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Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Emoticons/Emojis Revisited. 2019 edition

The emoticon, or so the popular anecdote goes, was invented by a professor of computer science nearly 40 years ago, to 'mark jokes' in digital writing. Although there is evidence that the use of typographical symbols  to inscribe emotions into text has a much longer history, it is undoubtable that with the development of digital communication technologies and spread of digital communication in our everyday lives, emoticons/emojis have enjoyed unwavering popularity.

At the beginning the hype was all about playing around with the keyboard in an attempt to inscribe those all important missing non-verbal cues. During the past 40 years or so, we got better at it. Firstly, we had to: stakes were raised when much of business and professional communication moved online, and when social media stopped being, well, social. Secondly, we were bound to: with the increased prominence of online communication in our lives came greater practice to use whatever the keyboard allowed to inscribe nuances present in spoken interactions. So much so, that in contexts where high emotional involvement (confianza) is the default expectation, using all caps, duplicating letters or exclamation marks or peppering our texts with emojis is what is expected - these are unmarked, in a linguistic sense. It is when we do not use such techniques that make our message marked, it's their absence that carries a special meaning (Tannen, 2013).

So where are we now with emoticon and emoji appreciation? As Sampietro's paper shows, there is much research that now explores the wide range of functions that go way beyond the idea of adding emotional information: they have been found to  replace non-verbal cues, disambiguate content, mark politeness, emphasize, evaluate, build rapport, strengthen or mitigate verbal messages. But they do so depending on social and cultural contexts: for Spaniards, for example, the two-cheek kiss emoji is a standard sign-off because of local cultural customs. Also,  emoji and/or emoticon use tends to increase in situations with high emotional involvement: I like the term confianza here, the establishment of deep familiarity and understanding.

It is in this light that I became interested in  Molina's et al.'s (2019) paper about emojis in brand communication. The premise of the paper is fascinating: do/can brands use emojis in brand communication as a device for brand positioning? And whether there is a correlation between emoji use and engagement (measured in likes/ retweets)? To answer this the authors collected tweets from 4 beer companies and analysed the use and function of emojis. But although the authors do explicitly state that they would like to learn from linguistic research that emphasizes the context-dependent nature of emojis, they may need to go some way to actually achieve this. They propose 3 categories to assess emotions, use and themes, each further divided up into three subcategories. Little is revealed about how these categories came about (not to mention the convenience of each category to be subdivided into equal number of further categories) or the analytical process of assigning emojis into these categories. Instead, we are treated to a variety of nice graphs, maps and tables with statistical analyses, all based on what reads to me as sentiment analysis of emojis. Therefore the conclusions, for linguists at least, are unsurprising. Emoji use is context dependant, because, as even the authors attest "there are no set patterns for their use and that each brand uses different emojis without the pictograms having any predetermined meaning". Emoji use contributes to communication style and through the confianza they create they help customers to engage with the brands.

So what is the take-away? Emojis and emoticons are alive and well, now even used strategically as part of branding in business.  In spite of their playful nature, they need to be taken seriously - and appreciated for their rich range of communicative functions.

Casado-Molina, A. M., Rojas-de Gracia, M. M., Alarcón-Urbistondo, P., & Romero-Charneco, M. (2019). Exploring the Opportunities of the Emojis in Brand Communication: The Case of the Beer Industry. International Journal of Business Communication, 2329488419832964.
Sampietro, A. (2019). Emoji and rapport management in Spanish WhatsApp chats. Journal of Pragmatics143, 109-120.Tannen, D. (2013)  The Medium Is the Metamessage: Conversational Style in New Media Interaction. In D. Tannen and A. M. Trester. (Eds.) Discourse 2.0. Georgetown University Press, Washington. pp. 99-110

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