Technology

#Hey millennials, stop ruining emoji for Gen Z

#Hey millennials, stop ruining emoji for Gen Z

When I saw the news that Apple would be releasing 217 new emojis into the world, I did what I always do: I asked my undergraduates what it meant to them. “We barely use them anymore,” they scoffed. To them, many emojis are like overenthusiastic dance moves at weddings: reserved for awkward millennials. “And they use them all wrong anyway,” my cohort from generation Z added earnestly.

My work focuses on how people use technology, and I’ve been following the rise of emoji for a decade. With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion sent each day, emojis are now a significant language system.

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When the emoji database is updated, it usually reflects the needs of the time. This latest update, for instance, features a new vaccine syringe and more same-sex couples.

But if my undergraduates are anything to go by, emojis are also a generational battleground. Like skinny jeans and side partings, the “laughing crying emoji,” better known as 😂, fell into disrepute among the young in 2020 – just five years after being picked as the Oxford Dictionaries’ 2015 Word of the Year. For gen Z TikTok users, clueless millennials are responsible for rendering many emojis utterly unusable – to the point that some in gen Z barely use emojis at all.

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Research can help explain these spats over emojis. Because their meaning is interpreted by users, not dictated from above, emojis have a rich history of creative use and coded messaging. Apple’s 217 new emojis will be subjected to the same process of creative interpretation: accepted, rejected, or repurposed by different generations based on pop culture currents and digital trends.

Two emojis of a syringe - one dripping with blood, one with clear liquid