Learning to speak emoji

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Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

This is an edited version of a thought leadership article by Jennifer Ross submitted as part of the CIPR Professional PR Diploma with PR Academy

I admit to having been something of a Luddite towards emoji myself, seeing them as simply colourful additions to text-speak and being slightly incredulous at claims that it is the fastest growing global ‘language’.

Debate around emoji itself has tended to focus on the apocalyptic aspects of their impact on language as we know it; this has possibly been to miss the bigger picture. For just as their creeping presence and usage within my own newsfeed, texts and even work emails has become more noticeable, so has their prevalence in the public and now professional communications sphere.

New research is unlocking intriguing insights into what emoji can tell us about how our engagement with each other online is evolving, as well as new areas where they could have a practical application. So, is there more to these picture-characters than meets the eye, and is it time for us to get serious about emoji?

Say what you see

On statistics alone, emoji certainly warrant our attention. Some six billion are sent on a daily basis and of the 76 percent of the UK population who own a smart-phone, over 80 per cent of them regularly use emoji.

At the heart of this research carried out by Professor Vyv Evans from the University of Bangor, is the claim that emoji actually make us better communicators, with 72 percent of 18 to 25 year olds confirming that emoji enable them to express themselves better.

The explanation? That rather than restricting or ‘dumbing-down’ our skills of expression, emoji actually enhance them, by adding back into our language the nuances that are so often stripped away in written and digital communications.

Send a text telling someone that you hit your head, and they may respond in a sympathetic way – ‘oh no, poor you’. Send the same message with a crying laughter face, and they might respond differently – ‘you idiot!’ Emoji allow for a better understanding of how the words we use should be interpreted.

Fun, fast and expressive, part of the appeal of emoji is their visual nature, tapping into the fact that as humans we are hard-wired to respond to images. The neuroscientist R S Fixot was the first to note in the 1950s that when our eyes open, our vision accounts for two thirds of the electrical activity in the brain. With half of our neural tissue directly or indirectly linked to vision, as molecular biologist John Medina asserts in his book Brain Rules, ‘in the battle of the senses, vision is winning.’

Away from face-to-face engagement, online visual cues like emoji can offer an additional way to convey our unique creative voice, and an opportunity to project something digitally about ourselves that may illicit empathy from the person or publics we are trying to engage.

They are not however without their own ambiguities.

As researchers at the University of Minnesota have highlighted, the same emoji can be rendered in different ways, depending on the platform being used, for example, across Apple, Android and Google. You may have intended to send a grinning smiley face, but it’s received at the other end as a teeth-gnashing alien.

Their findings also show that it is possible for two people on the same platform to view the same emoji differently – perhaps more positively or more negatively either way.

Admittedly there is a difference between being shown an emoji in isolation, as was the case in the Minnesota study, as opposed to within a flow of messages as might more naturally occur, helping with interpretation and meaning. However, it certainly seems that for some, the meanings emoji can offer are too nuanced, as is to be found among the over-40s, where confusion and lack of confidence around emoji use is most common.

While this is something for any organisation considering significant emoji use to be aware of, what their rising popularity more broadly points towards is the growing importance of the cultivation of a story, relationship, and personality around our communications.

Although Lambeth Council was recently stung by including a crying sad face emoji on a council tax bill to residents, there have been other more successful incidences of their adoption into the professional and commercial world. MacDonald’s, Dove and Ikea have all explored innovative emoji-based campaigns that engender a relational response to their brand, either through the explicit use of emoji messages and phrases in campaigns, or through the development of bespoke sets of emoji characters or ‘keyboards’.

Saying it with feeling

This may all still feel a bit uncharted, but it’s worth considering what can be learnt from these forays into the world of emoji communication. The Oxford English Dictionary named emoji as its word of the year in 2015. The editorial team said: ‘Emojis have come to embody a core aspect of living in a digital world that is visually driven, emotionally expressive, and obsessively immediate.’  To accept this observation about the digital world has ramifications, not least as it challenges us to show some vulnerability.

So are we becoming more willing to wear our digital hearts on our avatar sleeves?

With statistics showing that the majority of emoji sent (around three quarters) are positive, emotion-based characters, this definitely lends credence to the idea that there is a growing willingness, even need, for those engaged online to show emotion and assert their personality.

There’s something neurological happening too. An analysis of brain scans has shown that when a sentence including emoji is viewed, both sides of the brain are stimulated. This is unlike reading script or hearing a sentence, which utilises only the left side. With the right side of the brain traditionally associated with controlling emotion, it means that emoji are in some way prompting a more rounded and satisfying psychological response.

This may be why emoji users have begun to place such significance upon them. As emoji have developed beyond simple faces to embrace a variety of emotions, social constructs, activities, and other paraphernalia associated with daily life, for those left unrepresented by a medium so widely used, it has become to feel something like an injustice.  Campaigns have launched calling for new emoji to be created that more realistically reflect the diversity of people and their cultures; from those depicting females wearing hijabs, to family units including same-sex partners.

