Decoding the emoji

Have you been mixing up your smiley and frowny faces?

A May 21 article in Wired magazine, which quotes English Professor Lisa Lebduska, suggests that users may be misinterpreting the meaning of emoji characters—using a “sleepy face” to denote sadness or a “look of triumph” to signal anger, for example. And these mix-ups are leading the Unicode Consortium, which sets emoji standards, to rethink some of their designs.

Professor Lisa Lebduska

But, as author Megan Logan writes, the non-precise nature of emoji and emoticons is exactly what makes them such a fascinating means of communicating, a reflection of the times and of the different people who use them.

“Through our misuse, misinterpretation, and subsequent re-imagining of these emoji, we subvert the apparently universal glyph system and push the development of this pictorial language forward, stretching its bounds and testing its limitations,” Logan writes.

She includes in her article a quote from Lebduska’s essay, “Emoji, Emoji, What for Art Thou?,” published in the October 2014 issue of the digital magazine Harlot, in which Lebduska outlines the history of emojis and their use in modern conversation.

While some scholars have suggested that emoticons and emojis pose a threat to the written language, Lebduska argues that they are a separate form of communication, a means of “creative graphic expression.”

“Emojis expand expression and in doing so open themselves to re-appropriation, interpretation and even misinterpretation, along with the affirming possibilities of artistic creation,” Lebduska writes in the introduction to her essay.

Lebduska is also director of college writing at Wheaton.