Hey emoji users: Did you know that when you send your friend Google's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji on your Nexus, they might see Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji on their iPhone? And it’s not just Google's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji; this type of thing can happen for all emoji (yes, even pile of poo emoji). In a paper (download) that will be officially published at AAAI ICWSM in May, we show that this problem can cause people to misinterpret the emotion and the meaning of emoji-based communication, in some cases quite significantly. face screaming in fear emoji, we know.

What’s more, our work also showed that even when two people look at the exact same emoji rendering (e.g., Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji), they often don’t interpret it the same way, leading to even more potential for miscommunication. face screaming in fear emojiface screaming in fear emoji!

To your smartphone, an emoji is just like any other character (e.g., lower-case ‘a’, upper-case ‘B’) and needs to be rendered with a font. Since each smartphone platform (e.g., Apple, Google) has its own emoji font, the same emoji character can look quite different on different smartphone platforms. This is why when a Google Nexus owner sends Google's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji to a friend with an iPhone, the iPhone owner will actually see Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji. This problem isn’t just limited to iPhones and Nexuses: check out all the different renderings of the single emoji character we’ve been discussing:

Figure depicting 10 different platform renderings for the grinning face with smiling eyes emoji

To investigate whether “emoji font” diversity can cause miscommunication, my colleagues and I conducted a survey to compare how people interpret emoji. We did this for 5 platform renderings (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Samsung, LG) of 22 of the most popular anthropomorphic (i.e., human-looking) emoji. For each emoji rendering, we asked the participants to describe the emoji rendering in words. We also asked them to assess the emotional meaning or sentiment of each rendering on a scale from -5 (strongly negative) to 5 (strongly positive).

We found that in many cases, there is quite a bit of potential for miscommunication. For example, take a look at the figure below, which shows our emotion (sentiment) results for the “Grinning Face with Smiling Eyes” emoji character (the one in the figure above). What this figure tells us is that if an iPhone user sends Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji to a Windows Phone, Samsung, LG, or Nexus user, the iPhone user is sending a mildly negative emoji to someone who will receive it as a relatively positive one.

Figure showing the varying sentiment ratings for different renderings of the grinning face with smiling eyes emoji

More generally, we found that for 9 of our 22 emoji, the average difference in emotion rating between two platforms was greater than 2 points on our -5-to-5 scale.

We also saw that for many emoji renderings, people used different words when describing the emoji. For instance, when seeing this Apple emoji rendering Apple's person raising both hands in celebration emoji, participants used words like “stop” and “clap,” whereas they described the Google version of the same emoji character (Google's person raising both hands in celebration emoji) with words like “praise” and “hand.”

One finding that really surprised us is that a good deal of the potential for miscommunication may come from different interpretations of the exact same emoji rendering. In other words, two people looking at the exact same emoji on the same smartphone platform can interpret that emoji quite differently. For example, in the case of the Apple emoji Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji, there were some people who thought it was more positive while others thought it was more negative. The figure below shows the distribution of emotion/sentiment rankings for Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji:

Figure showing distribution of sentiment ratings for Apple's grinning face with smiling eyes emoji

Overall, we found that if you send an emoji across platform boundaries (e.g., an iPhone to a Nexus), the sender and the receiver will differ by about 2.04 points on average on our -5 to 5 sentiment scale. However, even within platforms, the average difference is 1.88 points.

We’re excited about continuing this work along a number of fronts: considering emoji in the context of full text messages, investigating emoji communication breakdowns for people from different national cultures, asking similar questions of non-anthropomorphic emoji, building systems to help test the potential for miscommunication in a new emoji rendering, and so on. More generally, a number of scholars have argued that emoji represent a fundamental shift in language use. As such, fully understanding emoji’s role in human communication will be an important step in developing the next generation of language technologies.

The paper on this research that I co-wrote with my colleagues Jacob Thebault-Spieker, Shuo (Steven) Chang, Isaac Johnson, Loren Terveen, and Brent Hecht will appear in the proceedings of the 2016 AAAI International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media (ICWSM 2016), a top data science conference. You can download the paper here, and if you can make it to Cologne, Germany, come see my ICWSM presentation in May.

