Emoji could become the digital cave art of our time in hundreds of years. At least, that’s what Mayank Kejriwal, an industrial and systems engineering research assistant professor at the University of Southern California, thinks.
His most recent study of Twitter emoji usage has prompted him to consider whether our collective real-time social media behavior can capture and reveal something about the current human condition.
“The single most interesting finding [of the study] was that when it comes to emoji usage, people are truly universal,” he says. “Whatever language you look at, there is a clear trend emerging.”
He and his team looked at over 1.5 billion public tweets from October 2016 to see how people from all over the world used emoji in their social media posts.
After that, they isolated the tweets that were GPS-enabled and combed through the metadata for language data.
He explains, “We chose a period well before the pandemic because we wanted to study very general trends, not event-specific trends like after an election.”
The researchers wanted to look at a time before TikTok, Snapchat, and other platforms became popular—a time when Twitter was the most popular social media platform.
He explains, “We tried to figure out which emoji were popular.” “Do they have a language barrier, a country barrier, or are they universal? In the emoji world, how globalized are we?”
The most widely used emojis
They discovered that people used emojis in the same way regardless of nationality or language.
Emojis that depict emotions (joy, sadness, anger) are the most popular worldwide, with the laugh-cry face topping the charts as the most popular emoji.
Smiling smiles and hearts are also popular.
“These are usually more emotional. They either express a point of view or a state of mind. “This suggests that we are emotional beings,” Kejriwal says.
Except for the Middle East, where “the blue heart is very popular,” he says, Western nations appeared to favor smiling faces more, and most countries had relatively comparable proportions of hearts to smiley faces.
“In South American countries, such as Brazil, the regular red heart was very popular.”
Even though it was not part of the study, Kejriwal has noticed that many of the reactions he sees to memes on the internet involve more emoji.
“The really good memes have an emotional impact,” he says, “which goes back to the initial premise that when there’s an emotional impact, emoji are used more and words are used less.”
“It takes a lot of energy just to think about the words. It’s just more convenient to send an emoji.”
Emoji for expressing a sense of location
The middle of the rankings is dominated by experiential emoji. They aren’t as well-known as symbols that express emotion, but they are still widely used. The food and activity symbols are shown here (like football, rugby, or beach balls).
It was sometimes location or event-dependent which specific experiential emojis were popular. Holidays that are observed all around the world can also be included in the list of experiences.
In October, for example, the Halloween emoji was quite popular in the United States, as well as Canada and Australia.
“We discovered that emoji [use] was higher in holiday destinations. People tended to tweet more in coastal cities, and these [tweets] also had more emojis. For example, all of the beach-related emojis were always present in Australia’s coastal cities.
And if the weather in coastal cities was nice, you’d see a lot more emoji diversity,” Kejriwal argues.
“We didn’t find a lot of variance in emoji usage in Scandinavian countries. They tended to congregate around a limited number of emoji.”
Flags and nationalistic symbols were used less frequently than other types of emoji, except for athletic events.
“What the data revealed us is that people are more focused on their emotional moods and experiences in their day-to-day lives, at least pre-pandemic,” he says.
“No matter whatever language you learned, or even if you studied all the languages combined, the distribution was pretty similar.”
Even though emoji usage was mainly agnostic of language, Kejriwal noticed several peculiarities that he ascribed to linguistic influence.
In comparison to a country like Germany, the French-speaking regions, including Canada and France, have more similar patterns of emoji usage.
In terms of how they use emojis, Canada and India are pretty similar. He speculates, “I’m sure that has a lot to do with the fact that there are a lot of Indian residents in Canada.”
Emoji and emoticons first became popular in the 1990s, and some have labeled them the first digital language. Emojis provided a dimension of warmth to texts and other kinds of digital contact for many people.
Kejriwal believes that the rise of social media, paired with Twitter’s 140-character limit, has set the environment for emoji usage to skyrocket. “If you only have 140 characters and an emoji counts as one character, it goes a long way toward communicating how you feel or what you’re doing,” he continues.
“Perhaps that’s why, for a long time between 1999 and 2008, emoji wasn’t a topic of discussion. People have only begun to investigate them in the last five years.”
In 2015, the laugh-cry emoji, formally known as “Face with Tears of Joy,” was named the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for the first time.
It was “the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015,” according to Oxford University Press.
Microsoft’s emoji library was expanded last week. In a tweet, the company announced the launch of a new set of icons that “better reflect the world we live in.”
The fact that Microsoft, Slack, and other platforms embrace emoji, as well as the fact that the standard sets are expanding, is encouraging to Kejriwal.
“That signals to me that they are very powerful and here to stay,” adds Kejriwal.
“It’s a fantastic thing because it allows us to be expressive, especially when we’re not comfortable with words and just wants to put something more emotive out there,” says the author.