, actors, athletes, authors. And Donald Trump.
You can also find a bazillion other emoji articles here.
Style👡 and a sense📡 of the 👑💃🏽queen💃🏽👑
Let’s get started with a Cher tweet that I’ve chosen almost-at-random:
It stands as a pretty good representation of what Cher does that makes her stand out as stylistically different than most other people:
- ALL CAPS — Cher varies capitalization, but all caps are much more common for her than others
- Length — These days, Cher’s tweets are consistently among the longest; Cher’s tweets are around 137 characters, while DJ Khaled’s are 79, Chelsea Manning’s are typically 55 and Kyle MacLachlan’s are 56. Across 55 celebrities, a median length of 73 characters is typical. Among all 55 celebrities, Cher consistently packs in the most characters.
- Spacing — Cher routinely cuts out unnecessary spaces like the ones after punctuation
- Homophonous abbreviation — this is just my fancy way of saying she uses “2” for “to”
- Dropped apostrophes — so far in 2017 Cher has 18 he’s and 75 hes, same basic ratios for she’s/shes and i’m/im
But this post is (mostly) about emoji, so what’s happening there? There are five emoji in the post — that’s a lot of emoji and none of them are repeats, which is unusual. Three of these emoji are especially interesting:
- 🚽 — Cher has come to use this to refer to Donald Trump (a man SHE DOES NOT LIKE). Emoji often function as a kind of ornamentation or paralinguistic signal like facial expression or intonation in face-to-face interactions. But here, Cher has put a clitic s on it, which is a fancy way of saying that Cher is treating 🚽 as a word. I’ve seen other people use emoji as terms of reference, but this is commonly done for people who are close — romantic partners or teammates (you probably need to check out Didi Gregorius of the Yankees). And of course, there’s also fans of Beyonce who use 👑🐝. One thing that you’ll see throughout this post is celebrities looking for some other way to refer to Donald Trump that doesn’t actually use his name.
- 🔥 — this is one of the most popular emojis for celebrities to use, though here, Cher seems to be using it as a substitute for the adjective flaming. Consider uses by Nicki Minaj, Snoop Dogg, DJ Khaled, Chad Johnson, Chelsea Peretti, Chelsea Manning, Kyle MacLachlan, and William Shatner. Those are all fairly expressive “paralinguistic” uses. But Cher is more likely than most others to treat 🔥 as a word. You can see a bit of something similar here in Lena Dunham and Dwayne Johnson’s 🔥=on fire or Alyssa Milano’s semi-ornamental 🔥=terminate from employment. Though I haven’t seen others do what Cher does here where she adds a past tense marker to talk about Republicans fiddling while Rome 🔥🔥’d. Wordiness!
- 🐝 — Cher commonly uses this as a substitute for the verb be. This is the same basic thing thing as with 2 above, homophonous abbreviation. Note that there isn’t any saved effort. Cher usually works on an iPhone and you have to press one key to get to the numbers or emoji and then a second key to get them to appear. Two key strokes, the same number of letters as to and be. More likely, you do this to get something more visually interesting. Emoji tend to be a way of playing with language and here Cher is calling back an old form of visual linguistic play — the rebus puzzle. (Aside: maybe that’s what William Shatner is doing here?!)
For the sake of completeness, a couple notes on the other two emoji, which are used a bit more standardly.
- Red double exclamation points — Nothing particularly special here except to say that Cher loves these. I mean looooooves these. Out of 55 high tweeting celebrities I surveyed over 2017, only 9 others use them, mostly just a couple times. Cher uses them 540 times. (Former wide receiver Chad Johnson loves them even more than Cher, he’s used them 585 times in 2017).
- 🤡 — Hey, the best clowns are down in the sewers. Among the 55 celebrities I’ve looked at, the biggest users are Cher (28 times), Don Cheadle (21 times) and Jeffrey Wright (9 times). They mostly use it within tweets about Donald Trump, as Cher is doing in the tweet shown above. There do seem to be a smattering of affectionate uses of the clown by other folks, but mostly clown=bad instead of a happy Red Skelton kinda thing.
Since 2010, Cher has tweeted about half a million words. I’m talking about a bunch of different celebrities, so it’ll be useful to try to make things comparable. To that end, I’m going to use “pmw” throughout — “per million words”. For example, from January 1, 2017 to August 18, 2017, Cher has written 2,503 tweets, comprised of 55,443 words. That includes 6,119 emoji. But instead of reporting a percentage, I’m going to standardize to say in 2017, Cher used 110,366 emoji per million words.
Just so you have a sense, Cher uses common (dictionary) verbs at a rate of 115,957 pmw, she uses standard (dictionary) nouns at a rate of 97,704 pmw and she uses pronouns at a rate of 54,705 pmw. So yes, twice as many emoji as pronouns for Cher. 👑.
