Why you should speak emoji
19 minutes 20 seconds read
Recently my coworker Astrid and I flew to California to visit a client. On the plane ride home she introduced me to Bitmoji, which is an app that lets you create an emoji that looks like you. Once you’ve created your Bitmoji, you can scroll through hundreds of images that include your Bitmoji and share them with others. Here’s me and my coworker, Bitmoji style:
That was only the beginning. We now send Bitmojis regularly at the office through Slack (a messaging app for teams). It’s a fun way to communicate, and we laugh at all the silly images that Bitmoji generates. But is there something more to it than a quick laugh? Why do we share our thoughts with images?
Consider the standard set of emojis.* Whenever I’m feeling fierce or accomplished (Go me! Yeah!) or I see a friend kicking butt at something (Go you!), I opt to send the muscle flex emoji to convey that emotion. I’ve also been known to the send the party emoji when I want to celebrate. And if I’m really on fire, I’ll double up: 🎉 💪 🎉 💪
Emojis are probably the most prolific pictorial language used today, but why? And what does it mean for conversation between businesses and customers? Is there a place for emojis in your dialogue with customers? I’ll come back to Bitmoji in a bit, but for now, let’s talk about emojis.
Every day we struggle to bridge the gap between written word and spoken word. Emails are hard enough, but when you reduce the communication to a text message, you have even less room to be clear. How do you convey a hug or love or empathy when you can’t be face to face with a person? Emojis “attempt to bridge the difficult gap between what we feel and what we intend and what we say and what we text” (1).
Emojis can also soften a message. It’s hard to be mean with an emoji. Even the angry face is not that aggressive or hurtful (1). Who could be mad at this guy? 😡 It’s not ideal to send bad news in written form, but we’re often forced to do so. “Emoji, like all images, allow us to project our own emotions, reactions, and interactions, and perhaps make it even easier to receive and process them” (2).
This use of sending visuals, particularly emojis, is not a new concept. Let’s look at the ancestry of these tiny conversation pieces.
Where did emojis come from?
Emojis find their beginnings in Rebus puzzles and hieroglyphics (2). While Rebus were often seen as annoying and for children (pictures are for kids, text for adults), they were also popular because they were funny and clever. “As the linguist David Crystal argues, they actually require a lot of cognitive effort, so they assume a level of playfulness on both the part of the writer and the reader. It’s an inside joke” (2).
This mirrors the feelings toward emoji. Today some people type entire sentences, songs, and books with emoji and have fun trying to decipher similar emoji sentences from their friends, while others find this activity useless and frustrating. The fun is the “inside joke” among friends.
Rebus and pictograms eventually died off with the invention of movable type (2). People began using text because it was easier and quicker, and the need for Rebus seemed unnecessary and fell out of favor.
With the rise of computers, we were introduced to wingdings, webdings, and emoticons, but today’s emojis originated in Japan in the 1990s when the telecom company NTT Docomo searched for a way to differentiate their pager service from competitors. One of their employees Shigetaka Kurita “hit on the idea of adding simplistic cartoon images to its messaging functions as a way to appeal to teens (1).” It was a success, and emojis later became a significant part of the Japanese smartphone culture.
When Apple decided to introduce the iPhone in Japan, it added emojis to iOS to appeal to the market. However, it hid the emoji keyboard from US iPhone owners since emoji use was not as popular there. Eventually US tech geeks found out about the keyboard and began downloading Japanese apps that would force the keyboard to be enabled. This led to Apple making it a standard keyboard for US iPhones (1).
Today emojis are used in text messages, Twitter, Facebook, and beyond. They can be used on smartphones and also computer keyboards (here’s how). Currently the most popular emoji used on Twitter is the face with tears of joy (😂 ), per Emojitracker.
What can emojis tell us about people?
First, it’s not just a millennial thing. According to the emotional marketing platform Emoji, 92% of online consumers use emojis with gender being a larger factor in emoji use than age.
Emoji use is not just for millenials.
In observing people’s use of emojis, I’ve learned the following:
- Identity matters
- Images are ambiguous
- Emojis can’t replace language
- Sincerity is key
Forbes notes that “as much as people love emojis and as big as they’ve gotten, they are still missing a key thing: identity.”
Yellow smiley faces are racially and gender neutral, but when emojis with skin tones showed up, people noticed quickly that the emojis barely represented people of color and didn’t represent black people at all (2). People spoke out and eventually Apple introduced more racial equality into their emojis, but there was still another problem – sexual discrimination.
In emojis? Yes. Makers.com notes that Apple’s “collection of female emojis remains limited to characters like brides and princesses. Activities are limited to sexy salsa dancing, getting haircuts, and wearing bunny costumes.” In contrast, male emojis are shown in multiple professions, sports, and activities.
People want to express themselves with emojis, but they can’t if the emoji doesn’t represent them at least to a minimum degree. Yellow face is probably OK whether you’re a man, woman, white, or black, but a white face really only works for white folks. And what is the impact to society when one of our youngest audiences – teens – are using a set of emojis that doesn’t actually reflect the world we live in? Does a limited set of emojis suggest, even subtly, to young girls that women can only aspire to become brides or Playboy bunnies?
