When I was writing this blog about emojis – those little symbols, such as smiley or frowny faces, embedded in text messages and social media posts – one of my coworkers stated, “I’m afraid that in 25 years our children will be forced to write in emojis.” While I think those fears are exaggerated, it reminded me of a Freakonomics podcast I listened to last month about the declining number of schools teaching handwriting and how the digital age is changing the way we communicate and express ourselves.

Such changes aren’t really all that new, however. Throughout human history, technology has shaped the way we communicate, and one of the earliest writing systems, cuneiform, began as a system of pictograms as early as 3500 B.C. Like the earliest forms of writing, one of the benefits of using emojis in communication is their ability to express an emotion or feeling without having to put it into words.

Reading the Signs

In our work at Hillard Heintze, emojis have a significant effect on the way we contextualize statements made on social media. Emojis can provide additional insight into a social media poster’s emotions, opinions and intentions in a post.

For example, a statement as simple as “Working at my job is fun” can mean a lot of different things depending on the choice of emoji the author adds at the end of it. Consider how using various emojis changes the implied meaning in the following examples: 

Working at my job is fun

Meaning: “I like my job.” 

Meaning: “Work is stressing me out.”

Meaning: “I hate my job.”

Meaning: “I’m drinking at work.” 

While it doesn’t take a linguistic expert to figure out the meanings in these examples, it is unlikely that a social media monitoring tool would be able to correctly identify a hostile employee or a driver drinking on the job from the above. This is why the majority of our social media monitoring and investigative research involves thoughtful analysis by members of our team who understand the nuances of communicating in the digital age. We recognize that threats can come in lots of different shapes and colors and not every bomb emoji has anything to do with an actual explosive device.

Because emoji use has increased significantly across messaging apps and social media platforms over the past two years, law enforcement authorities and the courts are struggling to decide if and when their use constitutes a legitimate threat and should lead to criminal charges.

A Symbol or a Threat?

Consider some fascinating examples.

  • Last month, a Washington Post article highlighted recent criminal cases involving threatening messages created with emojis. One of those cases involved a 12-year-old Virginia girl who was charged with computer harassment and threatening her school after posting gun, knife and bomb emojis on an Instagram account last December along with the text message “meet me in the library Tuesday.” 
  • In New York City, a grand jury was tasked with deciding if the police emoji posted by a Brooklyn teenager represented an actual threat to police. Though the grand jury threw out terror charges against the teen, he still faces criminal charges for weapons possession.
  • Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a man who had been found guilty of threatening his ex-wife with public Facebook postings. His defense argued that the man’s use of a “stuck-out tongue” “:-P” emoticon at the end of a post indicated he didn’t actually plan to hurt her.

As with any new form of communication, some people are more comfortable than others with emojis. Some find their use juvenile while others find them clever and helpful. At their root, however, is the desire to communicate effectively, for whatever purpose. In that regard, emojis are just the latest version of tools that are thousands of years old.