Among 55 celebrities I looked at in 2017, the median number of emoji per million words is 14,874. The top 25% of emoji using celebrities use them at a rate of over 39,201 wpm. The bottom 25% of these celebrities use emoji under 2,083 wpm. So that gives you a sense of extremes.
The most popular emoji for the celebrities is ❤️, which gets used by 40 of the 55 celebrities at a (median) rate of 992 wpm. That makes it used more than great, us, and yes. Other favorite emoji include: 🔥, 😂, 👏, 👇, 🙏, 👍, and 😍.
In the next sequence of tweets, I’ve made note of what Cher is up to and how it relates to her general style. In this column, I’ll talk a little more about the other stylistic things you can do in tweets.
- Non-standard language, like Snoop Dogg’s takn, RuPaul’s XORU, and Don Cheadle’s Drumpf
- Emoji (uh, this post)
- Punctuation …, parentheses, final periods, etc. Matt Hardy’s period, Jeffrey Wright’s commas, and Don Cheadle’s ellipses
- Direct your messages to particular people vs. mention people vs. broadcast to everyone — Chelsea Manning (to @nightline), Eric Roberts (to @keatonsimons), and Penn Jillette (to @midnight)
- Exclamations — like DJ Khaled, Leslie Jones, and Gabby Sidibe
- Question marks like Don Cheadle, William Shatner, and Cris Cyborg
- Hashtags like J. Lo (#shadesofblue), DJ Khaled (#grateful), and Kyle MacLachlan (#twinpeaks)
- Capitalization — CHER
- Expressive lengthening like Kevin Hart’s gooooooo, Gabby Sidibe’s yassss and George Takei’s myyy
- Emoticons like Chelsea Manning’s less-than-sign-three-heart, Ricky Gervais’ :), Aparna Nancherla’s :D
- Mess around with spaces and line breaks — CHER (but I haven’t tracked line breaks specifically)
- Include URLs/images like Diplo, Kyle MacLachlan and DJ Khaled
- Non-emoji/non-emoticon symbols like Rosie O’Donnell and Chelsea Manning’s n-dash (-) or Joyce Carol Oates’ asterisk (she uses it to avoid writing ‘Trump’)
- Use quotation marks like RuPaul, Toure, and Joyce Carol Oates
And of course, you can also do stylistic things by choosing fancy or plain verbs. Among normal parts of speech:
- Terry McMillan uses a lot more verbs (bet, hate) and conjunctions (until, since) than other people.
- Christine Teigen also uses a lot of verbs (am, wondering), but her other relative favorite is adverbs (basically, literally)
- Donald Trump uses a lot of nouns (business, media), prepositions (including, after), adjectives (fake, great), and articles (the, an)
- Ellen Degeneres uses a lot of pronouns (something, her). So does Penn Jillette (we, nothing), but he also likes conjunctions (but, and).
- Joyce Carol Oates uses a lot of adjectives (public, liberal) and negations
- Jenny Slate loves adverbs (just, also), determiners (this, many) and interjections (boo, bye, oh)
There’s also a question about what you talk about. In particular, as you follow these tweets to the present, you’ll notice a lot more obvious political content from Cher. That was always there for her, it just becomes more obvious.
And since this post is especially about emoji, it may be useful to say that emoji end up being pretty political for things that look like cartoony fun. That’s largely because people use them to represent themselves and to shape relationships. The personal is the political.
Later on you’re going to see a lot of stuff on the skin tones — that deserves its own post, but it’ll be worth keeping in mind that skin tones weren’t available until 2015. Actually, let’s go back even earlier. (Segue!)
A history of emoji through Cher 📜📱
The very first emoji appeared on Japanese cellphones in 1999, created by Shigetaku Kurita, the first 176 emoji would only show up if you and the people you were texting both had NTT Docomo devices. Today, we have Unicode so that emoji appear pretty much anywhere, but it took about a dozen years from the creation of emoji in Japan til worldwide use.
Cher, a benevolent and humble regent, first noticed emoji on the evening of August 12th, 2011. Emoji still weren’t available on phones back then, but people using Mac desktops had the ability to use them after Apple released a version of OS X that supported emoji (you could get it on the App Store on July 20, 2011). It wasn’t until September 2012 that Apple put them in iOS 6, so that it became easier to use them on phones.
Non-tech publications didn’t catch on to emoji until after Cher had, The New Yorker published Hannah Goldfield’s article, I Heart Emoji on October 16th, 2011 and The New York Times published Jenna Wortham’s Whimsical Texting Icons Get a Shot at Success on December 6th, 2011. (Fwiw, peak emoji coverage was the second half of 2015.)
