• 04.12.16

The World’s Most Confusing Emoji, According To Science

A new study finds that we interpret emoji in vastly different ways–and when it comes to design, Microsoft is the biggest offender.

The World’s Most Confusing Emoji, According To Science

On one hand, I see complete euphoria. This guy has just won the lottery, or he’s laughing to the point where he can no longer breathe. On the other hand, I see pain. Guantanamo-level pain. The type of pain that accompanies a kidney removed without anesthesia.


This is Microsoft’s version of the “smiling face with open mouth and tightly closed eyes” emoji. And according to a new study spotted by Boing Boing and published by PhD students in the University of Minnesota GroupLens lab, it’s the most wildly interpreted emoji there is. On a 10-point scale, in which subjects ranked it on a scale of negative to positive feeling, it had a 4.4 point spread. About half of people saw it as positive, and the other half, negative.

And it just goes to show–with apologies to my fellow millennials–that using emoji as shorthand to explain your emotions can be very tricky business. It’s part of an even bigger problem that the researchers call “emoji font diversity,” and researchers at GroupLens, which focuses on the study of technologies like online communities and mobile platforms, wanted to learn not only how differently we interpret the same emoji, but how emoji texted from iPhone to Android to Windows Phone can have their meaning changed through this very literal game of telephone.

You see, not only can the interpretation of any single emoji vary, but when you send an emoji from one platform, like iOS, to a friend on another platform, like Android, it can look totally different and elicit an entirely different interpretation. While Unicode has standardized the language of emoji, individual companies still put their own spin on these images–sort of like a visually branded dialect. And when jumping across these dialects, a lot can be lost in translation.

The paper’s prime example of this phenomenon is the “grinning face with smiling eyes” emoji. On iOS, I’ve always interpreted it as a bit negative–a sort of harmless “eek” face–and most people in the study agreed. But look at the same emoji on Google platforms, and it’s like a smug chubby bully who is celebrating stealing your cake. Subjects thought this face conveyed a far more positive sentiment than Apple’s smile.

And if you’re still curious why this all really matters so much, well, here’s the study’s best example:

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.