Instagram hashtags could be the best guide to emoji meaning we've ever had


Instagram updated its app this week and added a crucial new feature: the ability to use emoji as hashtags.

Because I am a -certified emoji anthropologist, this was very exciting news. Instagram is searchable by hashtag only, so this is the first time we are able to see how emoji are being used on the platform. What Instagram has given us, in short, is our very own crowdsourced visual library of the potential meanings of each emoji character.

As of Tuesday, these were the most popular emoji hashtags on Instagram, along with the number of times they were used:

The overall positivity of the top-used emoji suggests Instagram is where we go to share beautiful, uplifting images that make our hearts swell or that make us (laugh until we cry). We’ve seen quantitative studies about how often various emoji are used, but this gives us the opportunity to do a qualitative study, connecting emoji to the photographs they’re being used to caption to see how emoji are being used in the wild.

Here for example are some of the photos associated with  :

The needle is being used for everything from blood donation, to drugs, to tattoos. None of the uses are too far a stretch of the imagination, but a diversity of interpretations nonetheless.

We can see much further reaching of meaning in the dancing twins . I’ve often wondered which cat-eared, Broadway kickline these two are from, but I use them frequently for everything from ‘dancing’ to ‘showtime’. Instagram shows us that people are using for dance, but also more broadly for ‘friendship’ and ‘twinsies’. This is also one of the most often impersonated emoji, and there are more than a few photos of people posing as the dancing girls.

The alien monster, also known as the space invader , has a wonderful breadth of figurative use. The ambiguity of  leads to imaginative interpretations; we see it being translated as ‘outsider’, ‘intrusion’ and ‘futuristic.’I love how someone has used the space invader to describe the tension between new and old architecture in a city skyline:

Of course this is also the go-to emoji to represent gaming and robots of all shapes and sizes, but there were also quite a few photos that used the # for its form alone. Without a spider or a crab emoji, the space invader has become a stand-in for anything that crawls on eight or more legs. Through the visual language of photography, emoji can take on new meanings, having more to do with how they look than what they are supposed to be.

The emoji of two men holding hands and two women holding hands have always felt like a triumph for LGBTQ visibility, but the hashtags tell a different story. While many Instagram users are using # on posts about LGBTQ rights and relationships, including a number of posts about the current Supreme Court case regarding marriage equality, the double-female emoji hashtag # seems largely to be used for platonic female friendships.

This is where user demographics and sample size come into play. It is entirely plausible, maybe even probable, that there are simply more tween girls using emoji hashtags than there are lesbians taking selfies. Still, I can’t help but feel like it’s a slight erasure of lesbian contributions to marriage equality that # isn’t being used to rally support in Washington right now.

Another emoji that has transformed with use is . Originally intended as a high five, it’s pretty clear from looking at the hashtag that people are using this emoji to express faith. A SwiftKey study released last week showed that this emoji was used most in Brazil, which has the largest percentage of Catholics in the world, and where the symbol is easily read as two hands in prayer. Given the double meaning, the hashtag may be the only place on the Internet where you’ll find a picture of a Lamborghini next to a prayer for earthquake-struck Nepal:

Sorry, Instaporn lovers, but we can’t show you how the  is being interpreted on Instagram. The platform has banned searches of # . In fact, the eggplant emoji has come to be so synonymous with the male member that Instagram won’t let you search for #eggplant either. (Of course, anti-emoji-censorship activists have already started a #freetheeggplant campaign. Other emoji characters with alternate meanings have not been banned. Search #  and you’ll find more NSFW curves than baskets of peaches.

We have always known that emoji can be used to represent more than just the objects they depict, but it has been difficult to compare how different people are using the characters. While there have been attempts at a collective dictionary, the advantage of the Instagram hashtag is that one visual language (photos) is being used to provide context for another visual language (emoji). If someone is uncertain about how to use , for example, they can consult Instagram. Each photo under a given hashtag is like a breadcrumb leading us down the path to a collective meaning. This new Instagram feature could be the single most important advance in our understanding of how the emoji language is evolving.

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

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