And lastly, the next time you have a conversation like this, it’s probably the emoji’s fault!
Example text conversation showing emoji miscommunication


Please comment below or tweet @grouplens and/or me @hannahjean515 with your thoughts! Thanks for reading!

Written by

I am a third-year Ph.D. student in the GroupLens research lab at the University of Minnesota. My research is in human-computer interaction (HCI) and social computing, and I am particularly passionate about studying how we can design technology to improve the quality of life and social interaction for people. Tweet me @hannahjean515. More about me at http://www.hannahjeanmiller.weebly.com.

51 Responses to “Investigating the Potential for Miscommunication Using Emoji”

  1. Muhammad Saleh

    WOW! Interesting study and I’ve never considered this before
    I always thought that yes emojis are a bit different on each platform but didn’t know that they actually might cause miscommunication issue

  2. Mary van Bronkhorst

    I’ve been suspicious of emoji since they arrived. Sounds like my worst fears were justified.

  3. allo

    I am always thinking of a padlock for emoji 1F631 on twitter.

    And in general i am thinking, most emoji sets are quite silly compared to the good old smileys from some forums or messengers like icq. For apple, the wink smiley is fine, but many others are quite misleading (as you wrote) and others are just looking like you want to make fun of the other person.
    And there are some in the specification, which are just stupid, like the overused tears of joy smiley. Somehow the visual equivalent to writing LOL without laughing, but as a smiley harder to see over it.

  4. Bishop

    Really fascinating stuff. I discovered the vast margin of error with these things back in the early 00s, when IMing became popular. There was one emoji on Yahoo Messenger that I would have sworn was a shrug, but apparently most people interpreted it as a hug. Awkward.

  5. Dave

    Interesting but not too surprising to me. This is why people moved away from pictograms to alphabets and words. Hard to add explanation to an emoji and if you do it kinda defeats the whole point of using the emoji in the first place.

    I do wonder if the misinterpretation, or really, varied interpretation, of the emoji was explored through class, race, region, country, etc. I would think the hand clap might be more interpreted as “praise” in an area that’s more religious, but I could be wrong.

  6. What's that emoji mean? It all depends on the device you're using | www.Technical-Features.com

    […] the only thing subject to misinterpretation: Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Grouplens project found that the way different devices and platforms display emoji characters could completely change the […]

  7. Line

    And it is worse between people from two different cultures, even inside the same country.

    I’d be curious about Blackberry, also.

  8. Lance Spencer

    Apple needs to update their icons, they do look frightening!

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    […] lined up all the different versions of emoji and surveyed what people thought of them. You know that smiley […]

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    […] the only thing subject to misinterpretation: Researchers with the University of Minnesota’s Grouplens project found that the way different devices and platforms display emoji characters could completely change the […]

  11. Stian

    Wow, I wasn’t even aware of this having used Samsung/Android every since I got a smartphone, and very rarely does one look at other people’s messages 🙂

    I tend to not use emojis that much, sticking to the old-school smiley 😀 😛 :p 8D

    Conclusion is, Google/Android wins, Microsoft is just really scary, and I guess iPhone people are too hip to smile without making a grimace, like they get paid to smile ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ok47E5ytgwE )

  12. Satyajeet Vishwakarma

    Really interesting observation and research. An emoji standard might solve the problem of this kind of mis-communication?

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  14. Thomas

    My favourite is actually , it looks angry to me but the description says “Face With Look of Triumph”. At least they look similar on most platforms.

    See http://emojipedia.org/face-with-look-of-triumph/

  15. GyD

    For me apple is not a negative emotion, the only negatives I see are the Microsoft and the Gogle
    I’ll put it on -5 for microsoft, it really scare me. ^^’

    For me LG and Apple look almost the same :0

  16. Abubakar

    Wow, really unique approach.

  17. EmilB

    Interesting study!
    I am very curious about whether the effect comes from the fact that we interpret the same emoji rendering differently or because it’s different emoji-fonts. Maybe even an interaction between these two. But from the results of this article, I am not able to conclude that crossplatform-emoji is an issue. It sure looks like it though.

