Researchers have found that many different factors determine our choice of emojis, the symbols that help us express ourselves digitally.
An emojis popularity, perceived meaning and even location on a smartphone’s keyboard all play a role in emoji choice.
The researchers found that people are more likely to use emojis with meanings close to popular words, with clear and less ambiguous meanings.
The ‘face with tears emoji’ was ranked the most popular of the year. In a previous study, the researchers found that it accounts for 15.4 percent of total emoji usage, and the new study suggests that emoji popularity is linked to their linguistic meanings
The researchers, based at the University of Michigan, studied the use of emojis by one million users through more than 1.2 billion messages.
PhD student Wei Ai and colleagues analyzed the relationship of the emojis to words, to measure emoji semantics – their linguistic meaning – and to determine what makes some symbols more popular than others.
They found that more than 9 per cent of the messages contained at least one emoji, and emoji popularity was linked to their linguistic meanings.
‘Emojis with meanings close to popular words are more likely to be used,’ said Ai.
‘Emojis with clear and less ambiguous meanings are more likely to be used, and they provide good substitutes to their word counterparts.’
The researchers found that although emojis each have a textual description provided by the Unicode Consortium, users don’t see the description whey they decide to use an emoji.
So even if a description is informative, it may not be how people interpret the emoji.
For example, the sun behind clouds emoji, which is officially labeled ‘sun behind cloud,’ is widely used as ‘Good morning.’
The researchers found that although emojis each have a textual description provided by the Unicode Consortium, users don’t see the description whey they decide to use an emoji. So even if a description is informative, it may not be how people interpret the emoji. For example, the sun behind clouds emoji (pictured), which is officially labeled ‘sun behind cloud,’ is widely used as ‘Good morning’
The Kika Emoji keyboard was used to collect the data in 2015, which contains nearly 1,300 emojis – the majority of which were barely used.
Instead, users find several go-to favorites, many of which seem to say similar things.
‘We found that the popularity of emojis are really affected by multiple factors related to the semantics,’ said Ai.
‘It is likely that although those emojis look similar, people don’t interpret them similarly.
THE TOP 20 EMOJIS USED
1. Face with tears of joy
3. Smiling with heart-shaped eyes
4. Face blowing a kiss
5. Smiling face with smiling eyes
6. Smiling face
7. Ok hand sign
8. Grinning face with smiling eyes
9. Loudly crying face
10. Two hearts
11. Unamused face
12. Smirking face
13. See-no-evil monkey
14. Winking face
15. Disappointed but relieved face
16. Heart with arrow
17. Pensive face
18. Sparkling heart
19. Grinning face
20. Clapping hands sign
In a previous study, the team also found that the top 20 emojis fall into the categories of face, heart and hand, which suggest ‘expressions and body signals play an important role in expressing ideas
‘It may also be because some emojis are less ambiguous, or better substitutes for their word counterparts.
‘There are likely other factors that are not related to the meaning, such as how they are located on the emoji keyboard or simply a rich-get-richer phenomenon.’
This means that when an emoji choice is popular, it causes others to adopt the same choice.
The method the researchers used in their study allowed them to find semantic meaning by examining a symbol’s neighbors.
In a previous study, the researchers found that most countries prefer to use happy emojis, but sad emojis are more popular in places like Mexico, Chile, Peru and Colombia where ties between individuals are integrated and tight. France was also found to use emojis more than other countries in the world
‘A smart algorithm can analyze the big data of user messages that contain emojis and map the emojis and words into a space where those with similar semantic meanings are close,’ Ai said.
‘In such a space, the meaning and sentiment of an emoji can be inferred from those of its closest neighbors.’
While people are increasingly using emojis to replace words in sentences, the majority of emoji use is to express emotions, for example the thumbs up or blowing kiss emoji.
‘People do not use emojis as how they are described by the unicode standard,’ Ai said.
THE ORIGINS OF THE EMOJI
Shigetaka Kurita invented Emoji in 1998 while working for DoCoMo, a large Japanese mobile communication company.
The goal was to develop a way for mobile phone users to send pictures back and forth without using much data.
It was found that the countries with high levels of individualism, like Australia, France and the Czech Republic, prefer to add happy emojis to their messages. Picture are the face with tears of joy for Google (left) and HTC (right)
It all started in Japan, when users started to send pictures as a way to communicate.
This was a time when mobile phones were young, so providers were already struggling to to support 80 million users.
The idea was to create a one character ‘code’ that would display as an icon on the other person’s device.
DoKoMo i-mode, a moble provider in Japan, was the first firm to allow users to add pictures of common used emoticons to their text messages.
‘We know how people interpret the emojis based on how they actually use them in their messages, in the context of words.
‘It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words.
‘Nonverbal symbols in online communication has shown their power ever since the first emoticon ‘:)’ is coined, and will be even more powerful as new forms (such as gif animations) become supported by modern apps and websites.
‘These symbols, as a ubiquitous new language, also make it easier to communicate across language and cultural barriers.’