Between art and application: Special issue on emoji epistemology
First Monday

Between art and application: Special issue on emoji epistemology by Crystal Abidin and Joel Gn


Researching emoji cultures
Between art and application




Emoji culture is simultaneously becoming more “universal, particularistic, and personalizable” [1]. In recent years, the technology, art, and media industries have instituted and legitimized emoji cultures through various milestone events: 2015 saw the move towards visual racial diversity as a skin tone modifier bearing five skin shades was added to all Apple operating systems (Tan, 2015); 2016 saw the original set of 176 emoji being officially adopted into art history by the Museum of Modern Art (Galloway, 2016); and 2017 saw the release of an entire movie starring anthropomorphic emoji characters in The Emoji Movie by Sony Pictures Animation (Box Office Mojo, n.d.).

As a relatable and cryptically humourous vernacular for engaging with an audience, politicians from countries such as Australia (Di Stefano, 2015) and the U.S. (Alt, 2015) have also adopted emoji use in their popular correspondence, albeit not without some backlash (McDonald, 2015; Medhora, 2015). Likewise, brands like Swedish furniture company Ikea (Lomas, 2015) and Canadian cafe chain Tim Hortons (Huffington Post, 2015) have released app-specific branded emoji that iconize their products. Celebrities, too, are cashing in on the widespread use of emoji by commissioning personalized emoji apps after their own image (Hua, 2016), and even getting into debates around originality and copyright over these visual artefacts (Fisher, 2016).

Commerce aside, emoji culture is also experiencing a resurgence in representational politics on the grassroots level. Trans activists who have been petitioning to have the trans flag incorporated into emoji vocabulary kick started the ‘Claws Out For Trans’ campaign calling for people to ‘hijack’ the lobster emoji as an “unofficial, official” trans symbol (Gil, 2018); 15-year-old Saudie Rayouf Alhumedhi successfully petitioned for Unicode to include emoji of women wearing a hijab through her campaign ‘Hijab Emoji Project’ despite widespread racist reactions from several users (Al Jazeera, 2017); to curb visual representations of gun violence, tech companies Apple, Samsung, and Google, and platforms WhatsApp and Twitter replaced their pistol and handgun emoji with water guns (Ong, 2018); and Chinese users have been adopting the ‘rice’ and ‘bunny’ emoji as homophones (mǐtù) to ‘#MeToo’ in a “tactical response to circumvent online censorship” on platforms including Sina Weibo and WeChat (Andersen, 2018; Zeng, 2018).

As users petition for and programmers work towards diversity for platform interoperability, cultural universality, and social inclusiveness, emoji culture is becoming a placeholder for people to distil their identities and politics into distinctive — but at times, reductive — icons.



Researching emoji cultures

Emoji, or graphic emoticons, provide an important avenue for looking into the ways affect is modulated within the current Information economy. A common feature in computer mediated communication (CMC), emoji are primarily either used to punctuate phrases and sentences, or placed as a graphic substitute for nouns. As observed from their paralinguistic and lexical effects, emoji and its derivatives (e.g., emoticons, kaomoji, and messaging stickers) afford a significant level of “communicative fluidity” (Lim, 2015) by allowing users to express themselves in a variety of ways. At the same time, however, emoji configures affect within a rigid ideographic system, thereby facilitating the translation of human sentiment into information capital. In other words, the use of emoji in CMC constitutes a form of immaterial labour, which involves the “production and manipulation of affects and requires (virtual or actual) human contact and proximity” [2].

In the first book-length analysis of emoji culture, The Semiotics of Emoji, Professor of Semiotics and Linguistic Anthropology Marcel Danesi lays out the “systems, uses, competence, semantics, grammar, pragmatics, variation, spread, universal language, and communication revolution of emoji” [3]. He writes that alongside the proliferation of digitally mediated communications on various messaging and social media platforms, visual semiotic forms like emoji are superseding the need for “orthographic and grammatical perfection” [4]. Given their contextual richness, emoji can be used to deploy efficiency and effectiveness, add “visual tone” [5], enhance meaning [6], and reveal signs that indicate user intent [7], thus becoming a “communicative niche” to “establis[h] and maintai[n] amicability in tone” [8].

Current research on emoji has either approached them as a function of language, or via their affordances and limitations within CMC. In a proposal for a universal visual language, for example, Junichi Azuma and Martin Ebner observed that graphic emoticons — besides their prosodic function — are also capable of emphatic and lexical effects [9]. These illocutionary options indicate that these visual objects are not strictly used to inform recipients of the sender’s emotion, but may entail other pragmatic implications that can be further clarified in linguistic terms [10]. Such claims also intersect with Sun Sun Lim’s (2015) case study on the “communicative fluidity” of emoji and LINE stickers, where she argues for the use of these features to enhance user agency on social media platforms [11].