Dove and Always tackled this issue with clever campaigns. First, Dove released an emoji keyboard for curly hair emojis. Sure, it’s simple and cute, but if you have curly hair, you are woefully underrepresented in the emoji world.
Second, Always started the #likeagirl campaign where they asked girls what emojis they wanted to see. Lucy Walker of Pulse Films directed the Always spot for the campaign, saying, “As someone who has studied sociolinguistics, I know the kind of impact even seemingly innocuous language choices can have on girls.”
The girls asked for emojis of women playing drums, lifting weights, kicking a soccer ball, and more. You may be thinking something as trivial as a set of emojis doesn’t have the power to influence a group of people, but research tells us otherwise.
“We know that girls, especially during puberty, try to fit in and are therefore easily influenced by society. In fact, we found that 7 out of 10 girls even felt that society limits them, by projecting what they should or should not do, or be,” says Michele Baeten, associate brand director and lead Always “Like a Girl” leader at Procter & Gamble.
The importance of identity is further illustrated with the release of Bitmoji, which allows people to use their likeness but with a twist – it’s not meant to be reality. Bitmoji offers a cuter, possibly more likeable version of yourself. Why not a more realistic version? Forbes notes it’s about balance, “If you are too generic, you have no meaning. If you are too realistic, it gets creepy.”
And people seem to agree. Ashley Parker, in an article for The New York Times says, “Messaging friends or family from the app’s assortment of sweet nothings — arms stretched wide around the words ‘I love you this much’ or ‘Muah’ atop an avatar dappled with kisses — are things I would never even type to my sister. But they seem somehow acceptable when presented in bubbly pictorial form.”
Bitmoji releases new emojis every day, and many are often culturally relevant such as whether the dress is blue/black or white/gold whether you would support Kanye as president or not. And if you think Bitmoji is not catching on, think again. According to the Wall Street Journal, Snapchat bought Bitstrips, Inc. (creator of the Bitmoji app) for $100M.
Images are ambiguous
The written word is rife with ambiguity and emojis are no different. We’re not working with photo realism, so there’s room for interpretation. Sometimes ambiguity can be funny, such as the peach emoji (🍑 ) being used by many to represent a butt and the eggplant emoji (🍆 ) being used to represent male anatomy. These are definitely inside jokes between friends, unless you’re actually cooking eggplant parmesan with peach cobbler for dessert.
The rapper Drake recently tattooed the “person with folded hands” emoji (🙏 ) onto his body and was confronted with its ambiguity when people asked why he got a tattoo of hands high-fiving. He responded via Instagram, “I pity the fool who high-fives in 2014” (1). Clearly, he sees the emoji as praying hands.
Some emojis tie to cultural references outside of the US and seemingly make no sense, such as the “pile of poo” emoji (💩 ) which may include a smile depending on which platform (iOS, Android, etc.) you’re viewing it on. This stinker (sorry) ties back to the Japanese emojis and is a play on words that means good luck (1). In the US it’s kind of like a fart joke – you’re disgusted, but it still cracks you up.
Emoji use also varies by culture, with the Australians using the most emojis pertaining to alcohol, drugs, holidays, and junk food.
When in doubt about what an emoji is named, which offers clues about what it means, you can hit up Botmoji on Twitter for the answer. Send an emoji to Botmoji, and it responds with what the emoji means.
POWER IN AMBIGUITY
Some argue that the ambiguity of emojis is part of evolving language and can be powerful. Jenna Wortham argues in Womanzine that emojis have the “power to become a changeling in conversations” (2). She goes on to write that emoji meanings may change depending on who you’re talking to. Certainly if you send a 🍆 to your parents, it means the veggie.
Emojis provide ways to communicate an emotion or sentiment, sometimes even outside their original intent. “This elasticity of meaning is a large part of the appeal and, perhaps, the genius of emoji” (1). The power of assigning meaning to these tiny pictures is solely in the hands of the persons sending and receiving them.
Emojis are enticingly personal. They’re meant for the person you send them to. They are not broadcast messages. “We smile with hearts in our eyes. We cry tears of joy. We say ‘I love you,’ but in a million different ways, each one freighted with the particular meaning we hope fervently to convey, then send them out hopefully, like a smiley face in a bottle, waiting to be received by the exact person it was intended for, and opened up, and understood completely” (1).
Meaning is always changing, which is similar to how all language evolves over time, and leads to ambiguity when one person’s understanding of an emoji has evolved differently than the person they are communicating with. However, when both people understand whether 🍑 is a fruit or a butt, the inside joke is shared.
Inside jokes only work on the “inside” of a group. What happens when emojis are seen by large, disconnected groups of people? What happens when your personal message becomes public?
When Facebook introduced the Like button, it was a huge success. People loved having the ability to quickly tell someone they liked a post. It wasn’t long before people started questioning what “like” actually meant though. Agree? Support? Like? Love?
Do you “like” a post when someone says they just lost their job? Some people do, because they see the “like” as showing support (“I’m here for you” versus “I like this”). However, the majority of people who see that “like” probably don’t know what the person meant and may be confused why anyone would like such a terrible thing.
