Here's how the pandemic changed our emoji usage

Hot: pleading face. Not: pile of poop.


The Unicode Consortium has released 2021’s most-used emoji and the famed laugh-crying face (which, as you may recall, won Oxford Dictionary’s 2015 “word of the year” despite not being a word) is still in the lead. Here are the top ten: 😂 ❤️ 🤣 👍 😭 🙏 😘 🥰 😍 😊.

The 3-byte pictographs bring emotional cues to typed text, so it makes sense that many of the most popular emoji are faces or hands — they serve as digital gestures. Though emoji have only been in wide use for about a decade, we’ve seen certain symbols fall in or out of fashion, just like slang does. That said, the top 100 emoji comprise 82 percent of total emoji shares.

What has changed since 2019? — Since the last time data was published in 2019, emoji usage has changed in ways that reflect the zeitgeist. Though Gen Z has bemoaned the laugh-cry for being cheugy and overused (Vice dubbed it “the most divisive emoji in history), it’s not only holding its lead — it has brought its head-tilted counterpart from fourth to third-most-popular, overtaking the heart-eyes. But even though the tears of joy haven’t budged from #1, less-conventional laugh emoji have leapt up the leaderboard, like the skull 💀 (think, “I’m dead”), 😭 (“loudly crying face”), and 🤠 (“cowboy hat face”). The Gen Z darling that is 🥺 (“pleading face”) saw a meteoric rise from 97th to 14th.

While the red heart has remained in second place, there has been a shakeup in the less-popular love emoji. The cutesy 💕 (“two hearts) and 😍 (“smiling face with heart-eyes) dropped a few ranks, making room for 🥰 (“smiling face with hearts”) to enter the top ten.

Sign of the times — It’s been a tough two years, and the emoji that denote frustration have risen in popularity since 2019: “person facepalming” skyrocketed, “person shrugging” went from 40th to 20th, and “face with rolling eyes” from 23rd to 21st. And some of the biggest climbers are directly related to healthcare, for obvious reasons. The microbe had a massive climb from 1086 to 477, alongside a rise in use of the syringe emoji, “face with medical mask,” the vomiting face, and the green-faced nauseated emoji.

While we were staying home and saving lives, we used the house and “house with garden” like crazy compared to past years. As we dealt with stresses to the supply chain, the shopping cart cracked the top 200. Emoji that evoke memories of the pandemic’s early weeks, like toilet paper and canned food, increased in ranking too. Navigating online work boundaries and toxic social media, we used 📴 (“mobile phone off”).

Then, there are the random emoji that boomed in popularity: swan, raccoon, bone, turkey, sandwich, burrito, hole (🕳), place of worship, taco, and cupcake.

Whether or not these slight changes offer any insight into our actual collective psyche, it’s clear our arsenal of emoji can — and does — reflect the world around us.