But the definitions of emojis will raise questions soon, because emojis are essentially fuzzy in definition. They're embedded in complicated social context, making them open to interpretation. The prayer hands emoji, for example, may represent gratitude in some cultures, straightforward praying in others, or even, oddly enough, a high five. While most emojis involving straightforward objects (office supplies, animals, vegetables, weather patterns, etc.) can be interpreted as is, some prove harder to read—especially when they're used as stand-ins for facial expressions.
That's where it gets thorny for any textual communication, says Tyler Schnoebelen, the linguist and chief analyst at language-data company Idibon. The expressions on a person's face can't be translated perfectly in text, even if emojis include a set of varied faces. "Face-to-face, you get intonation, speech tempo, hand gestures, furrowed brows," he tells me. "We're trying to make sense of an impoverished channel of communication. We're trying to make ourselves understood." So, a wide smile in emoji form may not mean joy, but could instead mean a variety of expressions not easily interpreted by the receiver of the message. Which makes sense. Actual facial expressions can be hard to read without proper context, too.
To begin to understand why emojis—and specifically the ones with faces—can be so hard to read, it helps to look at the many ways people express laughter in text. The linguist Ben Zimmer tells me laughter allows for different gradations of emotion and phatic expression—the use of language as a social function instead of a mode to convey information—which makes it perfect for seeing the malleability of definitions behind textual expressions.
The first aspect—the gradation—of interpretation is easy to see with laughter. With just two letters, 'h' and 'a,' we can combine them to produce the sound "haha," but also involve capitalization, length, and repetition to tweak its meaning. One "ha" could mean a chuckle; an almost never-ending, Channing Tatum-like string of the all-caps "HAHAHAHA" means... something else entirely. It works the same way with "lol," with 'h' and 'e' for "hehe," and so on. Each combination means laughter, but each also points to different intonations and different levels of laughing. And repetition has become a common tool to show expression online. In his study of repetition on Twitter, Schnoebelen found that more than half of Twitter users repeated strings of words ("no no no," "omg omg omg," etc.) to get their expressions across, even when constrained to 140 characters a tweet. In other words, repetition can be as meaningful as the word in and of itself. As he explains it in his post:
Bursts of emotion are one of the hardest aspects of speech to capture in written text. It is difficult to capture exuberance and immediacy when you are allowing your readers to read your utterances at their own pace. But these sudden explosions of sentiment are also often the most interesting to track and analyze, giving us insight into a writer’s emotional expressions. Repetition is one of the simplest ways that people overcome these limitations on writing, especially when it comes to expressing laughter.
As for the phatic expression of laughter, "haha," "lol," "hehe," etc. can serve as placeholders as well, regardless of whether the sender of the message is laughing in real life. In these cases, letters stand in for the nods, smiles, or utterances (e.g. "uh huh") that we'd otherwise use in face-to-face conversations to signal to the other person that it's okay to keep talking and reassure that person we're listening. When we don't utter little noises or gestures of understanding, we worry about the silence. "We acknowledge each other all the time through the conversational turn-taking," Zimmer says, "so when it's not there in text, there's social anxiety."