    • EmilB

      Just to elaborate: Will a crossplatform emoji-standard solve the problem or will people still have different interpretations? Maybe what we need to avoid miscommunication is more caricatured emojis. I know they are already extremely caricatured but there’s no doubt we can exaggerate the feelings even more. Of course it is a compromise between being very clear and not misleading (simple emojis, very caricatured) and being able to have a lot of different nuances of moods (more complex emojis, harder to caricature).

      • just a reader

        The Unicode group added an emoji character set to the Unicode standard because that character set was already being used a lot on Japanese cellphones. http://www.unicode.org/faq/emoji_dingbats.html has more on this, and even shows how the characters can look different on color screens and B&W screens.

        Also, if you’re including emojis in a facebook message or blog post, the recipient might not see them at all. Smartphones might have their fonts automatically updated by their phone companies, but desktops and laptops don’t. Some recent emoji characters just look like the default blank square character in Arial Unicode MS to someone who doesn’t routinely check for updated editions of fonts…

      • JT

        According to the paper it is a combination of both — misinterpretation across platforms and within the same one, looking at the same image. If you click the link at the beginning of the article you can read the full paper in pdf format.

  18. omg

    The Microsoft smiley looks demented.

  19. JoaCHIP

    Super relevant article, and it’s a very good point. That apple smily sure doesn’t look too happy. I think the problem gets worse because these smilys do not seem to be based on a classical text notation such as 😀 or 😀 which would clearly dictate whether a smily is meant as happy or not. Because surely we can all agree that 😀 looks like a big smile, which means drawing an unhappy smily for that would be easy to point out as being a mistake, not “design as intended”.

  20. DanaG

    That reminds me of one thing that really bugs me with emoji: both Apple and Google show “RAILWAY CAR” (which should look like a steam train’s cars) with an icon almost identical to TRAM CAR.


    The end result: this chain (that should look like a steam train) looks really stupid:

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  22. Amy

    That “grinning” emoji is my nemesis. My husband is on a Samsung and I’m on iOS, and I always think he’s annoyed when he uses it. I had to forbid it. Now he uses it when he’s trying to be annoying. >_<

  23. Noam

    I found this fascinating. I think Unicode should tell the font designers how to implement every emoji with tools like ‘eyebrows-eyes-mouth proportions’

  24. Ryan

    Very interesting! The promise of emoticons is ostensibly that they provide contextual cues which would otherwise be lacking in text-based communication, but I guess this breaks down if people interpret the cues differently, either due to quirks of their implementation or other reasons.

    By the way, doesn’t the example image at the end have things backwards? According to the chart above, Bill (Google) should interpret the emoji to be strongly positive, while Abby (Apple) should consider it slightly negative. But in the image, the interpretations seem reversed. (Yes, other commenters, I know that the results are tendencies and not rules, but I’m assuming the example is fabricated anyway.)

    • Ryan

      Oh wait. I’M the one who has it backwards. Abby is using Google and Bill is using an iPhone. Carry on.

  25. Ryan Young

    You know what was really confusing? One of those on a nexus used to look like a hairy heart: ❤️
    I don’t know which one they changed it to.

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  29. Johnny

    Apple users might have a negative association with that particular emoji because many people don’t realize that and are two separate emojis. the first is “Grinning face with smiling eyes,” obviously a positive sentiment, while the second is “Grimacing face.” i’ve encountered this misunderstanding personally a few times, and would bet the farm all the negative readings of the grin are simply mistaking it for the grimace. It’s in the eyes, people!!

    • Johnny

      hmm it removed the emojis from my post but the titles say it all

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  34. Fakhruddin Ahmad Darwis

    Emoji are Japanese invention. So you need to look at the emoji based on culture of the one who made it.
    Eyes drawn like a concave downward are always perceived as positive emotion.

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  41. Paula Cabezas

    Great study! This reminds me of how much I hate that everytime I put a smiley face on Facebook it translates as a blushing smiley face on my phone, which has a far more flirtatious spirit to it.

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