Emoji, the cute little graphics of smiley faces, airplanes and fruit that are built into your smartphone's digital keyboard, have long been part of texting and online culture. But they can also be incredibly confusing, and not just because it can be hard to figure out that 🐎💥👖 is supposed to mean a "swift kick in the pants."

New research from the University of Minnesota' GroupLens Lab suggests that people often have contrasting interpretations of the exact same emoji -- and that differences in how an emoji displays on one device versus another can make things even worse.

A big part of the problem is that not all emoji are created equal. Unicode, the computer industry standard for characters and text, now recognizes more than 1,000 different emoji. It provides a code and description of each emoji -- for example, U+1F601 and "grinning face with smiling eyes" -- but it does not offer an actual image.

So companies such as Google and Apple are left to decide what an emoji looks like for their users. And sometimes their illustrations don't quite line up. Just look at "grinning face with smiling eyes."

Here's Google version:

1F601_Google

And here's Apple's version:

1F601_Apple

"Someone described the Google one as 'blissfully happy' and the Apple one as 'ready to fight' -- which actually ended up going in the title of our research paper," said Hannah Miller, a PhD candidate and the lead author on a paper exploring the potential for emoji miscommunication that will be presented at a major data science conference next month.

The study looked at 22 different emoji and how they appear on five different smartphones -- those from Apple, Google, Microsoft, LG and Samsung. The researchers had more than 300 participants view a random subset of 15 of the emoji versions, describe them and rank them on a scale of -5 to 5 with -5 representing a strongly negative sentiment and 5 representing a strongly positive sentiment.

On average, respondents thought the Apple version of the "grinning face with smiling eyes" emoji meant something bad, but the version from Google and others meant something good.


How participants in the study ranked different versions of "grinning face with smiling eyes." (GroupLens Lab at the University of Minnesota)

The situation creates an opportunity for confusion if people are messaging across platforms: A user with a phone that relies on Google's version of the emoji might send what they think is an encouraging grin to an iPhone-wielding friend, who might receive a much more ambiguous grimace.

And I do mean ambiguous: While more respondents in the study thought Apple's version of "grinning face with smiling eyes" was negative than positive, there was a lot of disagreement even though they were all looking at the same image.


How participants in the study ranked the sentiment of Apple's version of "grinning face with smiling eyes." (GroupLens Lab at the University of Minnesota)

While that particular emoji stood out, the researchers found there were differences in how people interpreted the emoji they studied across the board -- suggesting emoji users could be leaving themselves at risk of being misinterpreted.

As emoji become more common, that could have very serious implications. Earlier this year, for example, a 12-year-old girl in Fairfax County faced criminal charges after police said she threatened her school with an Instagram message that contained emoji for a gun, bomb and knife. But in New York City, a grand jury dismissed charges against a 17-year-old, who had posted 👮 🔫 to Facebook.

In most cases, emoji confusion is not likely to to be that big of a problem, according to Miller.

"It might not mean the end of the world, but it might mean you ending up questioning what someone else means," she said.