Back to Cher. After she becomes aware of emoji in August, we don’t really see her using them until October. Then she has a whole blast of them talking about her son, Chaz, who danced a samba on Dancing with the Stars that night.
That fall, her tweets included 6 hearts, 2 😘’s, and 1 each of 😊, 🌟, 🎉, 😝, 😍, 💋, 💝, ☠, and 😡 (that last one had to do with paparazzi attacking while she had terrible airplane hair).
There’s actually nothing particularly remarkable about Cher’s early uses of emoji. But then things transform. By August 2017, Cher’s empire of emoji is established by her use of ‼️, ⁉ (both of which usually appears as big giant red punctuation just not here on Medium), 🏻 (white skin tone), 💋, 👻, 💖, 😱, 🚽, 🇺🇸, and 🌹.
She also uses a fair amount of ✨, 😂, 🙏, 🎂 but plenty of other celebrities do, too, so they are less distinctively Cher.) Over the years, Cher shifts from loving/supportive/congratulatory emoji to very political uses as you’ve already seen.
The queen, DEPOSED, 💔
I’ve tried to put this off, but it is time for a reckoning.
If you ask emoji experts who the most interesting public figures are that use emoji, there are four names that come up again and again. Here they are with the emoji that are most characteristic of them):
- Cher: ‼️, ⁉, 🏻, 💋, 👻
- Kyle MacLachlan: 👍, 🎂, 😀, 🍷, 🎉
- Chelsea Manning: 😎, 🌈, 💕, 😇, 😌
- DJ Khaled: 🌺 , 🙏, 🏽, 🔑, 🦁
And Cher, if I may dream that you are reading this, you do top these people in your extremely high use of emoji 🔝🔝🔝
But there are lots of other celebrities we could consider. I took 55 of them for 2017 and looked at how they used emoji and found that you were bested. Third place, even. 🥉
Time out: let’s consider other bronzes in Cher’s life:
- Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down) peaked at 3 on the UK charts in 1966
- If I Could Turn Back Time peaked at 3 in the US charts in 1989
Those are great songs. I mean, go listen to them.
Who comes in above Cher? In second place, it’s Nicki Minaj. She’s a woman who loves 😂, 😘, 😩, 😍, 🙌, ❤️, 😭, 🏽 , 👅, and 😊. Her peak emoji use has been 2017, she uses emoji at a rate of 135,512 pmw (recall Cher is at 110,366 pmw this year).
Outpacing both Cher and Nicki Minaj is our 💯🐶 (hm, that really can’t be his emoji name): Snoop Dogg. His favorite emoji through the years have been ✨, 🌟, 🏾 , 👏, 💫, 👊, 🙏, 🌹, 🔥, and 💵 (he also uses a fair amount of 😂, but it’s a very popular one all around). His peak year is also 2017 — he has used emoji this year at a rate of 178,365 pmw 🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥.
It’s probably also useful to look at diversity of forms. Since 2011, Snoop Dogg has used 772 different emoji, Nicki Minaj has used 789, and Cher has used 614 forms. BUT if you look at the emoji that are used by one celebrity only, Cher has 45 of those to Snoop Dogg’s 8 and Nicki Minaj’s 6. That said, Diplo is the person with the most: he has 66 emoji that none of the other members of the Emoji Top Ten use, things like 🏂, ♌, 💱, ♈ , 🍘, and 🍠. That last one is a roasted sweet potato. Diplo has some uses of that where he also talks about yams. He also has this, uh, disturbing sequence. Pineapples used to be the symbol of hospitality BUT RUN AWAY.
📈 or 📉: Are we past peak (celebrity) emoji usage?
If you look at rates of emoji use across the years, you do see what looks like a peak for a lot of celebrities last year (2016). And there are some plummets since 2016 — DJ Khaled and Kyle MacLachlan aren’t emojifying their posts as much. But Snoop Dogg and Cher are holding steady and the majority are increasing: Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, Diplo, William Shatner, Chad Johnson (ochocinco), and Chelsea Manning (xychelsea).
Do you believe?💋🎶☝
In normal speech, we’ve got all kinds of cues to help interpret messages. But when you switch to written forms, you lose intonation, volume, furrowed brows, dodged eye contact and the like. Historically, lots of writing hasn’t needed these things (quick, page three of your legal contract should have more eye rolling). But recent years have seen an explosion of writing in the form of SMS text messaging and social media. Emoji have emerged since ~2012 as a viable augmentation, a kind of adornment that helps soften messages that might sound monotone/harsh as well as a way for people to play with language.
Like most of us, Cher uses emoji both of these ways. But she uses them a LOT MORE than all of us who aren’t Snoop Dogg or Nicki Minaj.
