Our Emoji Habits

The future of online pictorial language

For the past several years, linguist Gretchen McCulloch has watched as excitable futurists forecast the end of written language and the rise of a new pictorial mode of online expression based on emoji. That future has been slow to arrive. In 2014, Emojli, an emoji-only social-media network, launched to much fanfare. It closed a year later. In 2013, a Kickstarter project made headlines for crowdsourcing a translation of Moby Dick into emoji. It's not clear that anyone has read the finished product cover to cover.

Emoji hasn't gone away – in fact, it's more popular than ever – but it has developed as a supplement to written language, not a replacement. "Emoji allow people to add a visual element to their writing, which is really cool," McCulloch says. "But it's additive, not subtractive. They make writing more like speech, because you can give a sense of what your hands are doing or want to be doing." For years now, McCulloch has been making that argument on her blog, All Things Linguistic.

Leading up to SXSW Interactive, McCulloch was approached by Ben Medlock with an irresistible proposition: SwiftKey, a popular predictive typing app he co-founded, has collected billions of data points on emoji use across every type of mobile communication – email, texting, Twitter, Face­book, Snapchat, etc. Would McCulloch, who earned an MA in linguistics from McGill in 2013 and is at work on a book for Riverhead, like to take a look at the data?

McCulloch jumped at the opportunity. The results of her research will be discussed at her panel with Medlock. She's coy about what they'll discuss, explaining that they're still "running tests." But she can't resist revealing one finding: As ubiquitous as emoji use has become – 4.6% of all mobile keyboard sessions involve at least one emoji – it's extremely rare for people to use five or more emojis with no accompanying words. That only happens about once every thousand sessions. "Most people aren't writing out emoji stories," she says. "What we're doing with emoji is using it as an add-on."

McCulloch predicts that emoji, or something like it, is here to stay. "I don't think we're going to stop wanting to express emotion online," she says. "The question is whether emoji is still going to be used like that in 20 years, or if using an emoji will be like an emoticon with a nose in it." You can predict a person's age with great accuracy, she notes, by the presence or absence of a nose in their emoticons.

Emoji will probably never break into the realm of formal writing, but it may become more common in semiformal contexts like email. As a rule, McCulloch says, emoji might be fair game anywhere people currently use exclamation points. "I use exclamation marks in professional emails," she says. "Sometimes on the blog. But in an academic paper, no. And a newspaper isn't going to end headlines in an exclamation point."

Here's to an emoji-friendly future!!

A Few insights From SwiftKey's Emoji Data Treasure Trove:

French really is the language of love. French speakers use the heart emoji four times more often than speakers of other languages. French is the only language for which a smiley is not the No. 1 emoji.

Americans, meanwhile, use the most skulls, birthday cakes, fire, and meat emojis.

Most data was collected before the political rise of Donald Trump, but, even so, U.S.-based Spanish speakers used more negative emojis than any other national language subgroup.

Relative to the rest of America, Texans almost never use the snowboarding or four-leaf clover emojis. We're way above average, however, in use of the police siren, flying wad of money, and princess emojis. Welcome to our plutocratic police state, out-of-towners!

Texas didn't take first place in use of the gun emoji. That went to our neighbor Louisiana, the "sportsman's paradise."

Those naughty Mormons helped Utah lead the country in use of the 69 (okay, fine, "astrological Cancer") emoji.

In a blow to our self-image as cowboys, Texans also trailed the rest of the country in use of the horse emoji. No data yet on the new taco emoji.

Related Panel

The Linguistic Secrets Found in Billions of Emoji
Saturday, March 12, 5pm
Austin Convention Center, Room 8ABC

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SXSW Interactive 2016, emoji, Gretchen McCulloch, SwiftKey, Ben Medlock

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