The pandemic has affected nearly all aspects of modern life, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to how we spend our time. There is one thing, however, that has remained almost unchanged: the emojis we send.
According to data from the Unicode Consortium, the organization that maintains the standards for digital text, nine of the 10 most used emojis from 2019 (which was the last time they released data) also ranked among the top 10 this year. The red heart emoji held the No. 2 spot, and the tears of joy emoji ranked No. 1, despite members of Gen Z deeming it uncool (along with side parts and skinny jeans).
To the people who create and study emojis, the persistence of tears of joy, also known as the laughing-crying emoji, comes as no surprise.
“It speaks to how many people use emoji. If emoji were a purely Gen Z thing, then you wouldn’t see it so highly ranked,” said Alexander Robertson, an emoji researcher at Google. “Because of the sheer number of people using emoji, even if one group thinks something is lame, they have to be a really big group to affect these statistics.”
And it makes sense that Gen Z would think that certain emojis aren’t hip, said Jennifer Daniel, an emoji subcommittee chair for Unicode and a 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 of behaving.”
Plus, Ms. Daniel noted, there is a “spectrum” of laughter that can be expressed through text: “There’s light chuckling. There’s acknowledgment laughter, which is just a marker of empathy.” Using emojis, such as the skull face (“I’m dead”) or crying face (uncontrollable tears of laughter), can help to illustrate that range.
Looking at a singular platform, however, might tell a slightly different story. According to data obtained from Twitter, tears of joy was the most tweeted emoji in 2020, but got bumped down to No. 2 this year, with the crying face taking its place. Tears of joy saw a 23 percent decline in usage from 2020 to 2021.
But the fact that most of the rest of the top 10 in Unicode’s data set, which covers multiple platforms and apps, stayed fairly consistent also signifies just how flexible the current set of emojis are.
“It basically indicates that we have what we need to communicate a broad range of expression, 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, Band-Aid, which conveys semantically the same thing.” Ms. Daniel added that at the start of the pandemic, people used the microbe, or virus, emoji and the crown emoji to refer to Covid (in Spanish, “corona” translates to “crown”).
The syringe emoji jumped to 193rd place this year in terms of overall usage, compared to 282nd in 2019. The microbe also rose, from 1,086th in 2019 to 477th.
Though the past two years have been like none before, the range of emotions we expressed through emoji while living through them were still largely familiar.
“We did see a rise in the use of the virus emoji, but not in a way that even made it remotely into the most-commonly used emojis because we still had plenty to laugh about and plenty to cry about, whether it was because of the pandemic or not,” said Lauren Gawne, co-host of the podcast “Lingthusiasm” and a senior lecturer in linguistics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia.
“Even in the midst of this massive global pandemic that preoccupied 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 about some new and unexpected element of this slow-burning weirdness.”