A couple of years ago, I started flirting with people online. Pretty much everyone. In nearly every conversation. I didn’t mean to, and I didn’t start it. But it definitely made things weird.
The problem was that Facebook had changed its emoji.
The technicians behind Messenger had changed, ever so slightly, the input. Specifically, a colon followed by a closing bracket 🙂 used to just do a normal smiley 🙂 . Then suddenly it was a blushing smiley 😊 . Relatively innocuous phrases took on new subtext.
Party this weekend? With a friend you haven’t seen in a while?
Compare “It was good to see you at the party this weekend. 🙂” to “It was good to see you at the party this weekend. 😊”
One definitely implies more interest than the other. Fortunately, the background tech wizards at Facebook eventually righted this wrong and restored the basic smiley as the default input.
I was reminded of this recently when cracking a joke with our very own Jodie on Facebook Messenger. It was a pretty weak effort, but she was kind enough to respond with a joking, “Excellent point, well made”. Without thinking, I typed 😀 . Instead of resulting in the expected slightly mischievous smile 😁 , I got 😀 . Jodie kindly described it as looking “delighted”. Honestly, in that context, I think it just made me look desperate for praise. Fortunately, it did reveal that we had both had run-ins with the unexpected blushing emoji. Frustrations aside, this offers an interesting perspective on modern communication.
Sometimes a 🚬 is just a 🚬
Firstly, as far as anthropology is concerned, emoji are a type of symbol. That is, something that represents something else, where the meaning is not fixed, nor necessarily apparent. You need to know something about the context to understand it. A classic anthropological example might be a fertility ritual—if you were entirely unfamiliar with the ritual, there would be a good chance you would have no idea what was going on.
You may object that there is a natural relationship between emoji and what they symbolise. 🙂 is pretty clearly a smiling face. However, if you’re single and looking for love, I challenge you to jump in your time machine, visit our trusty Roman friend from my previous post, mix a few 🍆 , 🌮 and 🍑 in with your Latin, and see if he or she sees what you’re getting at. Or, a slightly more common occurrence, would be the use of 😜 . My mother had to ask what that meant a little while ago. When I explained that it meant that the preceding sentence was a joke, she simply said, “Who does that?”
And she’s right. No one ever pulls that face in real life.
Regardless, there are clearly layers of meaning to these symbols. An occupational hazard of studies like anthropology is that when analysing the cultural significance of symbols, it can be tempting to apply layer upon layer of analysis, always keen to find an extra meaning. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget that they are still images in and of themselves. By tacking a smiley onto the end of a message, I might be setting the emotional tone, but it is still a face. And the person I’m sending the message to still reacts to it as a face, perhaps even my face. Consequently, if Facebook changes the emoji on me, suddenly I’m blushing like an embarrassed teen.
And this moves me to the second key part of this story. It was Facebook that made this shift, not me. My communication is mediated by a corporation.
💬 ➡ 👩🏻💻 ➡ Translation ➡ 👨🏾💻 ➡ 💬
Of course, in many ways this corporate mediation is not new. To some extent this was still the case with email, phones faxes and even telegrams. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of another time in which the corporate owner of the communication medium had an influence down to the level of the emotional tone of my communication. The importance of this becomes apparent if we consider emoji through the lens of translation.
According to Susan Gal, translation is a mass of processes in which the “form, social place, or meaning of a text, object, person or practice” is changed “while simultaneously seeming to keep something about it the same.” It is perhaps a little broad (it begs the question of what isn’t translation), but can still be useful.
This is because it is rare that emoji are simply replacing words. This simple substitution is what Gal would call “commensuration”: taking two things (eg. heart and ❤️ ) and simply making them equivalent—commensurate.
But emoji don’t often do this. It has been a long time since “I ❤️NY” was ever really meant to be interpreted in a literal “I love (heart?) New York.” That particular logo has become so ubiquitous that I certainly never hear those words in my head when I see it printed on yet another tote bag. I certainly can’t remember the last time I saw ❤️ simply replacing the word “love” as if to squeeze in under a character limit.
