Why Does Googling Emojis Break the Internet?

The world's finest search engine can't read the expression on 😁's face. Yet we query.

It’s a dilemma familiar to many. You’ve sent a dry, scathing witticism to someone you don’t know very well.

At first, you chuckle at your joke. Brilliant, you think. Strange, perhaps. A bit particular, maybe. But so funny only a dolt would misunderstand it.

Then, you wait a while. You don’t hear anything back. This is bad. On second thought, maybe this person was the wrong target for your joke about exhuming corpses and having illicit relations with them.

Indeed, suppose your audience is a young lady — oops! — on a college campus — gulp! — with a litigious disposition — shit! This kind of joke could get you hauled in front of a dean or bursar or ombuds-regent.

Don’t worry, schmuck! You can always send an emoji. 😉

Emojis, that nouveau joke-saver, reveal the subversive intentions behind our words. But what happens when the emojis themselves are the source confusion?

After all, 😁 may mean different things to different people. To some, that little guy might be smiling. To others, he may be smiling … guiltily. Still others might say he is, in fact, wincing in pain.

We need someplace to which we can definitively turn to solve the meaning behind 😁. Misuse of emojis is real, and occurrences accumulate as the pool of individuals using emojis grows. (Sidebar: I received a 😃 from a Comcast representative in a chat conversation the other day. Picturing that quasi-autobot smiling? 😒)

Can we turn to Google as a Rosetta Stone for emoji meanings? Surprisingly, no. In fact, Googling “😁 meaning” leads to a total dead-end. Google glosses right over the 😁 and gives you the meaning of “meaning.” Whoa.

Googling 😁 is not much better. Doing so returns a unicode site, a droll library of emoji characters and their numerical composites, which is better (but not great) at reading the meanings behind an emoji. This site has 😁 tagged as a “grinning face with smiling eyes,” which tells us something (the character isn’t wincing, or isn’t supposed to be wincing).

(This search also connects you to one of many emoji cheat sheets.)

Are we asking too much of Google to be able to decipher the look on 😁’s face? What about a Google reverse image search? The company added this capability to their Chrome browser in 2013, allowing users to search not just words but uploaded images or images at a certain URL.

Suppose you needed to figure out whether someone was telling you they were happy or wincing. Is reverse image search any better at reading the look on 😁’s face?

Not at all, in fact. Again, Google recognizes that 😁 is an emoji, but guesses, wildly incorrectly, that 😁 is a “snow emoji.” In other words, it has no idea of the expression on 😁’s face. In Google’s defense, it is much better at reading human faces. If I upload a picture of myself smiling …

…it returns a bunch of pictures of other dudes in front of natural backgrounds smiling. Way to go, reverse image search!

Let’s try an even more nebulous emoji. Here’s one that is sure to divide fanatics on both sides: 😅. Is the character in 😅 laughing, or crying? Or is it raining on 😅, and if so, is 😅 smiling through the rain?

Emojipedia defines 😁 as a smiling face, but also credits its use as a grimacing face and makes mention of 😁 as a “freezing face.” Now the parameters are exploded! Appropriately, 😅 is defined a smiling face with a cold sweat. Alternate interpretations include Happy Sweat Emoji and Exercise Emoji.

Well, color me 😯! I would have said 😅 is laughing through the tears and/or rain. But then, that’s the nature of emojis — and of faces, and words. They carry so much, or so little, meaning, and can be interpreted in so many ways. Which, when you think about it, makes them exactly the sort of thing you’d want a search engine to explain for you.

One last check, since 😋 and 😌 and 😍 and 😎 don’t constitute the entirety of emojistence. What if we’re left without a face. What if we tell someone good news, and they say 🙏? There’s no face to read there, so we’ll have to use other cues. Most people would say those are two hands together in prayer. But I’ve seen it used as two people high-fiving. Considering the religious undertones, one should look to tread carefully.

Emojipedia defines 🙏 as person with folded hands, a defense of the prayer angle. But there is a mention of 🙏 as meaning two people high-fiving. They just happen to be wearing the same shirt that day.

Interestingly, the newest version of iOS and OS X “removed the yellow burst of light that previously appeared behind the two hands.” Was this a religious statement? Has the emoji saviour come and gone, and left us all here to fend for ourselves?

On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t go there … 😶

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