Love them or hate them, emojis have become a part of our everyday vernacular. The "Face with Tears of Joy” emoji—that’s the official name for the emoji that looks like it’s laughing and crying at the same time—was named Oxford Dictionary's Word of the Year in 2015. Believe it or not, it was as the most used emoji globally.

The popularity of emojis within digital communication is indicative of the growing role they play in every day communication. The rise of these ideographic representations has drawn concern from a few quarters as to the future of language. And while it doesn’t quite seem that we’re ready to chat in all emojis and only emojis, they are serving to modify our responses and add meaning in an environment where it could otherwise be difficult to interpret meaning. Usage is so widespread and so common, that we now actually have data that demonstrates that the use and placement of emojis carries an emotional weight which can impact our perception of the messages that frame these icons.

Understanding the mental states of others is crucial to communication. It may not seem like a big deal but interpreting a joke as a serious statement or vice versa can have a significant impact on a relationship. (Of course, that’s no excuse for passing off offensive or derogatory statements as jokes, either.) Our ability to interpret social data is so rooted in our theory of mind that we look and employ for nonverbal social and visual cues whenever possible. This is one of the reasons we gesticulate when we speak, or raise our eyebrows, or squint quizzically. We’re constantly looking for ways to confirm our relationships with others because that in turn tells us about our status within our network overall. Are we still respected? Are we still included? Or is it time to find a new group to eat lunch with? All of this information is contained within the richness of our nonverbal cues.

Way back in the infancy of digitally-mediated-communication (i.e., the late 1980s and early 1990s), as the popularity of chatrooms soared, the basics of transferring meaning and intent began to break down in the absence of social cues. Because disagreements were escalating quickly, :-) and :-( were proposed as a means of maintain peace. From these humble means, emoticons emerged. (And really, emoticons may have been around even earlier than that but we’ll hold at about this time period for the moment.) At the most basic level, they were a way to offset misunderstandings. Emoticons have grown in accordance with our need for ever more nuanced communication in digital spaces. Today, we have an entire library of icons to convey everything from hunger to applause to heartbreak.

Sentiment analysis is the computational analysis of people’s opinions, emotions, and attitudes as manifested in the lexicon. With the growth of social channels, forums, blogs, comment sections, and other interactive spaces on the web, it’s become a large part of data mining—data scientists try to map the sentiment expressed online (positive, negative, neutral) and convert this data into actions by generating effective marketing and advertising. The focus thus far has largely been on words, but when scientists shifted their attention to images and icons—emoji, in particular—they began to see patterns in how emojis are used.

After analyzing emojis in approximately 70,000 tweets, researchers generated a list of 751 most frequently used emojis. Topping this list was the Tears of Joy emoji, but other popular emojis trended toward the positive end of the spectrum, including happy faces, hearts, and party symbols. Positivity begets positivity. We want to be seen as positive people and know other positive people. These emojis help us brand ourselves as fun and lighthearted. We project ourselves as people others would want to know. The result is that certain emojis get used over and over, and come to be characterized as positive—and they’re recognized as such, so the context that they appear in takes on those traits.

Researchers also found emojis also tended to occur in clusters throughout sentences or in strings of their own (think of the emoji-happy friend that you have that sends you all emoji texts), while emoticons appeared singularly and often midway though sentences. Why is this significant? It suggests that emojis are being used to emphasize a specific sentiment, as opposed to offering clarification on tone. A string of positive emoji drives home a celebration or joke. Taken together, emojis are vehicles for expression. They stop short of being classified as a language, however, because they aren’t governed by grammar.

 For example, if you string together a series of emojis in any order they can still convey the same message. It is entirely possible to string emojis together in very specific sequences to demonstrate a particular order of events, but the rigidity of this linearity actually restricts communication. Emojis force us to think and share in concrete units. The bathtub emoji cannot be modified into something new. It cannot be a pink bathroom or an overflowing bathtub. We’re constrained by what the image is and the immediate context it appears in.

Still, this limitation isn’t hampering use. And there is a complexity to the emojis themselves: they allow us to succinctly convey an emotional experience that is leaps and bounds above what the original emoticon glyphs permitted. The overwhelming popularity of the Tears of Joy emoji is the sum of all these things. It’s positive and it’s friendly, and it’s appropriate in practically every response as far as it helps establish a consensus toward appropriate replies:

  • [Blank] is so ridiculous that I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.
  • [Blank] is so precise that I’m laughing so hard I’m crying.
  • [Blank] is what it is so I’m laughing or I’d cry.

It mediates interaction. Much in the same way the Like button helped to confirm status and connections, the Tears of Joy emoji can be connective. It has become a quick and easy way to empathize. But it can also soften darker emotions as well, making them less confrontational. It can help lighten a remark or a shared experience, and provide a pathway to respond. It provides the right level of emotion for digital communication.

As we move deeper into the next wave of digital devices, we’re going to look for even more impactful ways of conveying meaning and intent. It will be interesting to see where we go beyond emojis to accomplish that.



Kralj Novak P, Smailović J, Sluban B, Mozetič I (2015) Sentiment of Emojis. PLoS ONE 10(12): e0144296. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0144296


You may also like:

A Digital Expression of Theory of Mind

Oracles Past and Present: Communicating Meaning Online