Even if you don’t talk with teenage girls, chances are that you’ve encountered emoji in your online communications—those little depictions of faces, fruits and vegetables, and symbols that some people use to add richness to their texting vocabulary.
But as more people are using an increasing number of emoji, we’re finding out that the message we intend to send isn’t always the one that’s received—particularly with the most commonly used emoji, ones that include faces. A recent study has put a number on just how often these emoji misinterpretations happen, and why.
The Emoji Effect
The study, “Blissfully happy” or “ready to fight”: Varying Interpretations of Emoji, was written by six researchers at GroupLens Research at the University of Minnesota, and is scheduled to be presented later this month at the 2016 AAAI International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media in Cologne, Germany. Its results were based on a survey of over 300 Americans about what they thought particular emoji meant. While researchers noted that the emoji presented in this way lacked a context that might make their meaning clearer, they were still concerned about how easy such emoji misinterpretation was.
There are three reasons people don’t understand emoji:
- Different Unicode interpretations.
You may not realize it, but emoji don’t necessarily look the same on different devices and systems, or even different versions of the same operating system. The problem is that the Unicode Consortium, the organization that determines which emoji are being added, doesn’t define them as a picture, but simply as a description, such as “grinning face with smiling eyes.” In the same way that each device manufacturer decides how to design a letter in a particular font, each one also decides what that emoji should look like.
“Individual platform vendors such as Apple and Google create their own rendering for each emoji character they support. This means that the ‘Grinning Face’ emoji character has a different appearance when viewed on an Apple device (e.g., an iPhone) than on a Google device (e.g., a Nexus phone),” notes the paper. “Emojipedia—a website serving as an ‘encyclopedia for emoji’—lists 17 such platforms, which means that there may be at least 17 different renderings for a given Unicode emoji character.”
For example, take “grinning face with smiling eyes.” “Depending on the platform, it can range from the rosy-cheeked cherubic face of glee to the anguished clenched-teeth look of constipation,” writes Alissa Walker in Gizmodo.
- Different people’s interpretations.
Even when people are using the same type of phone and so sending the same emoji back and forth, some people perceive them a different way. (Remember The Dress?) Not only do people agree on the meaning of only a small fraction of emoji, a significant fraction can’t even agree on the sentiment behind them.
“Only 4.5 percent of emoji symbols we examined have consistently low variance in their sentiment interpretations,” notes the paper. “Conversely, in 25 percent of the cases where participants rated the same rendering, they did not agree on whether the sentiment was positive, neutral, or negative.”
One of the worst offenders? Again, it was “grinning face with smiling eyes,” but particularly the Apple version. It hit just about every point on a sentiment scale ranging from -5 to +5, except for neutral—people either thought it was pretty positive or pretty negative, writes one of the researchers, Hannah Miller, in a blog post. Other commonly misunderstood emoji were Face with Tears of Joy, Smiling Face with Open Mouth and Tightly Closed Eyes, Loudly Crying Face, and Sleeping Face.
The most notable finding is simply how prevalent such miscommunication (which researchers called “misconstrual”) is, even on the same platform. “Overall, we found that if you send an emoji across platform boundaries (e.g., an iPhone to a Nexus), the sender and the receiver will differ by about 2.04 points on average on our -5 to 5 sentiment scale,” Miller writes. “However, even within platforms, the average difference is 1.88 points.”
- Hidden meanings
Aside from the problems of misinterpretation, there’s also the aspect that emoji can be used as a kind of code. “Is a winkie face emoji ironic, flirtatious or menacing? What exactly do the popular dancing girl or grinning pile of poo emoji actually mean — if anything — when appended to a message?” writes Justin Jouvenal in the Washington Post. “Emoji have no set definition and their use can vary from user-to-user and context-to-context.” And apparently nobody knows what the pink lady emoji means.
Such misunderstandings can be pretty serious, Jouvenal adds, noting that a 12-year-old girl faced criminal charges earlier this year for writing a message with gun, bomb, and knife emoji, because people thought she might be making a threat. And she’s not alone. “A grand jury in New York City recently had to decide whether [an emoji of a police officer and a gun] represented a true threat to police officers,” he writes. “A Michigan judge was asked to interpret the meaning of a face with a tongue sticking out: :P.”
In addition, there are all sorts of hidden meanings ascribed to emoji. A study of emoji by an artificial intelligence system, the Curalate Emojini, turned up many such secondary meanings. “Society has assigned specific meanings to emojis, even when they weren’t the intention of the emoji creator,” writes Lou Kratz, lead research engineer at Curalate. “Even unexpected results tell a story about how the Instagram community views a specific image. The EmojiNet demonstrates that such socially attributed meanings have clear visual cues, indicating that emojis themselves are evolving into their own visual language.”
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