Dr. Jing Ge — The Study of Emojis

Dr. Jing Ge
Jing Ge, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer Department of Anthropology, UC Berkeley

How do you feel? What are you doing? Where are you?

Emojis, tiny images people use instead of words when texting on smart phones and social media, are the answer. But what do they really say? How do we know? Why are they used when it sometimes takes longer to find the emoji than to type its meaning?

The answers to these questions (and many more) are the topics of Dr. Jing Ge’s work at UC Berkeley and her passion.

Emojis are more than an image on social media telling the world how someone feels. Emojis, when used together, can become a complete thought like an actual language. Dr. Ge studies the ways emojis are used around the world and how emojis are used to communicate.

Emoji’s tend to be visually universal, but each can have a unique cultural meaning. A positive emoji in China could be a negative one in the United States.

Some think using emojis is going backwards in communications, going back to using symbols instead of words in language.

Dr. Ge explores the expanding uses for emojis, for instance, in the medical field when a patient has a difficulty expressing themselves. Emojis can bridge the communication gap. Similarly, people with trauma can benefit from emojis since emojis can reveal much more than feelings, possibly even revealing crisis or medical needs.

We recently sat down with Jing Ge, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at UC Berkeley, to talk emojis. We met up with her at the Web Conference in San Francisco, where she presented her research with emojis.

Editor’s note: Not only is Dr. Ge interesting cool sun glasses on emoji because she studies emojis, but also when she’s not teaching. You may find her, running marathons, in a race car in Laguna Seca or in her art studio—working on her newest piece. Including our cover art.

Painting 1: Shanghai waterway, Painting 2: Anime Silhouette, Painting 3: Cartoon Panda Scene
Dr. Jing Ge donates the proceeds from the sale of her art to orphanages in China

Chet Cooper: Can you talk about the presentation that you gave at the Web Conference?

Ge: The topic was emoji sequence use to enact personal identity. We talk a lot about emojis, but one thing I want to argue is the use of a single emoji to express sentiments and emotions. Yet, there’s one thing they’re missing which is the phenomenon of people who use two or more than two emojis to express different semantic meanings. This idea is huge.

Celebrities and politicians all use emoji sequences to convey an idea or tell a story. If you think this doesn’t matter, or you don’t care, that’s fine. But, if you really look at it’s history and growth—there is even an emoji writing class, an elementary teacher helping her children communicate, and how children can write emoji as part of their education.

Cooper: Do you think it’s going to change in the way we communicate, that we’re using symbols—are we kind of going backward?

Ge: This is the discussion, is emoji a new language or an old language? I won’t say it’s really fully changed. Formal language is always there. But I would say it is a digitally mediated graphical language. There are no grammar properties, so you can’t say it’s a formal language. But it is evolving into a digitally mediated graphical language. It can substitute for words and phrases and convey a complete idea. So based on this argument, I have looked at the pragmatic and communicative functions of emojis. Now I look at the grammar-like patterns.

What are the patterns? When they string the different emoji together, it looks pretty crazy, like nonsense, but there are certain patterns that they string together. I won’t call it grammar, but there’s a grammatical pattern.

Cooper: What they’re doing is creating a string as a sequence to communicate?

Ge: Yeah. In order to make it more understandable. Otherwise there are no patterns and you won’t understand. It is not randomly put together.

Cooper: But an author understands the language of their emojis, where maybe an outsider would look at it and say it’s nonsense?

Ge: Yes.

Cooper: It’s both sides of reading these symbols. But maybe the general population hasn’t caught up to that.

Ge: A few of these emoji sequences are really something (used by) millennials and teenagers; they put them together for having fun. A student shared a story that really, really touched my heart.

She volunteered working in a care home. The people have dementia, and there were two people who had dementia who couldn’t speak. They couldn’t type because they didn’t know how to spell things. They couldn’t communicate. They felt frustrated, that is, until my student signed up for my emoji course. She taught (residents) how to use an emoji to communicate to text back and forth.

People who have dementia use emojis to talk. And, they talk more. And, they are happier. They have really bonded with my student because they can communicate. In the beginning, they use one emoji, like hearts. My student asked, “Do you like ice cream?” And, the response would be “heart ice”

Cooper: They taught them emoji language?

Ge: Yes. They’re more and more confident, and these two ladies just put up two or three emoji to convey the idea. Like “love ice cream” or “arm cry” like, “My arm feels pain.” When we look at this real-life example, can you say that these are nonsense? They’re not. They’re not nonsense.

Cooper: It’s also not nonsense for people who have dyslexia and have a hard time writing something, where the emoji can easily represent the thought process without having to write something that an emoji can convey with one symbol.

Ge: In my talk this morning, I specifically looked at how (people) use emojis. Every time we talk about things, when we talk in public, we try to express ourselves and try to establish our own personal identity—who we are. So this morning, I talked about how users use emoji sequences to express who they are—to establish their own personal identity. That’s the basic topic that I delivered this morning. I looked at the linguistic elements.

When we talk about things from the linguistic perspective, we use different linguistic elements to enact our personal identity. We can express our stance as a first-person pronoun, or use an attitude marker, like “I.” You use the first-person pronoun to express your personal stance. I look at what type of linguistic elements are embedded in emoji sequences that are used to express themselves and establish their personal identity. ...
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Jing Ge
Jing Ge, PhD, UC Berkeley



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