A recent report that two German researchers were able to de-anonymise browsing data of millions of users, and identify some sensitive personal interests of specific citizens, showed how users can give away details about themselves that they might not like others to know. That made me wonder what emoji use could reveal about those who use them in both private and public messages.
At the day to day level, it’s not unusual to see employers and buyers of services looking to see what employees and suppliers post publicly online. Like online reviews of a company, the comments posted can give a bigger picture of a person or organisation. At a global level, online platforms such as Google and Facebook monitor the information we give them directly through search queries and electronic messages and indirectly via Apps on devices that can track everything from our snoring patterns to pinpointing one’s position on planet earth.
This data helps the platform provide users with information tailored to you. This might include giving you information on how your sleep pattern compares with the national average or showing you an advert for a holiday based on your interests and likes. This is possible because platforms that gather data from you give anonymised information to marketing agents that help them identify customers. Emoji usage may be another rich source of data that can help agencies to target customers.
I am my Emojis
Emojis are data, just like anything else you contribute to digital platforms. However, they are special insofar as they can be used to express mood and thoughts at lightning speed and in a manner very different to words alone. Small wonder there is an explosion in their use. Take for example a report that Facebook recently released to celebrate this year’s World Emoji Day (July 17th, just so you know). This report showed that, on an average day, an impressive 60 million emojis are featured within posts and comments on the social media site, but a jaw-dropping 5 billion emojis are sent via its Facebook Messenger platform. Statistics like this show us that emojis are more than just a fad: they’re now an ever-growing player in how we communicate online.
So what are our emojis saying about us? Well, research by social scientists is showing us that emoji can be used as a powerful tool to mirror non-verbal communication and express our emotions in ways which we couldn’t do before when talking in text alone. However, they’ve also uncovered that our level emoji usage can indicate particular, measurable aspects of our personalities, as can the particular emojis we favour over others. Additionally, your emoji use can lead others to make conclusions about you, both positively and negatively. For example, the use of non-face emojis that don’t have a clear emotional expression (such as a tree, a city space, a fish or loaf of bread) is perceived as an expression of underlying joy or contentedness.
That’s not to say that these aspects of us may be clear to amateur observers of our usage patterns. For example, recent studies have told us that while a smiling emoji in a work email is viewed as being acceptable by senior management figures in the U.S., but it could lead them to view you as being less competent than your more austere colleagues, rightly or wrongly, intentionally or unintentionally.
Your emoji footprint
But what happens when data scrapes know what to look for? What if your frequently used emojis are combined with other aspects of the data you generate when using the internet, such as the bank website you visit or the type of videos you watch on YouTube? They are not only a potentially revealing look into our personalities but also another element of the digital footprint that we leave when we use search engines or social media websites. Digital footprints of this kind could well de-anonymise your online activity and should be considered by those who want to retain their anonymity and privacy.
At my firm, we would always encourage people to embrace the beautiful world of language and culture and to use it appropriately, that includes the use of emoji. To get a better understanding of emoji as a global phenomenon, in December 2016, Today Translations began a search for a specialist to research, interpret and advise clients on using emojis in corporate communications. The company received hundreds of applicants for the role and selected Irishman Keith Broni, who graduated from University College London with an MSc in Business Psychology. Since that time, Keith has become a familiar face on television in the UK and USA discussing the latest news articles and research papers that reflect the ways that emojis are changing our online communications.
I asked Keith what basic advice he gives on the use of emojis and he said, “Emojis are fun and a powerful addition to our messages, but should be taken seriously. People and companies should be aware of the underlying message and the data being collected about you when using the icons. Their presence can reveal a lot about your character and in a worse case could be seen as misleading or offensive by your audience”.