I was struck recently by the prevalence of emoticons on social media – I rarely post a message to friends without typing at least one smiley face (and often several). But why do I do it? I can dimly remember a time pre-internet when emoticons simply didn’t exist, and we seemed to manage without too many misunderstandings. Even when email first came out (before instant messaging), I never worried overmuch about conveying emotion, other than through words.
I wanted to see if anybody has taken an academic look at how and why these representative symbols of human emotion have become so seemingly critical to online communication. What I found really surprised me (see here for more information on the following and emoticons in general):
Emoticons have changed our brains
Churches et al (2014) found that when we see a ‘smiley face’ emoticon, we not only recognise the emotion it represents, but the same part of the brain is activated which activates when we see a real human face. This activation isn’t instinctive: emoticons are, in essence, just lines on a screen. However, our brains now trigger as though we were looking at a person – we have evolved. You can also see this effect by its absence – invert an emoticon – in this altered configuration the effect is lost, and the marks become simple punctuation again. This video gives a great rundown of the findings:
Emoticon use and social power
There is some evidence that use of positive and negative emoticons is linked to social power. Tchokni et al carried out research in 2014 on more than 31 million tweets. They found there was a correlation between influential social media users (measured by various metrics such as number of followers and Klout score (Tchokni et al, 2014, p.1)) and use of emoticons. Powerful users used emoticons more often and, interestingly, also used emoticons mainly associated with positive emotions.
The study also found lower status social media users did not only use emoticons less often but chose to use those that were linked with negative emotions. This may suggest any one of several possibilities including: users with lower influence did not frequently write posts expressing emotion; expressing negative emotion online lowers social media influence; or that users with high influence felt confident enough to guide their reader’s emotional responses. Further research would need to be carried out to confirm if any of these theories are correct.
Are emoticons professional?
I work in an office and have always been taught that emoticons are (at least slightly) unprofessional. However, it seems this may not be the case. A thesis, written by Zhao Yi in 2010, found that using positive emoticons when giving negative feedback decreased the negative feelings and hostility of the recipient. The study was small and only looked at a specific group (college students), so we can’t be certain the results would replicate in a ‘real life’ setting. However, the results are intriguing and may have implications for virtual teams in particular.
Churches et al. 2014. Emoticons in mind: An event-related potential study. Social Neuroscience, 9(2), pp.196-202
DNews. 2014. Emoticons are changing our brains! [Online]. [Accessed 23rd October 2016]. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5htUgnSfg70
Seiter, C. 2014. 7 Reasons to Use Emoticons in your writing and social media, according to science. [Online]. [Accessed 23rd October 2016]. Available from: https://blog.bufferapp.com/7-reasons-use-emoticons-writing-social-media-according-science
Tchokni et al. 2014. Emoticons and phrases: status symbols in social media. International Conference on Web and Social Media.
Yi, Z. 2010. Effects of Emoticons on the Acceptance of Negative Feedback in a Virtual Team. Thesis. City University of Hong Kong