The way I work: Keith Broni

The world’s first emoji researcher and interpreter, or ‘the emoji guy’, on his unique consultancy position with global firm Today Translations

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Since being introduced globally with the update to the iPhone in 2011, emoji usage has exploded. Last year Facebook released data that revealed that, on its messenger platform alone, five billion emojis are sent every day. Add in platforms such as WhatsApp, which is huge across the western world, and WeChat, which is massive across China, and I can guarantee emojis are being used at equivalent rates there. They’re the fastest-growing linguistic tool the world has ever seen.

When I was studying for my MSc in business psychology, my dissertation focused on emojis’ growing presence in consumer marketing. So when Today Translations advertised for the position of emoji translator in 2016, my social media was flooded by friends – who already knew me as the Emoji Guy – telling me to apply.

It’s been a wild ride. I’ve even been a meme! When people hear what I do, they’re often sceptical but when I describe the variations in technology, the utilisation of them and the way in which they imbue different semantic meanings in text, they understand that what I am really doing is translating these icons into a usable format. If emojis start off as incomprehensible code with landmines to avoid, I come along with a metal detector and tell clients – which are usually PR agencies or marketing departments – which path is best to take.

When I talk about emojis I mean specifically the small pictographic icons that can be put in line with text and are all sanctioned and coded by the Unicode Consortium. There’s lots of different ways we can communicate pictorially, such as gifs and stickers, and things like the kimoji – by Kim Kardashian – may be emoji-like in design, but not in their underlying technology. They’re just small cartoony pictures.

They add emotional context. You can’t just write them off as irrelevant.

One of the primary things I advise companies on is the variation in design. There’s currently over 2,600 emojis, when you take into account variations in gender and skin tone. Although these icons were created with a certain intention, many of them can be adopted in ways that people would not expect. Take, for example, the emoji of a woman sitting behind an information desk. On one of Apple’s updates, she looked like she was flicking her hair and throwing her eyes up to the sky. Because Apple have roughly 50 per cent of the UK market share of mobile devices, most people started to use that as a sassy response, whereas it was intended to simply be an information desk person.

Complicating matters, on many Android devices, the icon looked completely different and was just a stick person standing behind a desk with no facial features. So if you’re using that icon on your Apple device – that looks like a woman sassily responding – and on the recipient’s Samsung device it looks completely different, miscommunication and confusion can occur.

If you’re a brand communicating via social media platforms, you want to be aware of design variations that could lead to something embarrassing. Last year, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster tweeted a celebration for National Cookie Day. But on Samsung devices, the cookie emoji looks like two Tuc crackers – which looks bizarre from the user’s perspective.

To give you some other variations, there is an eye-rolling emoji that looks unimpressed with what’s being said but, on Samsung devices, it looks expectant and interested, which is a very different interpretation. If you’re in a Tinder conversation and someone replies “Tell me more” followed by an eye-roll emoji, clearly they’re being sarcastic. But to those on a Samsung device, it looks as if they’re interested in what you’re saying and you’ll double-down on that topic of conversation as opposed to then pivoting.

Equally, there’s a little smirking face that looks flirty across most platforms, whilst, with Samsung, the eyes are closed, looking down with a polite side-smile – which looks more condescending. One of my friends thought her husband was constantly patronising her in his texts, but actually he was trying to be flirty.

People ask: are emojis a language in themselves? No, but they are enabling us to complement our pre-existing languages in a way we haven’t been able to before in text-based communication. They help combat the negativity effect – where a message can feel colder than it was originally intended. When we communicate by text, it’s not like we’re writing prose; it’s more akin to dictating speech. It’s like transcription. Emojis enable us to imbue these messages with further semantic meaning. What we’re now doing is adding these emotional markers to our text messages that are emulating the role that would have been filled in person by hand gestures, facial expressions, body posture or vocal inflection. They add in the emotional context.

You can’t write them off as irrelevant pieces of information. In more and more legal cases, we’re seeing visual communications being analysed to discuss intention. In fact, in New York in 2015, a teenager was arrested for threatening the police via emoji – he used several guns and a police officer symbol, and it was construed that he intended to commit bodily harm.

Emojis can mean different things to different cultures. They were created in 1998 by a Japanese gentleman called Shigetaka Kurita, with a set of under 200 originally, many of which were Japan-specific.

Everybody knows what the crying laughing face emoji means – it was even the Oxford Dictionary word of 2015 – but others are more obscure. Similarly, hand gestures mean different things, with – historically speaking – the thumbs-up symbol and A-OK hand gesture – being seen as offensive in the Middle East.

Older generations are adapting to emojis more swiftly than we imagined, yet aren’t completely up to date with some of the metaphorical meanings. The aubergine emoji is used as a phallic symbol by the youth, yet studies showed older users have a more literal interpretation, assuming it’s an eggplant. They may not know somebody typing “Keep it…” followed by a flame emoji means “Keep it lit”. Our clients want to be aware of the predominant meanings, metaphorically, for demographics they want to tap into – and likewise what to avoid.

Obviously there’s a lot of change to stay on top of. Different icons can take on different metaphorical meanings. When the hip-hop artist DJ Khaled used a key emoji to talk about his keys to success, its usage spiked. Sometimes you’d just see a key emoji followed by an inspirational quote. When there was a spat between Kim Kardashian, Kanye West and Taylor Swift, people started spamming Swift’s social media feeds with the snake emoji – implying she was untrustworthy and sneaky. If that usage bubble sustains itself, it can erase a previous meaning. That’s what happened with the aubergine and peach emojis, now representing various body parts.

Every year we get around 70 new icons sanctioned, which poses questions about how keyboards will be laid out when we have so many different icons to navigate. Those most commonly asked for include ginger-haired people and superheroes, although you’ll never see a specific superhero as Unicode rules state you can’t represent an individual person, be they real or fictional, or brands explicitly, so you’ll never see a Nike swoosh or McDonalds logo.

Last year, I ran Europe’s first emoji spelling bee in Dublin. It’s a fun game where competitors have two minutes to translate a saying or pop culture moment – such as a Shakespeare quote or “Go Go Power Rangers” – into emoji, and then judges award a prize to the best encapsulation. For “Brexit means Brexit” we saw people using a UK flag and a door.

Emojis increase likes, shares, and retweets on social media. They’re an essential part of a PR’s toolkit. We’re at a point where they’re starting to get recognised for their subtleties and I love getting the word out about how powerful they can be if used correctly. That said, I still receive the occasional tweet where someone says “Hey, Mr Emoji, tell me what this means?” followed by the middle-finger emoji.

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