Emoji: Nice or noisy?

Every once in a while I get a text, and it has no emoji in it. And even though the text is fine, and the contents are pretty neutral, the fact that there are no emoji puts my mind in an instantaneous state of doubt — is this person mad at me?

Perhaps you recognise this feeling I just described (or maybe it’s just me — if it is, let me know in the comments). Emoji are nowadays used by so many, and so often, that when they remain absent from digital communication, the emoji-less message may read as more negative than it might have read before emoji became such a messaging staple.

We’ve become pretty dependent on these tiny little depictions of all sorts of everyday emotions and things. Their presence or absence is perhaps interpreted in different ways depending, perhaps, on state of mind or personality (just like my interpretation may be fuelled by how sensitive I am to social rejection). But what about differential interpretation of the emoji themselves? Emoji are meant to make communication easier, more straightforward, in the absence of seeing someone’s face. But could it be that in some cases they actually introduce extra communicational noise?

First, for anyone having had experience with different phone brands and platforms, it’s pretty astounding how different the ‘same’ emoji can look. Take for instance this range of ‘drooling’ or ‘person frowning’ emoji, depicted below. The emotion they exude is quite inconsistent; whereas the first drooling face seems to say ‘mmm, delicious’, the second has more of a ‘vegetative state’-feel to it, and the third has seen stuff, if you know what I mean. The frowning girls are also pretty dissimilar, with the first one looking like you broke up with her, the second seeming more disappointed/disinterested in you, and the third one looking plain angry.

Also, anyone using platforms where shorthand can be used to call upon emoji (such as Slack, or the discontinued MSN Messenger), may have had the experience of conveying the emotion depicted by an emoji, simply by using the shorthand. For instance, I still regularly use “:aap4:” (which would upon completion have transformed into a cute animated monkey, in MSN Messenger) on platforms which do not support or recognise that animation/shorthand. Of course, this implies that you and your communication partners share a common (visual!) ‘dictionary’ of emoji. This just goes to show that people’s internal representations of emoji play a large role in their effectiveness as a means of communication.

There has been some interesting research on emoji done so far that seems to confirm the sense that emoji can be pretty noisy: a 2020 study found “limited shared agreement for the majority of emoji–emotion pairings, and significant variation as to which emotion category a “comparable” emoji belonged depending upon the viewed platform”. In other words; you’re likely to perceive the emoji’s emotional meaning differently depending on the variant you come across.

So, I guess my personal take-away from all of this is… it doesn’t hurt to double-check (or give people the benefit of the doubt) if you’re unsure about the message someone is trying to get across.

BONUS TRIVIA: Do you know what the difference is between emoticons and emoji? Well, apparently emoticons are ‘faces’ constructed with typographic symbols, like “;)”. Emoji, on the other hand, are the actual picture-faces (or vegetables, or whatever), like the ones in the pictures above. The more you know.

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