Emoji enigmas

Emoji are pretty useful for clarifying communication via text messages. Even before I used emoji, which are much more varied in type and expression, I would make sure to include a “:)” in many messages so that the recipient wouldn’t take it in a sassy or angry way. But now we have emoji, and with emoji we have whales.


What does a whale communicate? Surely the whale is only a whale to lots of people, but to my friends and I, a whale communicates disgust. At the time it was the closest we could get to an emoji that looks like it’s throwing up… If someone doesn’t know what I mean when I send the whale, it’s probably not a big deal. Other emoji have the potential to cause miscommunications with greater consequences.

The New York City Police Department took the use of the gun emoji by a teenager as a serious enough threat to warrant an arrest. The emoji were used in Facebook posts on the teen’s wall. So we have the use emoji, which generally seem pretty playful, and social media, where threats are more frequent and often taken less seriously.

My whale isn’t a whale. Maybe it could be argued that his gun wasn’t a gun. The textual content of his message did not explicitly threaten the police.

However, I would never send a text message that said something like, “I’m going to hurt you.” Even if I were joking, my intent would not be clear from just reading the text. Emoji are made to communicate something even if the sender’s intent isn’t clear, even if they end up creating greater ambiguity. So similarly, I would personally shy away from using any that could be taken as a threat. Especially on a social media platform where I expect my messages to have greater reach and permanence than messages communicated face-to-face. We’ll see what the Court has to say about social media and threats in Elonis later this year.


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