Conversely, emoji are visual objects tied to cultural convention and produced through technical standardisation. As commented by Luke Stark and Kate Crawford (2015), emoji operate within a relationship whereby “affect is captured by capital through proprietary cultural representations and subsequently escapes, only to be recaptured through new technocultural terms” [12]. While emoji can be a creative tool for affective expression even in non-digital environments, they are also developed by corporations to quantify and monetise human interactions and cultural practices. This modulation of affect may enhance social ties, but objects such as emoji are also instruments of capital, and a means to “lure consumers to a platform, to extract data from them more efficiently, and to express a normative, consumerist, and predominantly cheery world-view” [13].

The tensions between the emancipatory potential of emoji and their commercial limitations are a relevant starting point for an analysis of these visual objects across various contexts and disciplines. Likewise, the growing circulation and use of emoji in other fields also calls for a more in-depth investigation into the sociocultural factors influencing the use and appreciation of emoji in non-CMC contexts. This is especially pertinent given that emoji operate on a “universality scale” [14], wherein some icons are “more cross-culturally connotated, deployed, and interpreted with higher fidelity and coherence than others” [15], thus challenging their interoperability and generality. In response to the growing interest in emoji cultures as an object of study, a few studies have also emerged as a guide for researchers to use emoji as a visual research method for eliciting expressions (Fane, et al., 2016), and for intertextual tracking and analyses across social media platforms (Highfield and Leaver, 2016).



Between art and application

This special issue, curated by Joel Gn and Crystal Abidin, provides an investigation of the uses and impacts of emoji within the domains of culture, race, language, and art and commerce. Considering the broader socio-cultural implications of emoji and the various ways that emoji negotiate and mediate the tenuous boundary between art and application, the eight papers draw from disciplines including media studies and communications, sociology and digital anthropology, literary studies and art history, and philosophy, and are (mostly) authored by Early Career Researchers.

The first two papers focus on the cultural specificities of emoji cultures across platforms and cultural boundaries. ‘Cultural Literacy in the Empire of Emoji Signs: Who is Crying with Joy?’ by Alisa Freedman takes a literary studies approach to consider how the spread of Unicode emoji from Japan to the rest of the world can be used to assess the globalization of Japanese popular culture. Specifically, the paper assesses how emoji can promote cultural literacies but also reveal discrimination within cultures. ‘Biaoqing: The circulation of emoticons, emoji, stickers, and custom images on Chinese digital media platforms’ by Gabriele de Seta takes a digital ethnography approach to demonstrate how paying attention to the situated socio-technical specificities of emoji use, for instance in China, can reveal a rich vocabulary of visual cultures collectively known as ‘biaoqing’ on Chinese digital media platforms, and their historical and contemporary uses.

The next two papers focus on how emoji use can be embroiled in the politics of race at the level of platform and software. ‘Inciting anger through Facebook Reactions in Belgium: The use of emoji and related vernacular expressions in racist discourse’ by Ariadna Matamoros-Fernández uses a communications approach to investigate how the tensions between platform affordance and governance of emoji, and users’ appropriation of emoji in racist discourse, arise in the notion of ‘platformed racism’. ‘Emotion, Classification, and Race in Animated Social Media’ by Luke Stark uses a sociological approach to assess how animated emoji based on facial recognition software can mediate affective expressions, and what they can tell us about identity and racial classification.

The following two papers focus on how emoji cultures constitute a language of visuality and communication through their infrastructure and relational work. ‘I Second That Emoji: The Standards, Structures, and Social Production of Emoji’ by Bethany Berard adopts a communications approach to see how the brief history of emoji and its technical standardization can help us understand its distinctive modes of inclusion and exclusion, and how the ‘infrastructure of emoji’ is maintained, changed, and reproduced. ‘Emoji as a “Language” of Cuteness’ by Joel Gn adopts a philosophy approach to scrutinize the relationship between emoji’s communication design and its use in CMC, arguing that the applications of emoji are structurally similar to the aesthetics of cuteness, both within and out of messaging platforms.

The final two papers focus on the complex relationships that arise from the commodification and commercialism of emoji. ‘Emoji at MoMA: Considering the “Original Emoji” as Art’ by SooJin Lee applies an art history approach to recount how the Museum of Modern Art’s 2016 acquisition of the original set of emoji characters frames emoji as ‘art’ or ‘not art’, through conservative and revisionist viewpoints. ‘Emoji hashtags // hashtag emoji: of platforms, visual affect, and discursive flexibility’ by Tim Highfield applies a media studies approach to consider how the integration of emoji into hashtags and as hashtags on Twitter reveals relational dynamics between platform authority, commercial partnerships, and user-led innovations.

Finally, we invite you to share these papers in the spirit of collegiality and to commemorate emoji cultures every 17 July on World Emoji Day. If you have enjoyed any of these papers, please feel free to send the editors and authors a quick word and your favourite emoji — we would love to ‘see’ from you. End of article


About the authors

Crystal Abidin is Lecturer in Communication at Deakin University in Victoria, Australia.
E-mail: crystalabidin [at] gmail [dot] com

Joel Gn is Lecturer at Singapore University of Social Sciences. He writes about aesthetics, technology and East Asian popular culture.
E-mail: joelgnhz [at] suss [dot] edu [dot] sg



We would like to thank the following peer reviewers for offering their time and expertise towards this Special Issue. In alphabetical order: Kristine Ask, Junichi Azuma, Patrick Davison, Marcel Danesi, Joyce Goggin, Susan C. Herring, Liew Kai Khiun, Yiru Lim, Kate Miltner, Becky Pham, Michele Zappavigna, and Sulafa Zidani. We would also like to express our appreciation to First Monday’s Chief Editor Edward J. Valauskas for his support throughout the publication process, and for taking a gamble on accepting a Special Issue from a group of Early Career Researchers.



