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Emojis Are Becoming A Bigger Part Of Conversation ;)


It's time now for Word's You'll Hear. That's where we try to understand some of the stories we'll be hearing more about in the coming days by parsing some of the words associated with those stories, except this week we're not using words at all. It's smiley-faces, sad faces, thumbs-up. That's right, we're talking emojis, a series of characters and images used to express emotions in electronic communications. Last week, Facebook was just the latest tech company to revamp its emoji reaction buttons. Meanwhile, emojis are becoming more common and worldwide. And they're changing the way we communicate. To find out more, we're joined by sticky-tongue-out, frowny-face Tyler Schnoebelen. He joins us now from KALW in San Francisco. Tyler, welcome to the program.

TYLER SCHNOEBELEN: Thanks for having me.

WESTERVELT: So Facebook and texting have been around for years. Why do you think there's been this explosion of emoticons and emojis now?

SCHNOEBELEN: I think that it has to do with people getting access to more resources for expressing themselves. So the amount of text in the world has skyrocketed over the last few years. And one of the things that's true is that it's traditionally lacked an ability to really give a sense of personal style and emotion when you're really normally talking face-to-face. Or even as we're talking here over the radio, our voice cues give us all sorts of information. Facial cues give us more information. We haven't had those in text, so that's why my emoticons and emoji have really taken off, I think.

WESTERVELT: I mean, there are things that only face-to-face human interaction can express, things emojis can't express. Do you worry about that, as someone who works with these all the time?

SCHNOEBELEN: No, I don't really worry about emoji having deleterious effects on people or communication or cultures. I think that it's really just getting access to more of our expressive capabilities in a new format. And it's also still a small part of our lives.

WESTERVELT: Give us an example of when using emojis might be in bad taste.

SCHNOEBELEN: Well, emojis carry with them a kind of playfulness. So they're really not appropriate and people tend to not use them when they're really outraged or when they're really grief-stricken. So, for example, if you look at #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe - those hashtags on Twitter - people used very few emoji with those. The few that they did were basically the fists for solidarity and some hearts. And so the emotional universe that we have doesn't always work with emoji, which are going to be lighter than really serious emotions.

WESTERVELT: What's been the reaction so far of Facebook adding emojis? I mean, there's also been talk that Facebook will learn a lot about its users from this, more data analytics. Is there truth to that?

SCHNOEBELEN: Yeah. I think there are two reasons that Facebook is excited to have this. One is that people for years have been saying well, there's far more than just liking a post. People put sad news or things that make me upset. I want to have some way of reacting that isn't a thumbs-up. So in this way, it sort of expands the ability for people to react. And then simultaneously for that, yes, Facebook can get a lot of value out of this because now they are able to tell their advertisers and other companies yeah, here is what people are liking, here's what they're not liking. We have more than just this sort of rough thumbs-up, which has to do with engagement but doesn't tell me anything about the kind of engagement.

WESTERVELT: Do you have a partner or friends who sometimes say Tyler, stop speaking to me in emojis, just tell me what you think?

SCHNOEBELEN: I'm pretty judicious in my use of emoji, so I don't think I get accused of that very often.

WESTERVELT: Tyler Schnoebelen is a linguist and founder of Idibon, a company that specializes in finding language patterns in text for business and organizations. Tyler, smiley-face, thank you.

SCHNOEBELEN: Thank you, heart. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.