My mom learned how to text from my 12-year-old niece. I don’t think I have to elaborate on that much for you to get the picture. All of the “r u @ home?” and text-speak puzzles that make my soul die when I read them (if I had a soul—but I’m a soul-less ginger, so I guess I’m just being melodramatic).

And then my mom found the emoji keypad on her phone. Yep. My sister complained that she would get messages from our mom that were purely emojis and she would have to decipher the story Mom was trying to text her.

Because emojis are images (worth 1,000 words, right?), they are interpreted in many different ways by different people. And they can be hijacked by events or groups to mean something far different than intended.

Case in point: 💨

If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then this emoji’s meaning is in the eye of the receiver. Your BFF, or your mom, or your boss.

What is this? 🐕 💨

Well… to some people it might mean a dog is running away quickly. To others, it’s a dog farting. Technically that’s the ‘dash’ emoji so the running interpretation is correct, but a lot of people use it to mean farts.

This is my long way of cautioning people new to social media that emojis are fun, but they can end in tragedy.

So what actually is an emoji?

Emojis evolved from emoticons in Japan in the late ‘90s. Emoticons are the text-y faces and symbols you once had to use to convey complex emotion in emails like : -(

Emojis are actually a standardized set of codes that represent images. And many devices and sites have their own interpretations of what that image actually looks like. Which can be vastly different from one platform to the next.

Example: Dizzy face 😵

This is something I cannot underline enough. Most emojis are pretty fluid and look similar if you change from your iPhone to a desktop web browser on Twitter and then to a Word document. But there are some that look very different when you change platform, and it can change the meaning of your message. A lot.

To get the low down on an emoji you want to use, or to browse the many, many emojis at your fingertips right now, I recommend the searchable Emojipedia site. You can find specific emojis, and see what they look like in many platforms before you use them.


How do new emojis happen?

There is an actual group called the Unicode Consortium, and they have the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee that sorts through the piles of new emoji suggestions to decide which ones will be added. Even you can submit an emoji suggestion.

Read: Who decides which emojis get the thumbs up? (NPR)

So why should you use emojis?

You don’t have to. But when in Rome, you know? If you’re jumping on social media to connect with peers and serious scientists, take your cue from those you’re interacting with. Maybe they don’t, and you don’t have to.

But if you’re trying to reach and engage a broader audience with some good #scicomm, you’re probably going to have to emoji a little here and there.

Emojis help bring eyeballs to your posts and make you seem more approachable. They help punctuate big blocks of text into something more digestible. And some platforms like Instagram have statistical data to show posts with hashtags and emojis get two to three times the amount of interactions than those without.

Yes, I’m done talking now. And I didn’t event bring up the poop emoji once! 💩

Too long; didn’t read?

If you want the tl;dr version of what emojis are, here’s the Wikipedia article.