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Pizza and peaches

Here’s a bombshell – 93% of tweets involving the peach emoji are not actually related to the peach at all!

I know! I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have shocked you like that. Get off the floor, dust yourself off, and please allow me to further rock your world.

This week Sarah Wiseman presented a guest lecture on the use of Emoji and it was interesting for a number of reasons.

First, I’ve always got time for a good Sapir-Whorf hypothesis chat – see my earlier blog entry about this here – and I think that as a theoretical area it is very complimentary to the computational arts perspective. We’re learning a lot about how humans and technology interact and influence changes in behaviour, and this topic provides a perfect real world demonstration.

Wiseman presented her paper ‘Repurposing emoji for Personalised Communication: Why pizza slice emoji means “I love you”’ within which she demonstrates the wide-ranging and idiosyncratic uses that people have for Emojis based on (a very small amount of) data gleaned from research.

In the paper she identifies three particular types of interaction facilitated through the use of emoji besides literally sending them to replace usage of the exact words, for example “My pants are on <fire>” etc.

The first usage might be considered as maintaining a conversational connection, when no words need to be said. Back in the pre-metoo days facebook had the “poke” option and this was a similar type of conversational non-gambit. In Australia, it’d be a bit like saying: “oi!” to your friend across the room, but not following it up with anything, except maybe, “ha!”. In emoji world, it might be a fart symbol, expressive face. Who knows! <thinking emoji face>

This leads into a second usage which is that emojis may permit a “sense of play” in the chat, something looser and sillier than traditional messaging. It’s interesting that emoji makers have leaned into this by creating many more expressive faces with silly facial expressions.

Finally the shared use of emoji between users can create a sort of pictographic vernacular, a specific vocabulary of symbols most specifically understood by those “within the group”.

If it’s not immediately obvious, I didn’t find this study particularly compelling. Last time I was at university,“does language guide thought” was a pretty hot topic, but back then the debate was focusing on the Inuit’s use of multiple different words for snow.

This feels like an up-to date, 201x zeitgeist equivalent. The usage of the emoji, the way it creates shared vocabularies and in-jokes and community and meaning, to me this didn’t seem highly revelatory.

I am intrigued by the wider ramifications of people communicating via pictographic language where the whole language is designed (and owned by?) a single corporation.

In effect the language could change at the whim of a designer, or a shareholder decision. An example in the talk that was played for LOLs was everybody’s favourite ass emoji the Peach was at one point redesigned to look slightly less like an ass.. and people were furious! “Bring back the ass! “ they didn’t chant. But the icon was redesigned accordingly, and people could happily once again get back to saucy innuendo, or terrible misunderstandings at the grocery store. However did they express the concept of “ass” before?

Another ass-pect of this paper that was interesting was seeing how wide and far it was “taken up” by the media. It’s clear that to get attention to your work – to go “viral” – it really helps to have an immediately relatable title, and preferably, subject.

This paper was picked up by major newspapers and news outlets, and it perfectly fulfils the “wacky but universal” type of study that people will then bring up in conversations between themselves.

In a way, discussion of this paper can become a type of meme in itself. Perhaps there is something more universal there? What does it mean that we enjoy discussing our shared experiences learning a new language? Is it only when we learn a new language we appreciate that we could try to understand each other better?

Somebody fund me and I’ll find out.

And now, the weather!