My co-hosts and I have a very active group chat in which we plan future episodes, we recommend content, we razz each other about the current Box Office Game leaderboard, etc etc., and part of our conversational style frequently includes the utilization of emojis. I’m partial to the upside-down smiley face for its versatility, which I had always considered an advantageous characteristic, but last week Mav asked me about the meaning I was hoping to convey via its usage. It was honestly the first time I had considered the potential conversational shortfalls of an “ambiguous emoji.”
My upside-down smiley face is intended to convey something between “guilty as charged” or “jokes on me.” I could have used the clown, or the extra cheesy smiley instead. Of which I often do, for exactly the same intended meaning. This did lead to a particularly existential observation that most of my emojis are carrying around the connotative Catholic guilt of my upbringing. But it also got us hosts thinking about the potential linguistic nuances and rhetoric of the emoji. Five years ago my phone didn’t even have an 🙃 option. One time in high school I had to explain to my parents that “🤣” was a crying laughing emoji and not “a sex thing.”
As Hannah correctly pointed out, we’ve probably been avoiding this conversation because we’re all a little scarred by the memory of The Emoji Movie, with it’s rather impressive Rotten Tomatoes score of 6%. Or this particularly cringe-y ESPN Sports Center commercial, or some other iteration of emojis that makes us feel like we’re saying “how do you do, fellow kids?” But what if we did do a very serious episode about the emoji language? Are hieroglyphs the proper historical analogy? Why do we choose to use the pictorials that we do? How do our individual experiences or social conditions teach us to assign different meanings to the same signs? We’ve got ❓❓❓s
I remember when I was about two years old and my mom first showed me what a typewriter was and how it worked. It was so fascinating. I asked her to type me a picture and was very upset when she told me that was impossible because that’s not how typewriters worked. Technology has avenged me! 😎
As a cultural theorist with a healthy interest in semiotics (that is the study of symbols and how they convey meaning and information) emojis fascinate me. In Monica’s example, she talked about the 🤣 and trying to convince her 👨👩👧 that it “wasn’t a sex thing.” But then, who’s to say? This wouldn’t be the first time a teen 👧 had ever spoken in code in order to avoid parental snooping. Just because Monica didn’t mean a sex thing by it, maybe other people do. Do people sometimes innocently try to ROTFL with 🤣 and the person they’re talking to starts thinking “ooh hell yeah, it’s on!” And maybe some people who mean sex with an emoji get it misconstrued as innocent. Sometimes an 🍆 is just an 🍆. Or maybe it’s not? Who’s to say?
Oh… I guess me. I’m to say. I’m an English 👨🏾🏫! Sometimes I forget!
A picture is worth 1000 words… or maybe zero. And whether you’re into Ferdinand de Saussure, John Berger, or Scott McCloud, you know that there is a power to interpreting and deriving meaning from images. And the truth is, picture have the same symbolic meaning as words. In fact, words are just symbols… or more technically they are “signifiers” that represent a “signified” concept that the message sender intends. The receiver then converts the signifier into his own assumption of what the signified was and hopefully SOME level of meaning was maintained. And sure, we like to assume symbols are more interpretive and words more concrete. Except, that’s not really true. It never has been. If I say the word “blue” you have a vision of that in your head which is probably not exactly the same as my blue. And it mostly doesn’t matter that we’re not talking about the same thing… unless of course it turns out that maybe my blue is a little too close to 🟣 for you to consider it 🔵, or your blue is a little too 🟢 for my tastes. Language is always interpretive. It always was. And by the way, it’s been seven fucking years and I can still only see the damn dress as ⚪️ and 🟡!
One of the things I’ve heard”old” people always complain about is that “the kids today” can’t write. A lot of the complaints are about how the way they interact with technology is making them illiterate. Mostly, though this is just that the kids use language DIFFERENTLY than the olds. In her Newsweek article from December, “Why Johnny Can’t Write“, Merrill Sheils speaks to the decline in literacy amongst a generation of young adults who have been raised to be reliant on new technology saying, “many of the most intelligent freshmen, in some ways more articulate and sophisticated than ever before, are seriously deficient when it comes to organizing their thoughts on paper. By the time they reach college, the professors complain, it is almost too late to help them.” Only when I say “her article from December” I mean December of 1975! And by raised to be “reliant on technology”, I mean 📺! Sheils predicted that a generation of Americans who had no respect “standard” English over the “rot” that the kids learned from TV was going to mean the decline anyone’s ability to communicate anything. Those “kids” are in their mid-sixties now and making the same stupid complaints. You can’t blame them… you see, they grew up smoking doobies and speaking slang. Their brains turned to mush. Not like their parents who had nice healthy jazz 🚬.
One of the best things about emojis is that they are understandable by just about anyone on some level. My then 3yo nephew used to love texting before he could properly read or write. He knew the 💬 icon meant the messaging app on his iPad. He knew how to click on his family and send see the group chat convos. He couldn’t “read them” but he knew who was there. So he used a lot of emojis. His favorite was 💩, because of course it was. And he would send BUNCHES of 💩💩💩 from his iPad to everyone in the family… because I mean… 💩! And he was three.
The point is, “Johnny” could write in 1975! He was just communicating in a way that is optimized for receivers that might not include Sheils and her fellow olds of the day. The same argument about the dirty hippies of her day came up about the beatniks before her and would come up again over the complaints about “ebonics” and hip hop after and it is similar here. Emojis, like any communication, simply require both sender and receiver to be speaking the same language… or at least a similar enough facsimile. And let’s face it… if I send you 🍑🍆… you know what’s up. Yeah you do… And if you don’t… well, then maybe it just wasn’t meant for you in the first place. So the problem isn’t when we KNOW the hidden meaning of emojis… It’s when we don’t! Maybe 🤣 wasn’t a sex thing to teen Monica… but why DID it mean that to her parents after all?
Anyway, we want to talk about emojis? How do you use them? How do you interpret them? Do you find them concrete? Do you embrace the ambiguity? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.