The pandemic has affected almost all aspects of modern life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to how we spend our time. However, there is one thing that has remained virtually unchanged: the emojis we send.
According to data from the Unicode Consortium, the organization that enforces standards for digital text, nine of the 10 most used emojis of 2019 (the last time they released data) were also in this year’s top 10. The red heart emoji was number 2 and the tears of joy emoji was number 1, despite Gen Z members finding it uncool (along with side parts and skinny jeans).
To the people who create and study emojis, holding tears of joy, also known as the laughing-crying emoji, comes as no surprise.
“It says how many people use emoji. If emoji were a pure Gen Z thing, you wouldn’t see it ranked so highly,” said Alexander Robertson, an emoji researcher at Google. “Because of the sheer number of people using emoji, even if a group thinks something is stupid, they have to be a really big group to influence these stats.”
And it makes sense that Gen Z would think certain emojis aren’t hip, said Jennifer Daniel, chair of an emoji subcommittee for Unicode and creative director at Google. It’s part of the “teenage experience of creating a sense of subculture where there’s a right way and a wrong way to behave.”
In addition, Ms. Daniel noted, there is a “spectrum” of laughter that can be expressed through text: “There is a slight chuckle. There is a laugh in recognition, which is just a sign of empathy.” Using emojis, such as the skull face (“I’m dead”) or the crying face (uncontrollable tears of laughter), can help illustrate that range.
However, looking at a single platform can tell a slightly different story. According to data obtained from Twitter, tears of joy were the most tweeted emoji in 2020, but was bumped to No. 2 this year, with the crying face taking its place. Tears of joy saw a 23 percent drop in usage between 2020 and 2021.
But the fact that most of the rest of the top 10 in Unicode’s dataset, which spans multiple platforms and apps, remained fairly consistent also means how flexible the current set of emojis is.
“It basically indicates that we have what we need to convey a wide variety of expressions or even very specific concepts,” Ms Daniel said. “You don’t necessarily need a Covid emoji or a vaccination emoji because you have biceps, syringe, patch, which semantically convey the same thing.” Ms Daniel added that at the beginning of the pandemic, people were using the microbe, or virus, emoji and the crown emoji to refer to Covid (in Spanish, “corona” means “crown”).
The syringe emoji rose to 193rd place in overall usage this year, compared to 282nd in 2019. The microbe also rose, from 1086th in 2019 to 477th.
While the past two years have been like never before, the range of emotions we expressed through emoji as we went through them was still largely familiar.
“We did see an increase in the use of the virus emoji, but not in a way that even remotely made it the most used emojis because we still had enough to laugh about and enough to cry about, whether it was because of pandemic or not,” said Lauren Gawne, co-host of the “Lingthusiasm” podcast and senior lecturer in linguistics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
“Even in the midst of this massive global pandemic that has taken up so much of our time,” Ms Gawne added, “we still spent a lot of time wishing each other happy birthday or checking in or laughing at a new and unexpected element of this slow-burning madness.”