Please Can We Not Try to Rationalize Emoji 😬
This week a study appeared on the scene suggesting an earth-shattering, truly groundbreaking notion: Emoji “may be open to interpretation.”
And then the headlines. “We Really Don’t Know What We’re Saying When We Use Emoji,” a normally level-headed Quartz proclaimed. “That Emoji Does Not Mean What You Think It Means,” Gizmodo declared. “If Emoji Are the Future of Communication Then We’re Screwed,” New York Magazine cried, obviously not trying to get anyone to click on its headline.
Normally I might be tempted to blame journalists for sensationalizing academic research, but in this instance, I think the fault actually lies with the research. In their study, Hannah Miller, Jacob Thebault-Spieker and colleagues from the University of Minnesota took a bunch of smiley face emoji out of context, asked a bunch of people what they meant, and were apparently dismayed to find that, 25% of the time, people didn’t even agree on whether a particular emoji was positive or negative. “Overall,” the authors write, “we find significant potential for miscommunication.”
It’s odd that an academic paper apparently informed by such highfalutin things as psycholinguistic theory would be concerned that words and symbols can have a range of meanings, even going so far as to be sometimes positive and sometimes negative. But of course they do. The word “crude” can refer to “crude” oil, or it can refer to the double meanings people are assigning to emoji of fruits and vegetables. “Crude” gains meaning in context. That people might not agree on what a word or symbol means outside of the context in which it is used is most uninteresting.
The authors mention this at the end of their paper. “One limitation of this work is that it considered emoji out of context (i.e., not in the presence of a larger conversation).” Actually, once the authors realized this, they should have started over and come up with a research design that included context.