Being able to represent yourself authentically and honestly online has increasingly begun to matter -and if it matters to our audiences, then it should matter to us.

If potential stakeholders are becoming more emotionally attuned and expectant in their online engagements, then the language, tone and imagery used in our public relations needs to be open to this too.

The power of an image

And it’s in the area of behaviour that new thinking is emerging as well. According to anthropologist Professor Valerie Curtis, emotions ‘are the key to changing peoples’ behaviour.’  When it comes to behaviour change and communications then, emoji may have a foot in the door.

Unsurprisingly, the connection between symbols and behaviour is not unfamiliar. It’s become almost clichéd to say that emoji stand on the shoulders of ancient giants like those of the hieroglyphs of the Ancient Egyptians and the Mayans, however there is another interesting historical parallel.

Within religious history, the power of symbols and imagery to convey messages and meaning is par for the course. Colourful and vivid murals adorning the walls of medieval churches were crucial tools, denoting belonging and imparting messages about the faith and the consequences of one’s actions to a largely illiterate congregation.

These ideas and sentiments may have lost their resonance with many people today, but the theory behind them is as relevant as ever: the potential of symbols and imagery to modify actions.

Behavioural psychologists are beginning to explore what correlation there is between emotions and behaviours expressed through emoji online, and behaviour in the real world.

It’s an intriguing proposition, because if you can understand online behaviour, you might be able to predict off-line behaviour too – a useful tool not just for marketers, but for all interested in advocacy and nudge theory.

A joint study by the Universities of Kent and East Anglia made the case for the strategic use of symbols and their impact on behaviour – in this case, the behaviour of waiting drivers at a level crossing. For the betterment of the environment and public health, a simple written message asking drivers to switch-off their idling engines whilst waiting for a train to pass proved unsuccessful. Add a pair of watching eyes to signify some kind of surveillance, and there was a 30 per cent increase.

Interestingly, when a message suggesting drivers should think of the impact on themselves was used in conjunction with the eyes, there was a 50 percent increase in idling engines being switched off.

Could this be adapted to our online spaces?

Think big and in the world of multiple social media channels and viral events, a well-placed and well-conceived series of emoji, deftly encapsulating a sentiment or cause could motivate an action or create a sense of belonging among a disparate body of people. We’ve perhaps already seen this in some way through the changing of Facebook profile pictures to show solidarity with a cause or a community facing tragedy. Think smaller-scale and a well-placed emoji could be the small nudge needed to remind someone to invoke a particular action or response.

The complete picture…not yet

Research into emoji is still at an early stage, but while they sit within that exciting and sometimes baffling realm of an emerging and developing communications activity, they are a tool that needs considering seriously as we continue to grapple with how to manoeuvre our voices through the evolving landscape of social media.  Their broader insights into the aspects of communication that are increasingly being valued, as well as some of the ideas around their future application are what should, for communicators at least, perhaps be the real focus of our interest.

So whichever side of the emoji fence we may ultimately fall, let’s not be the ones hovering over the keyboard unsure how to express ourselves, but rather have our eyes open and focused on how to adapt to the emotional rollercoaster unfolding online.

This article was submitted as part of an assignment for the CIPR Professional PR Diploma with PR Academy.


Books, journals, reports

  • Cope, R and Cottney, C (2016) European Consumer Trends http://www.mintel.com/european-consumer-trends
  • Evans, V (2015) Emoji is ‘fastest growing new language ever’ – but over 40s are lost in translation, new study reveals: University of Bangor http://www.vyvevans.net/talktalk-mobile
  • Greenwood, S et al (2016) Social Media Update 2016 Facebook usage and engagement is on the rise, while adoption of other platforms holds steady: Pew Institute http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/
  • Jones Jr. R (2013) Communications in the Real world – An Introduction to Communication Studies: Flatworld Publishing
  • Kaye, L and Wall, H (2017) Do Emoji show true emotions?: University of Edge Hill https://www.edgehill.ac.uk/news/2017/01/emojis-show-true-emotions
  • Medina, J (2014) Brain Rules – Updated and Expanded edition: Pear Press
  • Meleady R et al (2017) Surveillance or Self-Surveillance? Behavioural Cues Can Increase the Rate of Drivers’ Pro-Environmental Behaviour at a Long Wait Stop: Environment and Behaviour Journal http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0013916517691324
  • Miller, H et al (2016) “Blissfully happy” or “ready to fight”: Varying Interpretations of Emoji: Grouplens Research, University of Minnesota https://grouplens.org/site-content/uploads/Emoji_Interpretation_Paper.pdf

Online news articles and blogs

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