Black or White but never neutral: How readers perceive identity from yellow or skin-toned emoji

by   Alexander Robertson, et al.

Research in sociology and linguistics shows that people use language not only to express their own identity but to understand the identity of others. Recent work established a connection between expression of identity and emoji usage on social media, through use of emoji skin tone modifiers. Motivated by that finding, this work asks if, as with language, readers are sensitive to such acts of self-expression and use them to understand the identity of authors. In behavioral experiments (n=488), where text and emoji content of social media posts were carefully controlled before being presented to participants, we find in the affirmative – emoji are a salient signal of author identity. That signal is distinct from, and complementary to, the one encoded in language. Participant groups (based on self-identified ethnicity) showed no differences in how they perceive this signal, except in the case of the default yellow emoji. While both groups associate this with a White identity, the effect was stronger in White participants. Our finding that emoji can index social variables will have experimental applications for researchers but also implications for designers: supposedly “neutral“ defaults may be more representative of some users than others.


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