Facebook knew they had to offer more options beyond “like,” so they reviewed posts and comments from users all over the world to figure out the most common reactions people sent. They found 100s of reactions (love was number one) and through grouping similar sentiments together (e.g., happy and joy), they finally developed a list of 6 reactions.
Then knew ambiguity would be a problem. How could only 6 reactions convey the 100s of reactions people were sending? They created and tested dozens of iterations of their reaction emojis with users, until they found the set that resonated best.
They added animation for clarity, and they considered adding voices to further illustrate the meaning of each reaction. Now users can react with like, love, haha, wow, sad, and angry. Whether you like the new reactions or not, the feature was carefully designed and well thought through.
In contrast, when Twitter replaced their star emoji with a heart late last year, users were immediately enraged. Twitter assumed users saw the star as a way to favorite a tweet, but in reality users saw the star as more of a bookmark or “keep for later” note. When the star became a heart, the meaning immediately changed to “love” or “like” or, at the least, something positive.
This change was problematic, because users had saved tweets they wanted to read later but definitely did not associate positive feelings towards. For example, one user starred a tweet with a link to an article about ISIS, and with the emoji change, it now looked like the user loved that tweet.
Twitter was also accused of stealing the heart idea from Instagram, where the heart does mean to “love” something. Twitter’s mistake was in thinking that the meaning they intended for an emoji would supercede the meaning created by their users.
Emojis can’t replace language
With 6 new Facebook reactions, people assigning their own meanings to different emojis, and new emojis being added every year, the emoji language continues to grow and evolve just like any other language. It’s becoming a new form of literacy, but it can’t completely replace spoken or written language.
Sometimes we bridge that gap with complete misunderstanding, which is why the next point is crucial to understand.
Sincerity is key
Any time we send written communication, whether it’s words or emojis, we must remember the audience and context we’re sending in. Emojis are becoming more acceptable in the workplace as a form of digital casual language, similar to water cooler chat, and perpetuated by apps like Slack that allow teams to talk both work and fun inside one environment. However, I doubt we’ll see the day when emojis are welcome in an annual report, contract, or bid for a $1M project.
Coupled with understanding your context, you must also strive to be sincere in all communications. Hillary Clinton learned this lesson the hard way. Last August, she reached out via Twitter to Americans saddled with student loan debt:
I wrote earlier that emojis can soften a message, but sometimes a situation is too dire that any attempts to soften it come across as flippant. People were not amused by Clinton’s approach to discussing the overwhelming burden of student debt:
And while some were offended at her flippancy, others just thought she was being unauthentic:
Mary Mann tells a story in her blog about escorting her friend to a party where the friend would have to face the woman her husband was cheating on her with. The friend had grand plans to tell the woman what she thought, but when faced with her, she was speechless and had to leave. Mary describes hugging her friend and comforting her that night, but the next day at work she didn’t have the opportunity to comfort her friend again in person. She sent a text message instead:
Surely a failing marriage is as big a burden as $20k in student loan debt, so why does this emoji exchange succeed where Clinton’s failed? The exchange was between friends where a level of intimacy and shared emotion already existed. What looks like silly responses to a serious situation on the outside is actually a meaningful and loving exchange on the inside. Clinton doesn’t have a relationship with people who have student loan debt, and she’s definitely not known for her use of emojis. Her Twitter message was viewed as out of place, insulting, and disrespectful.
Sincerity matters. People want to feel that you care and that you are sincere in your attempts to help.
What we can learn about content from emojis
Today you can download multiple emoji apps, even Kimoji which includes emojis featuring Kim Kardashian. Ericson is exploring what emojis look like in real life, Dominos lets you order pizza by emoji, and Pepsi even created their own set of emojis, Pepsimoji.
What does all of this emoji use mean for brands who are trying to create meaningful content for their customers? Emojis may not be on brand for you, but the rules of emoji apply to all content:
Create content for your customers so that they can see themselves in you. What do they care about? What do they need? What can you offer to better their life or situation? Your content should be about the customer’s identity, not yours.
IMAGES ARE AMBIGUOUS
Remember that what you put out there could be misconstrued or given new meaning by your audience, and that’s OK. Own up to your mistakes when you make them, and allow your customers to interact with you on their terms.
EMOJIS CAN’T REPLACE LANGUAGE
Even the best content can’t replace the conversation between a brand and its customers. Content is a big part of creating and maintaining that conversation, but how else can you strengthen the bond? Maybe it’s creating safer products or offering better customer service. Maybe it’s just listening for a while instead of doing all the talking.
SINCERITY IS KEY
Know who you are and be that brand. Care about your customers – not just their wallets, but their lives. Understand how you can help and where you’re willing to help. Then go there with gusto.
What can emojis tell you about your brand?
More reading about emojis
- Smile, You’re Speaking Emoji: The rapid evolution of a wordless tongue. New York Magazine.
- Emoji. Womanzine.
- Sexist Emoji? Stuff Mom Never Told You podcast.
*Emoji or emojis? It’s up for debate.