Lab Coat, Smiley Face, Globe, Handshake: Why Emojis Can Bring The World Together


Dr. Katie Spalding


Dr. Katie Spalding

Freelance Writer

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer


Ironically these will be the only actual emojis you see in this article. Image credit: stas11/

At 11:44 am on September 19, 1982, a bulletin board in Pittsburgh changed the world.

Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Scott Fahlman only meant to stop the constant bickering on the boards. Instead, he had invented the emoticon:


19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)

From: Scott E  Fahlman <Fahlman at Cmu-20c>
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:
Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark
things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use

Since then, emoticons – along with their spiritual successors, emojis – have transformed the way we communicate. In fact, they’ve become so ubiquitous that Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 Word of the Year was the laugh-cry emoji. And while some would have you believe they’re causing the downfall of the English language, experts say they actually enrich conversation.

But of course, English isn’t the only language to use emojis, and a new study, published in the journal Online Social Networks and Media, has revealed the differences and similarities in emoji usage across the world.

“Despite their ubiquity in human social media communication, there are many questions about emoji usage that had not been addressed in detail,” explains the study. “[W]e designed a detailed empirical study for answering some of these questions.”

The study was a vast undertaking. For one month, the researchers analyzed “the Twitter decahose” – that’s ten percent of the entire public output of the social media platform. To put things into context, an average of 6,000 tweets are sent worldwide every second, and the average tweet length is around 85 characters long, which means that the researchers had to pore through around 41,000 bibles’ worth of online ramblings.


So what did they find? Well first of all, despite having literally thousands of emojis to choose from, it turns out most tweeters are an unadventurous bunch. According to lead author Mayank Kejriwal, most emojis you’ll see in the wild come from a selection of just 100.

But more importantly, Kejriwal says, emojis reveal something fundamental about the human condition. Worldwide, the researchers found that universal emotions dominated, while divisive icons such as flags were less prevalent. Emoji popularity is strikingly similar across languages – and they reveal links between languages that you probably wouldn’t expect.

“[It is] instructive to compare the most similar and dissimilar pairs of languages in terms of their emoji usage probability distributions,” the study explains. “[T]he most similar pair of languages is Japanese and Finnish, followed by French and Turkish. These are interesting findings because the languages are linguistically dissimilar.”

The word “emoji” comes from the Japanese “e”, “mo”, and “ji” (meaning “picture”, “write”, and “character” respectively), so you might expect Japanese tweets to have a lot of them. In fact, the greatest use of emojis came from English, Spanish, and Arabic speakers. Arabic tweets, by the way, use emojis in a completely different way from almost the entire rest of the world – for example, the favorite icon in the middle east is the love heart, while worldwide it’s the good old (or should that be bad old?) cry-laugh emoji. Even within single countries, there were geographical differences, with coastal cities using more emojis than inland areas.


But while this study has shed a lot of light on the raw data of emoji usage, what the researchers want next is context.

“[A] line of study that may further reveal deep-seated linguistic and cultural differences (especially the latter) is the tone of the tweets in which popular emojis are used,” concludes the paper. “For example, we may learn that one country’s emoji tweets are overly personal, while those from another country are more political. These are, of course, correlated with the cultural and political norms in the country, but thus far, there have not been many reliable ways of measuring and quantifying such norms using ‘grassroots’ data such as social media.”

So let’s hear it for emojis: an unexpected insight into the universal human experience. And you thought they were just a quick way to sext.

 This Week in IFLScience

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