Interpreting the Emoji

March 8th, 2017

Illustration by Sarah Dowler / The Phoenix news

Illustration by Sarah Dowler / The Phoenix news

Emojis are a modern phenomenon most tech savvy people have experience with, especially active texters and users of social media. However, according to casual sex researcher and adjunct psychology professor Jocelyn Wentland, there is much about emojis that remains to be discovered.

Emojis are images used in communication to convey emotion, whereas emoticons are the use of punctuation, such as a colon and a bracket, to form a face. The use of both emojis and emoticons is being studied in a survey conducted by Jocelyn and a team of researchers.

“We’re really trying to assess what emojis do people use and what do people themselves think those emojis mean,” explains Jocelyn, “if there’s a lot of disagreement about certain emojis and how they’re used, it would give us some insight into maybe some miscommunication that’s
happening when people are using emojis.”

This discrepancy between the sender’s intent and the user’s interpretation could be problematic. “It could be a real issue especially in the context of new dating relationships where people don’t know each other,” insists Jocelyn, “they’re relying on not just the content or the text writing of the message but some of the non-verbal cues and that’s where the emojis really come inasbeingacuetowhatis this person’s intentions.”

It is this connection to communication and romantic intent that caused Jocelyn to pursue emoji research initially. “It was really a natural extension of some of my other research,” she says, which studies relationship initiation and casual sex. “There’s a lot of online and tech space communication taking place and emojis are being really used by a lot of people in those conversations,” Jocelyn explains, “Understanding how emojis are being used is just a necessary next step in this research.”

Currently, emoji research is really in its infancy, with few studies conducted and limited data. However, due to its relevance, Jocelyn believes that research in this area will increase.

“Our approach is very exploratory just because there’s a real lack of published data on this so far, and I think that’s going to change,” she says, “If we had this conversation in a year from now, we’ll probably see a lot more published data.”

The study currently being conducted at UBCO is building on the work of Helen Fisher, Justin Garcia and Amanda Geiselman, which focused on the relationship between emoji use and dating activity. It was revealed that generally people who used emojis were more likely to report more recent dating activity. Other studies done in the United States focus primarily on jealousy and cheating in relationships, studying participants’ reaction to texts with differing emojis in order to determine how they are interpreted. However, Jocelyn and her team take a broader approach, examining how emojis are used and interpreted in a more general context.

Although some emojis may seem self-explanatory, Jocelyn insists that even the most innocuous emojis, for example the smiley face, may vary in their interpretation. “There’s very subtle changes to even that smiley emoji in terms of the shape of the eyes,” she explains, “I’d say that the happy smiley emoji should be the least likely to be potentially misinterpreted, but there are such subtle nuances that are conveyed in these really small pictorial representations that they could be interpreted differently by different people.”

The research on emojis may be limited, however, it is nonetheless an exciting field of study. “Emojis are such an interesting mechanism used in modern day communication,” says Jocelyn, “Understanding how and when and why they are used could really give us some interesting and important insight into tech space communication.”

Students wishing to partake in the emoji study at UBCO can do so by going to www. which will direct participants to a survey. The number of questions will increase with frequency of emoji use, but the average time to complete the survey is 25 minutes. Participants who answer all the questions on their emoji use will be entered in a draw for $100 cash. The study closes on Tuesday, February 28.

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