Can emojis tell a story? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Eli Goodstein
Feb 10, 2017 · 4 min read

Anyone who texts or emails a lot can relate to sarcasm gone wrong or receiving messages that seem wildly inappropriate 👀. Let’s be real. It’s incredibly difficult to express emotion without the benefit of someone seeing your face, whether you’re 😀, 😥 or 😡.

That’s one of the main reasons I love using emojis. They serve a very distinct purpose for smartphone users: providing a way to convey how you’re feeling when words just aren’t enough. For me, they’re a fun method of communicating with family and friends. They also can give texts some color, emphasize certain phrases or even replace words entirely 📄🙅.

As I was producing native social content for USC Annenberg Media as part of my Journalism for Mobile and Emerging Platforms class, that last idea ultimately led me to two questions: Are emojis basically another language? If so, can and should they be used on their own to tell stories?

That’s what I was determined to find out when I created and developed an emoji news quiz that we tweeted weekly from @AnnenbergMedia. The goal was to engage the audience with the news of the day by testing their knowledge of our content.

During the few months I worked on this project, I began to understand how informative and valuable emojis could be in the right context. The symbols and images are not only a way to enhance text messages. They represent a new and arguably untapped form of electronic communication, especially in journalism.

Here are a few things I learned about emojis:

1. They are a universal language 🌎🌍🌏💬

But meaning is flexible, depending on context. If I wanted to tackle an international story, I felt it was possible with the images at my disposal. Emojis’ built-in meanings gave me an infrastructure to play with on various occasions. For example, the moneybag could mean taxes or bank, depending on the other symbols around it.

2. It’s much harder to give hints …but the audience ❤️s it

On multiple occasions, I had to decide between telling a sequential story with emojis essentially replacing key words or using the symbols as hints to important elements of the story. I noticed when I tried to spell out a story in a very literal way, it was not as exciting or mysterious for the audience.

When I showed my friends and peers in the newsroom a quiz with seemingly random symbols set next to each other, it made them think a little harder on the answer. It was more difficult, but more satisfying for me to give context clues in order to build engagement with the audience.

3. Emojis have certain limitations, but they are still useful for journalism 📰

Trying to figure out how to tell a story about a shooting with emoji was a challenge. Up until that point, I had dealt with stories that had not involved death or violence, so they were fairly simple to illustrate. I asked my fellow classmates and faculty members if I should even use emojis in this sort of situation. After getting a consensus and learning how people felt about emojis, I decided against doing that story. Everyone associated emojis with positive experiences, and they felt it would be in bad taste to use them in that way. However, this is not a universal rule. The news app Quartz, for example, has used a gun emoji in push alerts about shootings. Will that help us reach a new normal for emojis? Perhaps. But it’s important to know your audience, and I wasn’t sure ours was there yet.

If you don’t speak fluent emoji, here are the answers to all the quizzes above.

Quiz #1

- USC/LA = Students in LA leave class to Join anti-Trump protests

- Politics = Donald Trump makes two cabinet picks

- Entertainment = The film Arrival opened in theaters

- Sports = The USC football team beat Washington becoming #15 in the country

Quiz #2

- USC/LA = Construction of new student housing complex delayed

- Politics = President Obama raises money for Hillary Clinton

- Entertainment = Voice actors for video games protest for higher wages

- Sports = The USC football team had a bye week

Quiz #3

- USC/LA = LA volunteers head to South Carolina to help after Hurricane Matthew

- Politics = Second Presidential Debate

- Entertainment = The film The Girl on The Train opened in theaters

- Sports = The USC football beat Colorado

If you want to practice speaking emoji, tweet me: @EliGoodstein 👍

Media Center Lab

Insight and innovation from students at USC Annenberg's Media Center.

Eli Goodstein

Written by

Annenberg TV News Junkie @atvn | Entertainment Lover | RDC Alum | @Marvel Nerd | @USATODAYcollege Correspondent | @USC Class of 2017

Media Center Lab

Insight and innovation from students at USC Annenberg's Media Center.

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