Identity and Representation in Social Media Emojis

Since its inception, the role of the virtual social networks has evolved gradually. This evolution has contributed to changing the social fabric in terms of how we interact with our surroundings, and perceive and present our own identities. According to José van Dijck, over time, the role of the social networks has shifted from being tools for self-expression and connectivity with family and friends to being tools for representation and self-promotion. Meaning that our social media identities are formed through complex layers of life experiences and self-projection. Thus, the role that social media plays today consists of two main pillars; firstly, reflecting our identities in a way that represents us and contributes to the knowledge formation of the public about us. And secondly, influencing identities to either evolve or get reconstructed. Through this article, I will focus on one modern mode of communication in the social media realm, which formulates a big part of the social media language. The Emojis!

Are you that person who takes some time to consciously choose the perfect emoji that represents his feeling or identity? Have you ever felt that you can’t find a proper emoji that represents your current status? Well, you are not alone. We all know that emojis are just some small icons; however, these little icons are used by by 92% of the online population. In her TEDx talk, Tracey Pickett the founder and CEO of Eboticon – a media design company with a mission to create dynamic and culturally relevant emojis for niche social groups– argues that emojis are creating new brain patterns within us; which is similar to the patterns we already have related to tone of voice, body gestures, and words.


The History of Emojis

Emojis were initially created in Japan as a form of communication to add an emotional nuance to plain text. Emojis history goes back to more than 20 years; According to Emojipedia, SoftBank, a Japanese carrier, brought the first set of emojis to life in 1997, compromising 90 emoji characters. Over the years, Emojis gained extreme popularity in Japan, and big corporations like apple and google saw potential success opportunities in taking the emojis culture outside Japan. From 2007 until 2010, the Unicode Consortium has been approached by different initiatives and teams to include emojis in their system. Unicode Consortium is a non-profit group that has been put in the early 1990s and fundamentally works on maintaining text standards when sent from one country to another and one computer to the other. In 2010, Unicode accepted the proposal of 2 apple engineers to adopt 625 new emoji characters, announcing emojis to be officially accessible everywhere. In 2015, the word ‘emoji’ was chosen as Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year. Currently, there are 3,304 emojis in the Unicode Standard as of March 2020.

SoftBank’s 1997 set of emojis

Skin Tone emojis, a smart move towards identity representation or another mode of social discrimination:

“It’d be nice to see some emoji that look like me. But, at the end of the day, none of these really do.”

– Paige Tutt, a writer in the Washington post

After years of complaints about the lack of black and brown representation, In April 2015, the Unicode Consortium introduced its new range of skin tones emojis. This range included 5 different skin tones in addition to the standard yellow one. Five years now, from when they were introduced, they are still the same 5 tones with no changes. Even though emojis of colour were initially created to represent people from different communities, however, it has created a  discourse of ‘Racialized communications’ not particularly that this is something terrible, but when you get to choose an emoji to complement your sentence now, you somehow need to make a choice of how you would like to identify and present yourself. Nevertheless that it would be too naïve to assume that the internet can be a raceless space. On the other hand, in my opinion, what went wrong with these emojis is that instead of creating real emojis that represent each race, emoji design companies decided to take the easy way out by coloring the white/ yellow emojis in different shades ignoring the physical features of each race, and offending the consumers that they were originally putting this together to please.

Differences in tones for five platforms
Source: Robertson et al. 2020

In an article by the Atlantic in 2016, Andrew Mcgill explained his findings on why people of lighter skin tones tend to use shades that are not particularly close to their skin colors. He tried to quantify his research by using data from Twitter’s streaming API, and he built a dataset of 18,000 tweets from the United States. His findings led him that 52 per cent of the users in his dataset use the darkest 3 skin tones, while 32 per cent use the second-lightest, and only 19 per cent use the lightest. Mcgill assumes that people from lighter skin tones tend to use darker skin colors because they feel that “it is awkward to use an affirmatively white emoji.”  This might be true, however, in my opinion, the complexity of the issue lies in the limitation of the representation. You are given a few options to choose from, which neither of them represents you. Moreover, according to Robertson and his team, different emojis are rendered differently on different platforms (Robertson et al., 2020), which, in my opinion, might lead to varying perceptions of the emoji. In other words, each individual will use the emoji depending on the entire context he is put in, yet we can’t deny the lack of accommodation of these emojis to the cultural differences and appropriateness.

Emojis are for everyone, but are they representing everyone?

Extracted from: 2015 Emoji Report
Designed by:

“I just wanted an emoji of me”

Rayouf Alhumedhi, the 16 year old Saudi-girl behind the Hijabi Emoji

According to Adweek’s 2015 piece, Emojis are used by 92% of the online population. In 2019, according to Statista,  it was estimated that more than 700 million emojis are used every day on Facebook posts alone. The growing popularity of emojis demanded considering important dimensions like sensitivity towards different ethnic and cultural identities in terms of representation. In 2016, a 16-year-old Saudi girl residing in Germany had made her name to the headlines of the biggest newspapers. Rayouf Alhumedhi has been communicating with Unicode to include an emoji that represents her identity. Alhumedhi says that she has been in a conversation with her colleagues, and they wanted to create a WhatsApp group with emojis that represent each of them. When Rayouf was looking for an emoji that represents her, she didn’t find any. At that moment, she was inspired to send the Unicode consortium a proposal to include a woman in a headscarf emoji to the keyboard. In the world emoji day (yes, you read it right, there is a day for emojis)  in 2017, Apple released the emoji of the woman in a headscarf in addition to a collection of new emojis such as the breastfeeding woman.

In conclusion, it feels good to see your identity represented, especially when it is represented in the way you would like to see it. Representation does not happen forcefully or by checking boxes. Representation happens when you take the opinion of the intended beneficiaries on how they would like to see themselves represented.

Resources and further readings:

How Social Media Shapes Identity | Ulrike Schultze | TEDxSMU:

Emoji: The Language of the Future | Tracey Pickett | TEDxGreenville:

How emoji replaced QWERTY as the world’s most popular keyboard | Jeremy Burge | TEDxEastEnd:

Van Dijck, J., 2013. ‘You have one identity’: Performing the self on Facebook and LinkedIn. Media, culture & society35(2), pp.199-215.

Robertson, A., Magdy, W. and Goldwater, S., 2020. Emoji Skin Tone Modifiers: Analyzing Variation in Usage on Social Media. ACM Transactions on Social Computing3(2), pp.1-25.

Emogi Research Team, 2015 Emoji Report


Simpsons reaction, I don’t belong here:

There is no emoticon for what I’m feeling GIF:

1997’s SoftBanks set of Emojis:

Emojis are for everyone infograph:

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