Please Can We Not Try to Rationalize Emoji 😬

Emoji ambiguity is a feature, not a bug

Emoji are open to interpretation, and that’s a good thing. Credit: Samuel Barnes

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.

Emoji may have something to do with getting screwed, but it’s not because of a miscommunication. Credit: Jimmy Kimmel

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.

The fact that emoji are ambiguous, can stand for many things, and might even evolve to stand for new things, is part of what makes them expressive. It’s part of what makes them dynamic and fun, and trying to force a one-to-one relationship between emoji and interpretation would make them less, not more, communicative. So please, if we’re going to try to measure the potential for miscommunication wrought by our new emoji society, let’s measure real miscommunication. Not normal variations in meaning that might be clear (even clever!) in context or that might be clarified during the normal course of conversation. Or that might remain ambiguous but at least not harm our understanding (while still making our message just that much cuter 💁). Once we’ve measured actual miscommunication, then we can decide whether we want to generate a bunch of alarmist headlines or not.

That said, all of the headlines the authors generated with their study did help to raise awareness of a legitimate problem for people texting between platforms like iOS and Android. Differences in how a few emoji are rendered by different platforms can mean we think we’re sending a grinning face, when in fact we’re sending a grimacing one. Or perhaps we’re sending aliens. “I downloaded the new iOS platform and I sent some nice faces,” one participant in the study said, “and they came to my wife’s phone as aliens.”

That’s no good. Although, at least they were probably cute aliens. 🙌