The polling firm YouGov recently did a survey to find out how people interpreted emoji. Not surprisingly, there were significant differences of opinion on many. What looked like “shocked” to one person looked to others like “bored” or “surprised” or “dead.”
The greatest agreement on meaning came on this one:
More than seven out of 10, YouGov said, interpreted it as “sad,” “crying,” “upset” or “unhappy.”
But they were all wrong. It’s “sleepy.” As YouGov pointed out, a group that sets emoji standards — yes, there is an emoji-standard-setter, about which more later — said it means “sleepy face.”
Sure, there appears to be a tear coming from the emoji’s eye. But like all emoji, its origin is Japanese anime — and that tear is actually a nasal bubble “derived from anime/manga iconography that denotes sleep,” to quote a Wired article on the subject headlined “We’re All Using These Emoji Wrong.”
Are we indeed using emoji wrong? Or is it that there is no right or wrong when it comes to emoji because it’s all in the context and the culture?
YouGov surveyed 1,696 people in Britain, letting them indicate what they thought was the meaning of each emoji, rather than suggesting meanings. They were “understood in very different ways by people,” even though all were in the U.K., said Ben Glanville, head of YouGov Omnibus, which is based in London. “There was definitely scope for misunderstanding.” The emoji for “astonished” or “shocked” (the one with x’s for eyes) was interpreted by some to mean “bored.” Imagine, said Glanville, getting an emoji indicating boredom after telling someone your aunt was dead.
Here’s more from the YouGov survey, with varying meanings of the emoji reflected in the bubbles above them:
If someone sent you this emoji — unlikely unless you have Japanese friends — what would you make of it? Pan pipes? Bamboo convention? Emerald City?
Some see it as being given the finger, or are at the very least dumbfounded by it.
“Many American bloggers have puzzled over kadomatsu, an emoji pine decoration,” wrote Lisa Lebduska in the journal Harlot, “which is more familiar to Japanese writers, who would have seen them placed in homes to welcome a new year. In instances of cultural disconnect, those unfamiliar with the tradition have sent the kadomatsu as a sign of disrespect, mistaking it for a middle finger icon.”
So is the world of the emoji a Tower of Babel? The official body that sorts out emoji, the Unicode Consortium, sees some problems — and is trying to refine emoji in the interest, it says, of improving “the interoperability of emoji characters.” A few of its proposals, still under consideration:
The official emoji “face with a look of triumph” is confusing because it looks angry. The solution: Remove the “steam from nose to appear like it is winning, not angry/fed up.”
The “frowning face with open mouth” emoji looks “shocked or surprised” primarily because “a frown with an open mouth is difficult to achieve.”
Despite the consortium’s best efforts, however, emoji will likely sort themselves out. In “Emoji, Emoji, What for Art Thou,” Lebduska, an English professor at Wheaton College, pointed out that they are, after all, a language — and languages evolve of their own accord.
“Emojis,” she wrote, “like alphabetic writing, are culturally and contextually bound.”
But, as Glanville from YouGov said, the survey shows emoji “are not ready to replace the written word.”
Indeed, for most people they accompany the written word, rather than replace it. “They most often are used in conjunction with a written message, Lebduska noted — to signal, for example, that someone is just kidding or does not want to be taken too seriously. Indeed, that’s how the precursor to emojis — the emoticon “:)” — originated.
“In 1982,” she wrote, “a group of Carnegie Mellon researchers were using an online bulletin board to ‘trade quips’ about what might happen if their building’s elevator cable were cut, when they realized that an outsider to the conversation might take them seriously … They developed the iconic “:)” to make sure everyone else was in on the joke. And the rest, as the saying goes, was history.” The Japanese turned “:)” into emoji.
“Emojis,” she wrote, “are an attempt to insure that the message we intend is the message that is received, that we can shore up the fissures, the lacuna, the gaps, disconnects, discordances and plain old misunderstandings that inevitably emerge when one brain tries to externalize its thoughts for another through words. Emojis inherit a long tradition of enlisting visuality to do so.”
So it all goes back to the clarity of the message and that’s another problem entirely.