1. Abidin, 2018, p. 451.

2. Hardt, 1999, pp. 97–98.

3. Abidin, 2018, p. 451.

4. Danesi, 2016, p. 173.

5. Danesi, 2016, p. 10.

6. Danesi, 2016, p. 15.

7. Danesi, 2016, p. 18.

8. Danesi, 2016, p. 157.

9. Azuma and Ebner, 2008, pp. 973–974.

10. Dresner and Herring, 2010, p. 250.

11. Lim, 2015, p. 3.

12. Stark and Crawford, 2015, p. 3.

13. Stark and Crawford, 2015, p. 8.

14. Danesi, 2016, p. 13.

15. Abidin, 2018, p. 451.



Crystal Abidin, 2018. “Book review: Marcel Danesi, The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise of Visual Language in the Age of the Internet,” Discourse & Communication, volume 12, number 4, pp. 450–453.
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Al Jazeera, 2017. “Hijab-wearing woman among Apple’s new emojis” (18 July), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Matt Alt, 2015. “How emoji got to the White House,” New Yorker (6 May), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Margaret Andersen, 2018. “How feminists in China are using emoji to avoid censorship.” Wired (30 March), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Junichi Azuma and Martin Ebner. 2008. “A stylistic analysis of graphic emoticons: Can they be candidates for a universal language of the future?” Proceedings of World Conference on Educational Media, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (ED-Media), pp. 972–977.

Box Office Mojo, n.d. “The emoji movie,” at, accessed 5 January 2018.

Marcel Danesi, 2016. The semiotics of emoji: The rise of visual language in the age of the Internet. London: Bloomsbury.

Mark Di Stefano, 2015. “Julie Bishop describes serious diplomatic relationships with emoji,” BuzzFeed (16 February), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Eli Dresner and Susan C. Herring, 2010. “Functions of the nonverbal in CMC: Emoticons and illocutionary force,” Communication Theory, volume 20, number 3, pp. 249–268.
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Jennifer Fane, Colin MacDougall, Jessie Jovanovic, Gerry Redmond, and Lisa Gibbs, 2016. “Exploring the use of emoji as a visual research method for eliciting young children’s voices in childhood research,” Early Child Development and Care, volume 188, number 3, pp. 359–374.
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Kendall Fisher, 2016. “Blac Chyna slaps Kylie Jenner look-alike in new emoji set,” E! News (10 May), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Paul Galloway, 2016. “The original emoji set has been added to the Museum of Modern Art’s collection,” Museum of Modern Art (26 October), at, accessed 5 January 2018.

Natalie Gil, 2018. “Trans activitists are hijacking the lobster emoji (until they get the one they deserve),” Refinery29 (31 July), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Michael Hardt, 1999. “Affective labor,” Boundary 2, volume 26, number 2, pp. 89–100.

Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver, 2016. “Instagrammatics and digital methods: Studying visual social media, from selfies and GIFs to meme and emoji,” Communication Research and Practice, volume 2, number 1, pp. 47–62.
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Karen Hua, 2016. “Inside the company that makes emojis for Heidi Klum, Kim Kardashian, and other celebrities,” Forbes (7 November), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Huffington Post, 2015. “Tim Hortons serves up more than smiley faces with new emoji keyboard” (25 June), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Sun Sun Lim, 2015. “On stickers and communicative fluidity in social media,” Social Media + Society (11 May).
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Natasha Lomas, 2015. “Ikea does emoji,” Tech Crunch (11 February), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Susan McDonald, 2015. “Red face under spotlight: Julie Bishop’s all-emoji interview scrutinised by Senate committee,” ABC (22 October), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Shalailah Medhora, 2015. “Julie Bishop’s emoji use under scrutiny as Penny Wog asks: Why the red face?” Guardian (21 October), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Thuy Ong, 2018. “Google and Facebook adopt water gun emoji, leaving Microsoft holding the pistol,” Verge (25 April), at, accessed 10 August 2018.

Luke Stark and Kate Crawford, 2015. “The conservatism of emoji: Work, affect, and communication,” Social Media + Society.
doi:, accessed 29 August 2018.

Monica Tan, 2015. “Apple adds racially diverse emoji, and they come in five skin shades,” Guardian (23 February), at, accessed 5 January 2018.

Meg Jing Zeng, 2018. “From #MeToo to #RiceBunny: How social media users are campaigning in China,” The Conversation (6 February), at, accessed 10 August 2018.


Editorial history

Received 28 August 2018; accepted 29 August 2018.

Copyright © 2018, Crystal Abidin and Joel Gn. All Rights Reserved.

Between art and application: Special issue on emoji epistemology
by Crystal Abidin and Joel Gn.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 9 - 3 September 2018

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.