Communicative functions of emoji sequences on Sina Weibo


  • Jing Ge University California, Berkeley
  • Susan C. Herring Indiana University Bloomington



emoji sequences, language, pragmatic functions, rhetorical relations, speech acts, China, Sina Weibo


The popular press is currently rife with speculation that emoji are becoming a global, digitally-mediated language. Sequences of emoji that function like verbal utterances potentially lend strong support to this claim. We employ computer-mediated discourse analysis to analyze the pragmatic meanings conveyed through emoji sequences and their rhetorical relations with accompanying text, focusing on posts by social media influencers and their followers on a popular Chinese social media platform. The findings show that the emoji sequences can function pragmatically like verbal utterances and form relations with textual propositions, although their usage differs from textual utterances in several respects. We also observed user innovations that make the sequences more language like, although there is not as yet a fixed grammar of emoji sequences. We characterize this emoji use as an emergent graphical language, with the caveats that it is not yet a fully-formed language and that the Chinese emoji language that is emerging is different from the English variety, and therefore emoji are not a universal language. In order to promote the further development of emoji language(s), we advance recommendations for emoji design grounded in linguistic principles.

Author Biographies

Jing Ge, University California, Berkeley

Jing Ge is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Anthropology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. She has a Ph.D. in Marketing Communication from the UQ Business School at the University of Queensland, Australia and has close to 10 years of online communication industry experience. Her research focuses on computer-mediated communication, the language businesses and consumers use on social media, and visual communication.

Susan C. Herring, Indiana University Bloomington

Susan C. Herring is Professor of Information Science and Linguistics and Director of the Center for Computer-Mediated Communication at Indiana University Bloomington. She received her MA and Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of California, Berkeley. She has researched structural, pragmatic, interactional, and social phenomena in digital communication and is the founder of the Computer-Mediated Discourse Analysis (CMDA) paradigm. A past editor of the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, she currently edits the online journal Language@Internet. Her recent interests include multimodal CMC and telepresence robot-mediated communication.




How to Cite

Ge, J., & Herring, S. C. (2018). Communicative functions of emoji sequences on Sina Weibo. First Monday, 23(11).