Emoji aren’t just symbols. They’re an ever-evolving digital language of emotion

There are many reasons why emojis are so popular. One of the main ones though is that they allow people to express emotions in a simple but effective way. Online written communication – communication by texting, by social media, by email – may rapidly be replacing talking on the phone, but it has a number of disadvantages when compared to speaking face to face or phone to phone.

When we’re talking with someone, a huge amount of meaning is communicated via the way we speak: by the tone of voice we use, by modulations in the volume, by our gestures and facial expressions. This all gets stripped away in writing – especially when we’re writing in a rapid and conversational way. But with emojis, some of this can be easily added back in the shape of various shades of smiling faces, hand gestures and colored hearts. As the chart below shows, the most popular emojis are all positive smileys and love hearts. Emojis, in this respect, are a perfect digital solution to challenges that exist with digital communication.

emoji digital language of emotion phillip seargeant frequency

This emotional content isn’t restricted to personal interaction, however. It also has other, maybe somewhat more counter-intuitive, uses. Uses which point to the way that emojis are now being used for an increasingly wide range of purposes, many of which are well beyond the slightly frivolous stereotype that still clings to them.

For instance, more and more we’re seeing emojis being used as part of political discourse. People writing about or engaging in politics use emojis as a resource for communicating serious and consequential issues.

This shouldn’t perhaps be so surprising given that we’re also increasingly being told that emotion is key to an understanding the modern state of the world. That the victories of Donald Trump in the US and the Leave side in the Brexit vote, for example, were because both of these were able to tap in to the emotions of the electorate, and channel their feelings of frustration, anger and a desire for change into electoral success. Given that emojis have emerged as a powerful way to express emotion in the era of social media, it seems only natural that they’d become part of the expressive tactics of those debating politics online.

Given this, and despite how much he uses Twitter, it’s perhaps surprising that Donald Trump himself almost never uses emojis. Both his supporters and his critics do however. Plusnet, as part of a World Emoji Day marketing campaign a few years ago, commissioned research about which emojis were most commonly directed at which celebrities. And Trump featured prominently in their list – with the eggplant, the eye roll and the poop emoji most often included in tweets about him.

The Washington Post also surveyed tweets about presidential candidates back in 2016, and found that people tweeting about Trump were over twice as likely to use emojis as those tweeting about the other candidates. And while the president himself may not partial to this particular style of picture-based communication, his children definitely are. Ivanka, for example, is a big fan of the American flag emoji, maybe unsurprisingly.

A more telling example that this, though, was Robert Mugabe’s son, Chatunga, who marked the death of his father earlier in the year by tweeting four crying face emojis. This was a very public expression of private grief for a very high-profile political leader. It’s very difficult to think of an equivalent of this type or style of communicative act from a pre-emoji era.

All of this goes to show quite how far emojis have penetrated into all aspects of life today. They’re used as a way of expressing everything from private grief to public mourning and political statement. And behind all these things, it’s the ability that emojis have to convey emotional framing which makes them such a useful accessory for digital communication.

Philip Seargeant is the author of The Emoji Revolution: How Technology is Shaping the Future of Communication, available now from Cambridge University Press

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