Emoji, a Symbol System in Online Communication


Emoji, in the era of social media, is an indispensable symbol system in daily communication. People use these little faces to represent, emphasize, or clarify their emotions and attitudes. Almost every netizen knows emoji, and among them, a lot of people know how and when to use it properly. They never learn emoji professionally, but the whole process comes naturally and unconsciously. I would like to try to utilize semiotics to explain the role of emoji in the process of online communication.

Why do we need emoji?

When people chat face to face, it is not quite possible that people misunderstand each other not only because of the content they say, but also resulting from the assistance of facial expressions, gestures, and tones. These elements are of great necessity that direct talkers to clarify the right context and atmosphere. For instance, whether the talk is relaxing or formal and whether what just said is a joke or not.

The emergence of online chatting, however, blocks people’s sensors to assume others’ intentions directly, which might increase the possibility of misunderstanding. To avoid such a phenomenon, graphics of facial emotions were created. At first, they were just some basic alphabets and punctuations, such as 🙂 and :D. In Japan, there is a popular symbols’ system called “Facial Language”, to name a few, o(╥﹏╥)o for crying and (*^▽^*) for laughing. On the basis of these simple graphics, emoji evolve to be more universal.

How do we understand emoji?

The characteristics of all sign systems can also be applied to emoji. First and foremost, meanings of emojis are “acquired and learned in specific communities”. Although people do not need to attend a school to command it officially, they do learn its meaning while using. Sometimes meanings of emoji are easy to guess, such as smile or anger, but sometimes deeper emotions, such as jealousy or regret, largely depend on context. Secondly, emoji system is also “rule-governed”. Each emoji has an according description to showcase its emotion briefly, and the meaning of it is based on people’s common senses. Thusly, users cannot explain its meaning simply out of their moods, but also need to take the rules into account. In addition, meanings of emoji are “collective and intersubjective”. Individuals have no rights to explain an emoji, though they can use it whenever they want. Nevertheless, popular meanings are still formulated on the foundation of sub-culture of the Internet where people share consensus and form the symbol system.

Emoji, as a symbol system, is not a static thing but a dynamic process. It is developing all the time with increasing numbers of users. They find it difficult to express their complicated feelings with extant emojis, so the company produces more vivid emojis to compensate. Hence, emoji becomes more and more comprehensive, complex, and even abstract than its original version.

From the Perspective of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Basic Model of the Sign

Signified: Emotions or feelings users want to express via emoji.

Signifier: Emoji itself.

From the Perspective of Peirce

Representamen: The relationship between emoji and its according meaning, such as smile and happiness and cry and sadness.

Interpretant: Brief description of each emoji can be its interpretant which is to explain the meaning of emoji graphics.

Objects: Emoji itself is an object abstracted from real facial expressions.



Martin Irvine. The Grammar of Meaning Systems: Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, and Semiotics

Martin Irvine. Meaning Systems, Communication, Media, and Technologies

Daniel Chandel (2002). Semiotics: The Basics