Instead, a flushed ❤️ at the end of a sentence or in response to a message offers a sense of your emotional tone or response. It is an attempt to translate your body language, tone of voice, a million little things that aren’t expressed in the actual words into text. And crucially, how the emoji is interpreted depends drastically on how the reader imagines the sender’s emotional state. That is, someone seeing a 😍 in response to a slightly risqué message will understand it very differently to a 😍 in response to CSIRO’s Wombat Wednesday, or even to a 😍 when someone has mentioned there’ll be potato gems at the party.
It is an attempt to find equivalence through the effects of the language. For emoji to work in this sense, the reader has to be able to put themselves in the shoes of the sender and imagine their emotions. An emoji isn’t simply swapped in for a word. Instead, it tries to encapsulate a feeling, or a tone, or some other non-verbal cue. Gal calls this form of translation “transduction”.
💬+🏭=❤️ or 💔?
Where translation gets interesting is that with emoji, we have a mediating influence—Facebook (or whatever privately-owned platform you’re using). While not entirely unprecedented, the role Facebook plays is somewhat unique. Previous technologies largely left the exact form of your message up to you. You wrote the letter, or you said your words. There might be some restrictions, such as the letter limit of a telegraph or text message, but it was rare that a corporation could dramatically change the meaning of your message with absolutely no notice. I find it hard to believe the Western Union Telegraph Company changed a casual conversation to a friend into a bit of a flirt fest at the drop of a hat.
And more importantly, this mediator is political. Many probably haven’t wondered where emoji come from, or how they become “official”. The short answer is that they are approved by all your favourite tech companies (Apple, Facebook, Google, etc.) via the non-profit Unicode Consortium. While the inclusion of a new bubble-tea emoji might seem fairly innocuous, various groups worked to introduce the 🩸 to help end period shame. Others have attempted to help diversify cultural representation by providing different skin-toned emoji. This, of course, has its own host of political implications (if ✊🏾represents “black pride”, what does ✊🏻 represent? 😬 ).
Putting this all together leaves us in the interesting position that a number of corporations are able to influence what is easier to say. I’m not arguing they control what we say, or even what we can say—I don’t doubt human ingenuity’s capacity to co-opt pretty much any set of symbols and give them new meaning. Nevertheless, as pointed out by Elizabeth Povinelli, what things can and cannot be made commensurate is political. So while I am certainly happy that groups for queer and trans representation have had emoji success recently, there is still no anarchist emoji, and the Hammer and Sickle still isn’t recommended for general usage. I try not to be a conspiracy theorist, but I can’t help wondering if it is related to the political leanings of those previously mentioned members of the Unicode Consortium.
I’m not trying to argue that the inevitable socialist revolution is being held back by a lack of access to emoji. But I do think it’s worth highlighting that one of the most intimate parts of our communication—its emotional timbre—is being mediated by a group of corporations.
Again, this is not to be a conspiracy theorist. I doubt Facebook has any interest in making me look like a flirt or seem needy for approval.
Nevertheless, it is a reminder that even in my intimate relationships (and yes, I have occasionally flirted with people in the past), there is a whole host of other, indirect relationships that mediate our communication. And those, at their most extreme, determine whether I feel 🥰 or 💔 .
 My most recent post was about collecting Ooshies and what that says about how we value objects. In it, I revealed that I often imagine bringing an ancient Roman forward through time to try and explain what was going on. Needless to say, explaining the cultural significance the live beheading of a plastic Simba toy on national television would be next to impossible. If you’re curious about the beheading, check it out.
 “Commensuration” can actually be rather more complicated than this, with abstract meanings becoming commensurate and potentially doing so in abstract ways. Nevertheless, simple substitution is the most obvious example.