What We Talk About When We Talk About the 'Raised Hands' Emoji

Instagram analyzed the words its users used when they typed pictograms into captions and comments, offering an insight into the meanings of some of the most amusing, and confusing, forms of Internet communication.

Otto Yamamoto / Flickr
Emojis are useful not just because they are colorful, and not just because they are fun, but also because they can be, at times, helpfully ambiguous. Want to convey a kind of non-committal enthusiasm to a friend’s proposal that Saturday end in “Board Game Night”? A💃will help you out. Want to convey slightly less enthusiasm for the idea? A 🙇 might be in order.
For the recipient of these emoji, however, the ambiguity can be slightly less useful. Does a Dancing Lady mean “Yes! I’d love to spend my Saturday playing Settlers of Catan!” or does it mean “I am saucily sashaying away from your suggestion,” or does it mean, simply, “No, let’s go dancing on Saturday”? How are you supposed to tell the difference?
Instagram, which has made use of emoji since its launch, is offering some insight to the emoji-confused and/or -curious. The software engineer Thomas Dimson recently shared the results of an algorithm developed in part to show the correlation between text and emoji. (The findings below are based on the “angle,” or cosine similarity, between a given emoji and the words that accompanied it in Instagram captions and comments.)
Some of the words used in proximity to the emoji correlate fairly directly to what the images would seem to convey. The most-used emoji, 😂, correlated with “lol” and its many variations: “lolol,” “lmao,” “lololol,” “lolz,” “lmfao,” “lmaoo,” “lolololol,” “ahahah,” “ahahha,” “loll,” “ahaha,” “ahah,” “lmfaoo,” “ahha,” “lmaooo,” “lolll,” “lollll,” “ahahaha,” “ahhaha,” “lml,” and “lmfaooo.” The second-most-used, 😍, correlated with “beautifull” [sic], “gawgeous,” “gorgeous,” “perfff,” “georgous,” “gorgous,” “hottt,” “goregous,” “cuteeee,” “beautifullll,” “sexyyyy,” “perffff,” and “hawttt.” The 👍, ranking 9th in emoji usage, correlated with “#keepitup,” “#fingerscrossed,” “aswell,” “#impressed,” “#yourock,” “#greatjob,” “bud,” “#goodjob,” “#proudofyou,” “#goodluck,” and the slightly more surprising “haha” and “lol.” And 😭(11th in emoji usage) correlated with “ugh,” in several forms,  along with “wahhhh,” “rn,” “oml,” “omgg,” “omfg,” “omf,” “whyyy,” and the ever-popular “lol.”
There’s a group of emoji, however, that seems to be popular on Instagram for the very reason the Dancing Lady might suggest: their winky ambiguity. Those include the 🙇 emoji, which Instagram users associated with “#goodmorningtho,” “#yadigg,” “lbvs,” “#gn,” “#inmyfeelings,” “#latenightthoughts,” and “#deletinglater.” And the 👯, which Instagram users associated with “#sistasista,” “#sistersforlife,” “#sistersister,” “#bestiesforlife,” “yearsoffriendship,” and “#bestfriendsforever.” And the💃herself? This connected to “#birthdaybehavior,” “#tu,” “#ladiesnight,” “#turnuptime,” “#dontmissit,” “#piscesseason,” “#bethere,” “turnup,” and “#grownandsexy.”

Of these semantically ambiguous emoji, though, the most ambiguous may be the 🙌. According to the emoji-to-American English translator iemoji.com, this unicode symbol is the "Person Raising Both Hands in Celebration." It is meant to evoke this:

Two hands raised up in the air in celebration or excitement. Woot! Raising both hands in the air when others are near (particularly team mates) is a way gesture "give me ten." A high five occurs when two people slap a single hand. A high ten, commonly called "give me ten," is when two people raise both hands and slap them together. Occurs when something very positive has occurred and is typically observed when watching sports or other games played by people.

On Instagram, however, the words most commonly associated with “Person Raising Both Hands in Celebration” ranged from the religious to the supportive to the frustrated to the hopeful. They were, in order, “#waitonit,” “#justwaitonit,” “#wonthedoit,” “#nuffsaid,” “#yeslawd,” “#youtherealmvp,” “#stayblessed,” “#thatisall,” “thou,” “#enoughsaid,” “leggo,” and “#onlythebeginning.”
Which suggests, among other things, that 🙌 is simply an extreme form of all emoji: Their interpretation depends on their contexts. It depends on the person who typed it; it depends on the person who received it. It depends on the alchemy that combines the lines of text, and the curves of images, into that most basic and complicated of things: meaning. 🙇 🙌 😍💃