The meaning behind some emojis isn’t hard to parse: a kissing face, an “OK” finger sign, an eggplant.
But what about the emojis that come in the form of red heels, beige sandals, thigh-high boots, white sneakers and brown oxfords?
“Part of the reason branded emoji keyboards are so popular is because they enable people to give the impression of being clothed in Nike or Versace without the price tag associated with it,” said Monica A. Riordan, Ph.D., who works in experimental psychology and is an assistant professor of psychology at Chatham University.
“The exclusivity of Jordans without handing over the cash, of Chanel jackets without actually dropping a paycheck — you’re engaging in a performance, giving everyone an impression of who you are. But ‘performance’ is the key word.”
Riordan is a cognitive scientist whose research focuses on interpersonal computer-mediated communication. Her recent study “Emojis as Tools for Emotion Work: Communicating Affect in Text Messages” explores the communicative purpose of emojis of objects.
“Emojis let us do what social scientists call ‘impression management.’ The idea is that we develop an online personality to represent ourselves, and we act out that personality using emojis,” Riordan said.
Emojis are a form of self-expression — they nonverbally communicate something from the sender to the receiver. And it’s through texting emojis that people are able to do more than convey a feeling about themselves — they get to establish who they want to be.
“When you use the sneakers and basketball emojis, you are presenting yourself in a certain way, and that presentation affects what people think about who you are,” Riordan explained. “In a way, it’s a performance of who you are — but the key word here is ‘performance.’ Online, you can be anybody. You can give a performance as a sports nut or athlete even while in pajamas on the couch.”
For instance, on a Snapchat user account, alongside the person’s moniker, an emoji of a white sneaker or plate of spaghetti conveys that the person is a sneakerhead or foodie, respectively.
“Before texting, you used to have to actually put on the sneakers and pick up the basketball and leave the house to give that impression, and now you can do so with a touch of your finger to your phone,” Riordan said. “The same goes for fashionistas — when you use the high heels and lipstick emojis, you are presenting yourself as a fashionista, even if what you are really doing is laying around in your most comfortable pair of sweatpants.
“Texting allows you to act out multiple personalities with different people,” Riordan added. “In social science we call these ‘social roles.’ You have multiple social roles — spouse, boss, parent. We use emojis to act out these social roles.”