What can emojis tell you about celebrities and their fans? Data scientist Hamdan Azhar, founder of emoji analytics company Prismoji, pondered this age-old question in the wake of some fresh Taylor Swift and Kanye West drama.
Kanye claimed that Taylor gave him permission to use the lyric "I made that bitch famous," referencing Swift in the song "Famous" from his latest album. But Taylor later said she never gave Kanye permission to reference her so disrespectfully, despite evidence to the contrary from Kim Kardashian's Snapchat.
What went down between Taylor Swift and the Wests doesn't matter so much as their fans' reactions to it via emoji. A sample of 100,000 tweets, 50,000 each mentioning @taylorswift13 and @kanyewest, was enough to help Azhar draw some solid conclusions.
"I would sum it up by saying that emojis show us that people feel very strongly about this on both sides, and they use emotionally powerful emojis to convey that," Azhar told Motherboard.
Swifties used much more loving emojis, depicting hearts and kisses, sometimes in addition to a hashtag along the lines of #welovetaylorswift, he said. On the Kanye side, however, fans didn't express their love for Kanye as much as they attacked Taylor, using the snake emoji to describe the pop star. Interestingly enough, the snake emoji isn't even in the top hundred emojis mostly commonly used, Azhar added.
"For example, the red heart appears in 58 out of every 1,000 tweets about Taylor, compared to 7 of every 1,000 tweets about Kanye—hence, its emoji valence leans roughly 700 percent towards Taylor," Azhar wrote in his analysis. "We find a dense assortment of warm and fuzzy emojis—hearts, roses, and kisses—firmly in Taylor's camp, while only a handful of mildly positive emojis are weakly on Kanye's side of the fence. The fire emoji is the strongest pro-Kanye emoji we find."
This sparks questions not only about how much each of Taylor and Kanye's fans adore them, but also about the demographics and general vibe and behaviors associated with each fan camp.
Fans also used the tears of joy emoji, and/or the snake emoji, along with #taylorswiftwhatup as "emojis of shade" against Taylor. That hashtag, started by Justin Bieber, became the most common hashtag used on both sides of the scandal.
"Can we find that the emojis people use to talk about it correlate with their emotional feelings and actions?" Azhar asked. The idea behind the project isn't to provide answers, but rather to spark more questions, he said. For instance, why is it that the American flag emoji is most commonly associated with Taylor Swift? That could have to do with any number of questions about her experience in country music, her all-American pop star persona, or her popularity in rural parts of the nation.
And while emoji behavior may be easy to dismiss as not intentional, or ill-defined, Azhar reminds us that this method of pictorial communication is only becoming increasingly popular. "All behavior has meaning. We don't need to consciously make a choice for it to be meaningful, a lot of it is subconscious," he said.
While there's no encyclopedia defining each emoji, their meanings develop organically through trial and error, Azhar added. "In that organic process, patterns emerge." People have strong feelings about the meanings of each emoji, he said, even in cases as subtle as the difference between what the blue heart means and the green heart.
"I hope, as a researcher, people start taking this seriously," said Azhar. There are many questions to be answered that even a silly scandal between celebrities can help illuminate.
"Just as with any new language, learning the alphabet, we can eventually do more complicated, more nuanced things. It's the early days of emoji exploration and I'm really excited about the future holds."
We bet Yeezy is too.