“Language in its classic form”: emojis in 2021

Trinity News speaks to Keith Broni, “emoji translator”, about demographics, cultural divides and the laughing-crying face emoji

It is a popular belief that young people today will be employed in jobs that do not even exist yet. Technological advancements are making many jobs obsolete, while also creating entirely new ones. In 2017, Keith Broni experienced this phenomenon to surreal effect. “[It] was a very exciting time, but very chaotic as well,” Broni told Trinity News. “It ended up with me briefly becoming a meme … it does still crop up on occasion. I’ve seen a recent one where it’s a ‘choose your fighter’ meme. Me and the ‘garlic bread expert’ and the ‘space lawyer’, so I’m in good company.”

“If you were to talk to early-2015 me, even, and say ‘you’re going to end up working in the emoji space professionally’, I would’ve said ‘the what space?’”

In 2017, the Dubliner was hired by Today Translations (now known as Guildhawk) as an “emoji researcher and interpreter” the first job of its kind, both in the company and beyond. Today Translations’ newest employee quickly gained worldwide media attention and Broni was declared “the world’s first emoji translator”. Broni admits that is not an entirely accurate description of his job and more a “clickbait” title used by the media. Still, he has accumulated a number of unique job titles to put on his CV over the years: “emoji researcher/interpreter” at Today Translations, and “senior emoji reviewer” and “deputy emoji officer” of Emojipedia.  

Broni explains that his workdays are quite varied, but are always centered around the small series of pixelated pictures on our screens. As a consultant with Today Translations, Broni used programmes that analysed tens of thousands of tweets with emojis to help businesses find the perfect emojis to use in slogans and promotions. As an emoji reviewer, he kept up with tech companies and emoji distributors and evaluated any new emojis or changes in design. Now as the deputy emoji officer for Emojipedia, he oversees the website and covers interesting news that comes out in the “emoji world”.

Despite the unique nature of the job, Broni was prepared. Following an undergraduate in National University of Ireland, Maynooth, Broni completed his masters in business psychology in University College, London. There, he did his dissertation on emoji usage in online business marketing and earned a reputation as a “burgeoning emoji expert”. Broni told Trinity News that, despite the rest of the world’s bemusement at his new career, his friends expected nothing less. 

“Emojis have come a long way since Shigetaka Kurita created the first two hundred characters in 1999. In 2020, there were 3136 emojis in the Unicode Standard.”

From writing his dissertation to becoming the deputy officer of the world’s leading emoji website, Broni has always been fascinated by the reach emojis have. “What attracted me to the topic was the sheer scale of usage globally, and the fact that people honestly underestimate [emojis]. We see them everywhere, they’re available to us by default across all our devices, and they’re in many respects a very simple tool, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much nuance in terms of how they’re interpreted across different demographics, be they cultural demographics, generational demographics, and the fact that these are, generally speaking, some of the most recognisable symbols in the world … the crying laughing face, for example, everyone knows that symbol. That’s ubiquitous. When they’re effectively just, to use a very old phrase, part of the furniture, people don’t give them the consideration they deserve. That’s what attracted me to them initially.”

Emojis have come a long way since Shigetaka Kurita created the first two hundred characters in 1999. In 2020, there were 3136 emojis in the Unicode Standard, and it was estimated that five billion emojis are used everyday on Facebook alone. In 2015, the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji was the Oxford Dictionary word of the year. 

While some people argue that the growth in emoji popularity is a blemish on society and that they are killing the English language, Broni argues the exact opposite. “They’re changing language, they’re changing how we communicate. They’re filling a need that we all had online.”

“This is slang between generations, between demographics, language in its classic form.”

“We use emojis to try and emulate the way we would converse with each other verbally, or through the non-verbal aspect, try emulating vocal tones through the emoji expressions and gestures.”

Broni explains that emojis often mirror any traditional language, particularly when it comes to how different demographics have used emojis over the years. Generation Z is largely much more “playful” and “ironic” when it comes to emojis, creating their own digital dialect much different to that of older, more earnest generations. Rather than the crying-laughing emoji expressing genuine laughter, its ubiquity led to oversaturation, and it has now become a distinctly sarcastic emoji among younger phone users. 

Broni also recalls his confusion when the trucker cap emoji rose in popularity at an astonishing rate, before realising it was based on the infamous MAGA caps that Trump supporters often wear and that the cap was now synonymous with “lying” and “nonsense”. 

Broni is quick to point out that this different, more sardonic use of emojis does not mean that emojis are losing popularity — in fact, quite the opposite. The flexible and experimental way that many young people have started to use emojis means that emojis “have never been as popular as they are now”, according to Broni, and “sarcastic and ironic use is still emoji use”. 

“This is slang between generations, between demographics, language in its classic form.”

In fact, the emoji language is the midst of yet another expansion. Before our interview, Broni was writing a piece on the annual Unicode Consortium, taking place on the fourteenth of September. Every year, an amalgamation of tech giants meet to standardise text characters across all devices. This includes an emoji subcommittee, who aim to ensure that the meanings of emojis are similar across all platforms, and also select new emojis to join to the Unicode Standard. According to Broni, inclusivity and diversity will be a huge factor in the selection the emoji of two hands of different skin colours shaking is a likely winner this year. 

Across his career, Broni has studied and observed varying uses of emojis between different cultures and the “Western-centric nature of the emoji keyboard”. For example, the “thumbs-up” emoji is a simple affirmation in many countries, but in the Middle East it is akin to showing someone the middle finger. Meanwhile in China, the “applause” emoji is not a sign of praise, but a symbol for sex. 

Just like other slang and customs, emojis have been adopted in unique ways by different cultures. Broni explains: “It’s a mechanism as old as language itself, it’s all about ingroup and outgroup communication … emojis are being used to emulate how we’re describing the world around us.”

Broni also explained instances where emojis had to be taken as seriously as any traditional language: “We were seeing a lot of court cases emerge where emojis were being considered in threatening text exchanges, did this person genuinely mean to convey that they were going to commit a violent act through a gun emoji or a bomb emoji, is there genuine intent there through emojis?”

“You can use emojis any way you want to. The key thing to keep in mind is that not everyone may realise how exactly you’re intending that emoji to be interpreted as.”

As the ways in which we use emojis continue to expand and evolve, Broni cannot foresee a future where emojis do not continue to grow. “As long as we are conversing in text-based formats, [emojis] will always have a utility.”

“They’re too ubiquitous [to lose popularity], they’re part of the digital furniture.”

People are going to continue using emojis in fresh and exciting ways for the foreseeable, and Keith Broni has some advice for those people. 

“You can use emojis any way you want to. The key thing to keep in mind is that not everyone may realise how exactly you’re intending that emoji to be interpreted as. [We should] know there are predominant meanings or even micro-meanings. So have fun with them, and as long as people understand where you’re coming from, you’re using the emoji right.”

Even as emojis grow to unexpected levels, Broni definitely believes that emojis are something that we should have fun with, something we should enjoy – in fact, his own favourite is the “Partying Face” emoji. 

Ellen Kenny

Ellen Kenny is the current Features Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of Politics, Philosophy, and Sociology.