Why Does Gen Z Use Emojis So Weirdly?

Millennials might've laid claim to them first but Gen Z has gone ahead and given emojis meaning no one saw coming.
October 1, 2020, 9:00am
gen z and emoji use
Image by Satviki Sanjay

It is a Sunday night in 2020, and I am exhausted and dreading another week of work, when one of my friends sends me a video telling me she adores me. Obviously, I am touched, but I respond to her with no words—just a bunch of hearts, smiling faces, and kisses, knowing she gets what I mean.

In 2013, when emojis were starting to become huge, there came an influx of stories analysing whether they were here to stay, or would fade away just like most other things on the internet.

Seven years later, the internet can only confirm that the use of emojis has progressively evolved. According to an Emojipedia analysis, nearly one in five tweets now contain at least one emoji.

As much as I do believe in the technological superiority of Generation Z—and thus believe we rule internet trends—evidence supports that emoji use had begun to rise even before we took over the internet. The millennials were the first to be blessed with this bold, new world. But their use of “emoticons” was rather limited and straightforward. 😂  or 😊  meant exactly what they depict, which is a rather fun, funny, pleasant emotion. A more feisty version of this was the 😜. Sure, they have the 🍆 and 🍑 for sexy texts but it kinda ends there.

For Gen Z though, the emoji use is just weirder, more ironic, even more nuanced.

I see something that oddly disgusts and fascinates me and my fingers go 👁👄👁 before I can form a coherent thought; I see someone attractive on the internet, my brain immediately goes 😳 👉👈 ; I’ve been sending a 🤠 to my friends a lot all through the pandemic to show how I might seem happy from the outside but am actually dying on the inside; I do something that ends up backfiring and I manifest a 🤡 emoji in my brain; I get asked to do something I have absolutely no interest in and I go, “No ❤️”.

For someone who has practically grown up on the internet, living the changes—and bringing the changes—in the years in between has been fascinating. For example, when did we collectively decide to not use cat emojis (which were huge a few years ago) anymore?

One way that social tools catch on is when they facilitate conversation for the sake of it, allowing social interaction with less pressure, such as by encouraging us to send selfies or photos of our surroundings. It is impossible for us to be witty conversationalists all of the time (as much as we’d like to) but emojis mean that we don’t have to be.

The thing about emojis is that there are still a limited number of them—compared to the extensiveness of verbal vocabulary—which means that people need to get creative. We use metaphors in the forms of emojis, or direct visual representations, to express things that aren't represented exactly with the emojis available. Using the 🍆 and the 🍑, with a dash of 💦 and an occasional 👅 to spice up sexting is just one way of doing it. How it gets more complex is when they’re used to represent a complex emotion, whose nuance is hard enough to get IRL. The 😭, for example, is not just crying—it is a dramatic subtlety that comes as a reaction out of being overwhelmed by something cute/stupid/funny, in a more humorous way.

Emojis, like words, evolve to have their meaning related to how people within a community use a word/emoji rather than anything inherent in the symbol itself. “It will start with one particular community who starts a trend, and then this gets picked up by other groups, until it spreads wider and wider. And if it gets picked up in the media, or by someone with a large number of followers, it spreads that much further and more quickly,” says Philip Seargeant, the author of the book The Emoji Revolution, to VICE. “Sometimes the meaning will be based on a visual metaphor (for example the various emojis used to reference sex); other times it will replicate something in verbal language; other times it will copy verbal slang fairly literally, such as 🔥  for lit.”

Twitter, the text-based social media, perhaps play the most important role in setting internet language conventions because of its primary text use form. By forcing us to shorten the way we communicate, it's constantly inventing new ways of communication. The weird nuances the site then creates are fascinating because while it is definitely not the social media internet that conventions always originate from, it is the website that makes it popular. Case in point, the writing style which uses commas as ellipses.

“I tend to think of social networks as a big chaotic writers’ room or think tank,” says Ryan Broderick, who writes the Garbage Day newsletter about all things internet, to VICE. “People use emojis and memes in all sorts of ways and the most popular applications rise to the top. I think how we give them meaning is very instinctual.”

Sarcasm and irony are integral parts of all communication, especially online, but as the internet phenomenon Poe’s Law says, it's always been difficult to flag something up as ironic when you're writing because the reader doesn’t know the writer’s intent. But with emojis, signalling irony and usage in ironic ways is far easier because they’re so unique. For example, just adding a wink to the end of a text that is otherwise serious can act as a buffer and take away the tension it’d otherwise generate.

“I think Gen Z's internet slang is really influenced by the online culture wars of the last decade actually,” says Broderick. “I see a lot of zoomers—both men and women—using what I've been calling post-4chan slang, that is, words like simp, redpill, doomer, etc. Emojis are ubiquitous now, but they're also getting more niche. On Twitch [a live streaming platform for gamers], there are thousands of custom emotes which all have different meanings and on Discord [a gaming and chatting app], you can make your own emojis. So I think we're entering an era of really, really niche emoji use online, which is cool, but also might be really confusing.”

It tends to be the case that innovations in language and communication happen most intensively in the young. So, slang and other new forms of language often originate from this demographic, after which they get picked up across the generations. And one of the most important demographics for this are teen girls!

“No ❤️”, for example, spread via TikTok communities earlier this year. It falls under a specific category of internet communication that recently gained fame on TikTok and Twitter: fairy comments. These are extremely sarcastic sentences with soft emojis such as butterflies and sparkles and hearts. On TikTok, teens used it to subtly shade politicians. It quickly gained fame and got picked up by people and copied until it became a meme in its own right. In India, teens used fairy comments on PM Modi’s Instagram photos as a way of dissent. Despite their recent fame, though, they are actually not new; Tumblr saw them a few years ago.

Now, in the pandemic, everyone's inside and spending all day online. There's a massive growth in internet use happening right now and it's changing how we write and communicate. “How words and expressions become popular and then lose popularity is one of the most important questions in sociolinguistics,” adds Maite Taboada, a professor of linguistics at Simon Fraser University in Canada. “And I think the question applies to emoji the same way it applies to words. It is a community trend, really, very similar to fashion or music taste. It comes and goes.”

Emojis That Don’t Exist but Should

It might be a bit too soon to figure out exactly what it means in the long term, but as the legendary Gina Linetti says in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, “The English language cannot fully capture the depth and complexity of my thoughts, so I’m incorporating emoji into my speech to better express myself. Winky face.”

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