Emoji effect: The science behind gen Z’s obsession with tiny icons on the internet

By Malavika Pradeep

Published Nov 18, 2022 at 09:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Remember the unhinged era when we used to ‘poke’ each other on Facebook and follow it up with goofy ah texts like “Whoopsie hehe :P”? In 2022, chances are that if you whip out :-D, :-*, 8-), or >:) in messages, you’d either get kicked from the group chat for ‘pulling a boomer’ or asked to reevaluate your entire existence on the internet.

While occasional :3 and Chandler-inspired XDs remain tolerable, it can’t be denied that emoticons are indeed in their flop era—with the only exception of uwu and owo girls on Discord. Considering the infinite array of diverse emojis, it’s safe to say that the tiny pictorial icons have become a universal language in cyberspace today.

But what is it about emojis that floors netizens and how exactly are they redefining our digital speech? Is there a scientific reasoning behind this textual vibe shift? In a bid to answer these burning questions, gen Z-first social app Discord surveyed a whopping 16,000 people around the world, and we got our hands on its data.

The emoji effect

Despite being tiny pictures littering the internet, it turns out that emojis are actually worth thousands of words. They essentially help people feel accepted and understood by others, and foster self-expression in a way texts simply can’t convey—in turn, connecting people and communities globally, boosting self-confidence, and cultivating warm friendships. And these aren’t just claims that I’m throwing in the dark.

With over 75 per cent of users living outside the US, emojis have become vital for communication on Discord. Since its launch in 2015, users have sent over 291 billion emojis and reacted to messages with 145 billion more. And I’m sure His Majesty’s (HM) Treasury’s read-only server is responsible for at least an ounce of the latter number.

Heck, in the past year alone, an average of over 455,000 emojis were used on Discord every minute. To put this number into context, that’s over 7,600 emojis deployed each second. Currently, users across the globe share over 4.3 billion emojis on an average each week with their communities on the platform.

Surveying 16,000 people aged over 16 in the US, Brazil, UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Australia, Discord found that 73 per cent of users feel emojis help bring people together. While 63 per cent said the colourful icons help them better connect with interest-based communities, 61 per cent of gen Zers and 68 per cent of millennials believe that texts with emojis allow them to be more honest compared to messages without emojis.

What’s more is that gen Zers admitted they better express their personality through emojis instead of words. Honestly, with countless 😭 and 💀 sitting in my chats with friends, I can’t agree more.

“As gen Z begins to lead culture as a whole, we are seeing their impact on older generations. Parents of gen Z kids are finding connection by literally ‘speaking their language’—including emoji use,” said Connor Blakley, founder and CEO of YouthLogic, considered as “The #1 gen Z expert to follow” by Forbes. “This is because, for gen Z, emojis do things that words can’t. Texting can feel impersonal, but emojis let you put some of yourself into the conversation.”

Main character energy and the parallel rise of tone indicators

In the study, 70 per cent of participants also noted that emojis can help make messages clearer. It’s worth noting that this is an important factor that is increasingly being pushed into the spotlight as we speak. Following COVID-19 lockdowns, gen Zers pioneered a revolutionary communication tool dubbed tone indicators.

With the aim of speaking volumes on platforms you physically cannot, the paralinguistic signifiers are typically used to convey the tone of a text message. For example, you may be joking when you tweet about wanting BTS’ Jungkook to run you over with a bus. Without proper indications, however, readers ultimately have the autonomy of perceiving your words as either a sexual fantasy or a full-blown threat (if you’ve been initiated into the concept of sasaengs, believe me, the comment can be considered as a legit threat).

Either way, tone indicators essentially help define the meaning and the implication of your sentence on platforms you can’t verbally do so. Some examples include “/j” meaning the user is joking, “/srs” for serious, “/lh” for light-hearted, and “/sx” for sexual intent.

Back to the survey at hand, it so turns out that emojis are more powerful than likes—in turn redefining the way we seek validation on social media. While 57 per cent of people admitted to getting a bigger confidence boost when receiving emojis than a like on a photo, 43 per cent said emojis provide more validation than a text or verbal statement.

Furthermore, over 67 per cent of people believe they can let their guard down when they see others using emojis. “Within the digital domain, emojis are the alternative to being able to see each other’s faces, and in turn provide a certain sense of clarity and sentiment that text simply cannot,” said Neil Cohn, a cognitive scientist internationally recognised for his pioneering research on the relationship between visual communication and language. “This can help us feel closer to each other and better navigate challenging conversations.”

Now, if you find all these numbers a little hard to crunch, this particular insight might pique your interest: over 65 per cent of people believe they’ve reached true friendship status when they start using more emojis with someone. In addition to strengthening existing friendships, the icons also help build new relationships—with 43 per cent of users feeling more comfortable chatting with people that use emojis. So, if you’ve been searching for the perfect icebreaker, emojis are the shiz.

Custom emojis and the inclusive way forward

Apart from rethinking the concept of validation via digital likes, emojis also have a positive effect on our emotional condition, with 72 per cent of people agreeing that receiving one of the pictorial icons brings a smile to their faces when they’re not in the best mental state. It’s hence no surprise that 40 per cent of the participants agreed emojis can make them feel more cared for than a physical hug.

“Emojis act as our positive reinforcement for online communication,” Cohn said in this regard. “Despite being graphics, we often perceive emojis like faces. And the sight of another’s smiling face is often enough to make us do the same.”

One of the most popular perks of Nitro, Discord’s paid subscription offering, bestows users with the ability to use custom and animated emojis on any server or DM. In fact, Nitro users have access to over 500 million custom emojis across servers. Maybe being someone’s Discord kitten doesn’t sound so bad after all, huh?

When asked about custom emojis, participants agreed that they allow for diversity and inclusivity—along with the power to be unique while aiding self-expression. Although the custom icons seen on Discord are yet to infiltrate the universal language of standard emojis, the benefits and interest surrounding them indicate a growing desire for their use in the coming future.

“Gen Z craves authentic ways to show up as themselves in digital communities, which is why Discord is the go-to for [them],” Blakley explained. “With endless emoji options available—from characters from your favourite IP to community-specific references and jokes—using custom emojis allow my generation to feel truly at home in the digital world.”

With all this taken into consideration, it’s safe to say that words are a thing of the past on the internet. So, go ahead and send your squad a couple of 🤗💓 right away for an embrace that beats a physical hug in these trying times. You should be good as long as you don’t insensitively reply to texts with a 👍.

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