Future Tense

How Do Olds Use Emoji? Incorrectly, According to Wired.


Wired magazine last week published a fun and illuminating piece on how teenagers use social media. It exposed fascinating generational divides in emoji use and explained a few taboos that old people might otherwise have never known about. For instance, you probably already follow the “deep like” commandment—don’t like or comment on old posts, because you’ll look like a stalker—but did you realize that, in the event of an accidental deep like, unliking is even worse? The poster receives a notification and then sees that you hastily tried to cover your tracks, which is not very chill. In teen world, old posts are like old people: best ignored, but not worth twisting yourself into a pretzel to act indifferent to.

In addition, the piece revealed, thou shalt not post pictures of food on Instagram (boring, and a total golden years tell) and thou shalt definitely never use the same snap in a personal message that you post to your public Snapchat story. That is like throwing down a glove to the DM recipient. And if you ODR (open don’t reply) on Snapchat, you are biting your thumb—a rude gesture you may recall from your Elizabethan youth—at the person messaging you. Also, do not doublesnap, which is not a ginger-flavored Girl Scout cookie but the hopelessly desperate practice of sending two private snaps to someone in a row without waiting for their response.

Alongside the long piece, doggedly and awesomely reported by Mary H. K. Choi, Wired also ran a glossary of emoji and what they signify to flirtatious teenagers. If you are old and out of touch like me, you will want to take a look and comprehend, perhaps for the first time, the magnificent spuriousness of all your texting assumptions.

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to make fun of the canny teenagers who have dreamt up an intricate Hammurabi’s Code of social media precepts to govern their interactions, only to marvel at how crazily ignorant of all this stuff we non-teenagers are, even though we often use the same digital tools. Is this kind of generational estrangement new? No. Is it endlessly enthralling? I think so! Anyway, if you disagree, you should send me a derp emoji and I guarantee you I will have no idea what it means.

For one thing, Choi reports that the blushing smiley face actually conveys polite romantic refusal. She glosses it as “Hi. Um. Not interested. Sorry? Sorry!” This was news to my crack team of old person emoji decoders (age range mid-20s to 40s), who use the blushing smiley mostly to express that they are “flattered” (but not in a romantic context), “smug,” or “satisfied.” I, 28, personally deploy the face with friends as a more intimate and affectionate alternative to the simple smile. Another twentysomething in an office Slack channel sees it as a “cuter” version of the traditional smiley.

If you received this pink-cheeked rejection hieroglyph from a romantic prospect, would you be encouraged? All but one of the adults I asked said yes. (The one who said no demurred that it seemed “a little girly” coming from a man.) We obviously have no idea what we are talking about and would founder with glorious incoordination on the bergs of adolescent dating. On the bright side, our emojilliteracy clearly illustrates that we are not hooking up with teens.

Wired’s index also throws cold water on a string of multicolored heart emojis. That the banner excludes the red heart, we learn, connotes “let’s be friends without benefits.” Even worse, icons such as the trash can, the bomb, the knife, and the coffin all advertise utter contempt—as in, “you are dead to me.” Meanwhile, the prayer hands pictograph conjures standard agreement: “ ‘cool’ but not ‘cool!’ ” Choi annotates.

Another surprising fact: For high-schoolers, the little monkey with his hands over his eyes (“see no evil”) communicates bashfulness, either a shy acknowledgment of someone else’s suggestive comment or an attempt to soften your own. For instance, if a guy comments on your photo that you look pretty, Choi reports, you might post the monkey emoji in reply to offer a pleased “thanks!”

But how do the olds use the “see no evil” monkey? “I think it means ‘Oh no,’ ” offered a 28-year-old friend via text. “Or maybe ‘I shouldn’t have seen that.’ ” “I can’t look,” was another suggestion. “Embarrassment” was a third. One woman in her 30s said she could imagine entrusting to the monkey a conspiratorial assurance: “I didn’t see anything.” (Person A: “I just found $5 and pocketed it right away.” Person B: [see no evil monkey.])

When I texted my mom, an atheist, she replied that she would pick the emoji only to literally express the biblical injunction to “see no evil.” But the image is “so small can barely see it so prolly wouldn’t ever use it at all,” she added.