The Social Science Behind Emojis

Oh. Em. Gee. It’s kind of incredible how much language has evolved since texting and other forms of digital communication have become as common as eating, sleeping or breathing. And a lot more common than actually talking on the phone.

Take emojis for example. Some might see the swell of emoji culture as a sign of the crumbling of civilization and the fall of the written word, but, if you think about it, emojis do serve a purpose. They’re integral to communicating important social cues that would be conveyed by our facial expressions or tones of voice in a face-to-face conversation. In a way, emojis are a language unto themselves, no more or less valid than any other form of communication (debate this in the comments—3, 2, 1, GO!).

Why we emoji

Emojis (and the famous shrug¯\_(ツ)_/¯) are examples of what University of Iowa assistant professor of marketing Andrea Luangrath calls “textual paralanguage,” an additional, visual layer of communication added to our texts or tweets or Instagram posts. In spoken conversation, examples of paralanguage would be an eyeroll or a sarcastic tone: these things can completely change the meaning of what you’re saying without you needing to modify your words at all.

“Face-to-face communication is rich with nonverbal behavior, including body language, eye contact and tone of voice, and when people exchange written messages electronically, these elements have to be translated into text to be communicated,” Luangrath said to the university.

Emojis pbs rewireOnce you understand the linguistics behind emoji use, you realize how ingenious Bitmojis are—it’s literally a cartoon version of your face doing the things your face would be doing if you were talking in real life, something that’s essential to getting your true point across. (The next time you send that Bitmoji of you dressed as a hot dog just remind yourself it’s part of being an effective online communicator.)

But textual paralanguage isn’t limited to visuals. It’s also communicated in the way we type our messages. Which is so. Darn. Cool. (See what I did there?) Without thinking about it, we mimic the way we talk with what we write, adding punctuation, filler noises (“umm,” “uhh,” “ugh”) and even stage directions (*high five*, *sigh*) to our digital communications.

Should brands use emojis?

As textual paralanguage (I really love calling it that) has become ubiquitous, especially among young folks, brands have caught on. Forever 21’s marketing emails have such casual and emoji-filled subject lines you might mistake them for notes from a friend at first glance. Best Buy uses this method, too. Trendy brand Bando’s Instagram posts are punctuated with emojis, as are Teva’s.

Luangrath and her team studied thousands of social posts by 22 corporate brands. They learned that about 31 percent of their Instagram posts contained textual paralanguage. About 21 percent of tweets and 19 percent of Facebook posts used it. The most common method they employed was imparting voice into written language (example: Biggest. Sale. Ever.), the researchers found.

Retail brands were the most likely to do this (look at the marketing emails in your inbox and you’ll get the idea). Professional firms were more formal in their online interactions.

“Too much paralanguage has the potential to impact perceptions of competence, so you don’t see many banks or law firms using it extensively,” Luangrath said. “But consumer goods, especially those that want to build a ‘sassy’ brand, are more lenient.”

Emojis pbs rewireSprout Social’s most recent social index looked at how consumers respond to brands trying to be “cool” online. Although Sprout doesn’t make any mention of textual paralanguage (I know, I’m shocked, too), it does talk about how we respond to “snark” and the use of GIFs, which is another form of non-written online communication.

The results emphasize the importance of authenticity. But what does it mean for a brand to be “authentic”? It’s a fine line to walk. Three-quarters of consumers want brands to be funny, but only a third want them to be fully snarky. Honesty, friendliness and helpfulness still beat out funniness and trendiness for desirable brand traits. And while 70 percent of Millennials think it’s cool when brands use GIFs on social, 59 percent think it’s annoying (and inauthentic) when they use slang. Fifty-one percent of consumers would unfollow a brand they found annoying on social.

In short, if you’re a running a business or simply promoting one, use emojis with caution.

How do you feel about brands getting conversational on social? And what’s your favorite emoji? (Mine is the hairflip emoji, which I only recently learned actually represents a woman at an information desk.)

Katie Moritz

Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.