Interpreting Emoji: Just Another Communication Issue

two emojis

Soon, text messaging may be less about text and more about pictures if emoji continue to take over words in electronic messaging between mobile phones or other devices. And that means more communications may turn into miscommunications.

Communicating over text in general can lead to confusion or misunderstandings. The increased use of emoji may add to that risk.

Not only are emoji open to interpretation by mobile users, they render differently on different mobile platforms. So an image sent on an Apple iPhone could be misinterpreted once it’s received on a Google Android device.

The use of emoji has “significant potential for miscommunication” within and across platforms, according to a recent study by GroupLens Research, a social computing research laboratory at the University of Minnesota.

Emoji are a part of the Unicode Standard, a universal character coding system designed to make text and character data interchangeable around the world.  The Unicode Consortium offers a chart of all emoji renderings and their descriptions.

Although the consortium succeeds in standardizing emoji characters, that doesn’t mean interpretation is standardized as well, the study said.

GroupLens surveyed 334 U.S. participants on how they interpret samples of 25 popular emojis rendered across Apple Inc., Google Inc., Microsoft Corp., Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and LG Electronics Inc.   

In 25 percent of cases, participants didn’t agree on whether the emotion conveyed by a particular emoji was positive, neutral or negative.

For instance, when asked to rate Microsoft’s rendering of a “smiling face with open mouth and tightly closed eyes,” 44 percent of participants said the emoji was negative and 54 percent labeled it positive.

The survey found that when a user has to interpret emoji, and a platform has to translate them, communication is even more problem-prone.

For example, within a platform, participants saw Apple’s rendering of an “unamused face” as “disappointment,” “depressing,” “unimpressed” or “suspicious,” the study found. Across platforms, Google’s rendering of a “grinning face with smiling eyes” was seen as “blissfully happy,” while Apple’s rendering of the same emoji was considered “ready to fight.”

The study will be officially published in May at the 10th International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media in Cologne, Germany, according to a GroupLens blog post.