Eggplant is at its best and most abundant in late summer. I rarely cook it, but I’ve learned its schedule over the past few years because of a recurring social-media gag. When sturdy purple aubergines begin to fill farmers’ markets in the United States, people will post pictures of eggplants along with captions that vaguely imply the scene is, in the abbreviated language of the internet, NSFW. Something like, “Dudes, make sure your girlfriends don’t see this.”
It’s not a great joke. There’s no punch line, just an assumption that the viewer understands the reference: When depicted online, “eggplant” is code for “dick.” That’s thanks to the shared cultural lexicon of emoji, the now-ubiquitous smartphone keyboard of smiley faces and cartoon objects. The tiny graphics all have their own literal meanings, but many of them, such as the eggplant, have well-known subtexts. A peach is a butt or, for a rogue faction of internet-dwelling contrarians, a vagina. A grouping of three water droplets is what happens when you rub an eggplant and a peach together.
People’s penchant for pornifying things often doesn’t sit well with the major tech companies that control much of online activity. Apple excludes overtly sexual content in its App Store. Instagram developed an algorithm to hide “suggestive content” and obliterate the scourge of women’s nipples. Snapchat, despite its early popularity as a sexting destination, has tried for years to escape its porny past. And just last week, Facebook, which owns Instagram, took what might be the pickiest measure yet to shield users from one another’s endless desires: It quietly changed its rules to ban many uses of sexually connotated emoji, such as the eggplant and peach, in both public and private conversations on Facebook and Instagram.