Lost for words? The emoji is a sign of the times

Twitter hearts and Facebook thumbs-ups are woefully inadequate for the tragedy of Paris

Emojis have been there since the dawn of email and text messages. Illustration: iStockphoto

Emojis have been there since the dawn of email and text messages. Illustration: iStockphoto


No one but an idiot wants to “thumbs up” a tragedy. Or “heart” it. But the emotionally condensed format of social media forces such inappropriate and frustrating restrictions on users, as became distressingly clear as the terrorist attacks on Paris unfolded.

This was evident on Twitter, which recently and controversially replaced its star marker for “favoriting” (sic) a tweet (indicating you wished to highlight or save it) with a heart button (to show a “like”).

Many felt the heart was twee, best left to the types of people who would wear an “I ‘heart’ poodles” T-shirt (no disrespect to poodles). Others pointed out the difference between favoriting something – perhaps a link to a serious article to read later or a useful piece of information or marking something that annoyed or offended – and hearting it. Gone was the option to just bookmark it.

Then came the Paris attacks and the horrible dissonance of having no choice but to like, with that cutesy heart, something that was not likable, but repugnant and distressing. Swiftly, Twitter was full of complaints from people feeling sickened by having to “heart” the breaking news stories, the horror and the updates on the growing number of deaths.

Give us the star back, give us a checkmark, give us anything to bookmark tweets that doesn’t make us feel like we are saying we love these stories. We do not heart them. Yes, it may just be a semimeaningless shortcut for saving a tweet for later consideration, but as any designer knows, symbols can be powerfully emotive.

That is why, of course, such symbols are called emoticons or emojis.

A catastrophic event certainly showed Twitter needed something else in addition to the heart (as apparently it has proven popular more generally).

One person this week discovered that Twitter seems to be considering that already. A phone stripped of some security locks revealed the developer version of a Twitter app that had a huge range of emojis tucked away inside. Twitter rather wittily replied to media inquiries only with the “speak no evil” emoji of a monkey covering its mouth.

Thumbs down


Facebook knows users have a point and that the answers aren’t as easy as they seem. The social network has indicated it will introduce a broader range of buttons.

Irish and Spanish Facebook users are seeing these options already, as we are the test markets for a new range of emoticons. Facebook allows a basic thumbs up “like”, but users can also add one of five further emoticons. You can love a post with a heart or add a face meant to express “haha”, “yay”, “wow”, “sad” or “angry”.

Wow to me looks more like it says “oh no”, and it seems to get misused in this way regularly. Facebook chose not to introduce a “dislike” button as it felt it was too negative. Mr (or Ms) Angry Face seems to be the proxy for dislike.

I am not sure if I like the new emojis. I use them sometimes, and you do get a broader sense of a range of reactions to a post or comment. But the simplicity of the basic “like” is lost with all those little faces. And the wow is too ambiguous.

Which makes me wonder if Twitter really wants to introduce 100-plus emojis. Most people tend to only use a few of those offered on emoji menus, whether on social media, discussion boards or chat.

Some will always detest the “insta-emotion” nature of emojis, but they do help to convey what text alone cannot, often preventing misinterpretation. They’ve also been there since the dawn of email and text messages and they’re fun and can be used conveniently to mark sadness and anger, too.

They are also an actual sign of our times. An emoji was even chosen as the 2015 “word” of the year by Oxford Dictionaries this week. That laughing one with tears coming out of its eyes was “the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”, the company said (http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/ 2015/11/word-of-the-year-2015-emoji/).

But wait: that yellow face is officially called the “Face with Tears of Joy”. What? I’ve never ever seen it used to mean “joy”. Everyone uses it to mean “laughing so hard I’m crying”. Which goes to show that, just like social media users, even emojis often don’t know what they’re on about.