Cher also uses emoji more like words than most users. People often want to consider emoji a language (nope, it’s not) and while people do occasionally substitute emoji for spelling out words, it’s not what people usually do and when they do, they don’t tend to hook morphemes on to them like the possessive ‘s or the past tense ‘d.
You can’t talk about Cher and emoji without talking about Donald Trump. And that takes us to the issue of reference and naming. Don Cheadle avoids writing Trump but choosing Drumpf, Joyce Carol Oates avoids it by writing T****p. Cher just uses a 🚽 for him and treats it as a word, not just a picture.
Reference is the opposite of ornamentation since grounds communication to be about something (caveat: think of relationships and how very quickly tone-of-voice can become the subject instead of taking out the trash).
Since the vast majority of emoji are things (animals, foods, transportation), we might expect a lot more referential use. But instead, as you can see in different celebrities’ favorite emoji, the ones people tend to turn to are relational — thumbs up for agreement, hearts for affection, tears-of-joy to show they found something funny.
In the social world, it is inevitable that some people stand out from their surroundings as exceptional. Most of the people mentioned in this post do. And if you know anything at all about Cher, you know that for decades she’s been an icon. It is not incidental, I think, that someone who is attentive to how to portray characters in movies, how to wow an audience, how to choose an outfit is also a linguistic maven — and I will still say — an Empress of Emoji.
End notes for the curious 🤔
- Cher has tweeted 489,369 unigrams since 2010 — that counts stuff like punctuation; if you want “words” as in “stuff in dictionaries with parts of speech”, then it’s more like 78,108 words since 2010. That ignores URLs, hashtags, @’ing people, super-slang, numbers, punctuation, emoticons, emoji, etc. Cher is not quite in the top quartile when it comes to the ratio of these numbers. Diplo and Nicki Minaj have a lot more normal words, Kyle MacLachlan and Chelsea Manning have a lot fewer.
- For 2017, Cher used 5,355 base emoji, she paired them with gender 7 times, she paired them with skin color 533 times, and she had 224 flags (technically, flags tend to be made up of two emoji characters each…so 224 is actually the total divided by two). It could make sense to treat “very white female skier” as one emoji, but I count it as three. That also helps me understand how people are deploying things like gender and race better.
- Re per million words: Normally people use “wpm” not “pmw”. And while I like the idea of following the general trend, I think “per million words” is closer to what the little voice in our heads should say as we read along here than “words per million”.
- How did I pick the 55 celebrities? Well, I actually had lots more but limited myself to people over 750 tweets in 2017 (152 other celebrities didn’t make the cut). I chose 750 tweets to make sure that Kyle MacLachlan was included since he is emoji legendary. The overall list was assembled from looking across a lot of articles where celebrities were mentioned in terms of emoji and/or Twitter uses. That got me, for example, a bunch of athletes I frankly hadn’t heard of (sorry! please get a Grammy, Oscar, and Emmy like Cher has). I then looked at who all these people @’ed the most and if they were (vaguely) famous, I put them in, too. So it’s pretty eclectic. For pre-2017, I only looked at the top ten emoji users from 2017, see above. See the bottom of the post for who all the 55 celebrities are.
- Note that skin tones are also among the most popular emoji in this data — there are five of these defined by Unicode, the ones most frequent in the data here are 🏾, 🏻, and 🏽. Since people tend to use skin tones to refer to themselves, this mostly reflects the makeup of the celebrities reported here. Of the 55 celebrities, somewhere between 40–50% of them are People of Color (I’m not going to be precise because I don’t actually know how everyone identifies). I was just going for big Twitter users who were relatively famous, so I didn’t attempt to, say, get equal numbers across the Fitzpatrick scale nor did I (to flip it around) start with skin tone modifiers and try to get equal numbers of people using them. There’s some really really interesting work left to be done on race, identification, and emoji. Especially because people don’t always use the same exact tone for themselves and it’s probably interesting (likely depressing) to see how people use skin tones when they are creating emoji that are about people other than themselves.
- Linguists sometimes use something called “TTR” (Type:Token Ratio) to measure vocabulary richness. To get a sense of this, continue two people, each of whom has used 100 emoji total. The idea for TTR is to award someone who uses 100 different emoji one time each a higher score than someone who uses one emoji but uses it 100 times (100/100 > 1/100). Because diversity of vocabulary increases with text length, you need to make sure you control for that by having consistent sampling. Grabbing 500 random tweets from everyone in 2017, we see that Snoop Dogg > Cher > Nicki Minaj. But even higher scores get racked up by Tyler Oakley, Diplo, Bayley, and Kyle MacLachlan.