Sorry millennials, but you're already out of touch. This is how Gen-Zers use emojis

Joanna Taylor
Friday 17 July 2020 08:45
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( Jerod Harris / Getty Images )

Gen Z don't use emojis the same way the rest of us do.

Have you ever seen a teenager tweet a cherry emoji or comment an hourglass beneath their friend's photo and wondered what on earth they're on about?

That's because, like slang words and memes, emojis take on new meanings and go in and out of style when young people use them.

So to mark this year's World Emoji Day, we asked some real-life teenagers to explain what their baffling emoji usage actually means.

17-year-old TikToker and self-proclaimed Directioner Ella Shuttleworth talked us through the basics...

Hourglass: attractive. Commenting an hourglass emoji beneath someone's photo means they have a good body.

Maple Leaf: marijuana. Probably could have guessed that one.

Pregnant Woman: attractive (an alternative to the hourglass emoji). Commenting this emoji beneath someone's photo means they're so attractive they've instantly gotten you pregnant (metaphorically speaking).

Clown Face: foolish. Gen Z will typically comment a clown emoji if you've said something stupid.

Pleading Face: cute. This emoji, with its large doleful eyes, is being used a lot lately, either when the poster finds something incredibly cute or when they are trying to be cute themselves.

Loudly Crying Face: laughter. This emoji, or the skull emoji for that matter, often accompanies a screenshot of someone saying something hilariously stupid. But it can also be used to express tearing up over something because it's so wholesome. Context is important.

Eye, Lips, Eye: shock. This string of three emojis is currently all over TikTok, and has begun to pop up on Instagram and Twitter too. It's usually commented on something shocking, outrageous or embarrassing, like a fan taking their obsession with something too far or someone posting a video of themselves doing something the commenter wishes they weren't witnessing.

If you're confused by those, here's a visual reference:

There are several variations of that last one, by the way. For example, spider, lips, spider is for when someone is wearing a lot of makeup and has long eyelashes (like spider legs).

Now for some NSFW emojis. The eggplant, cat face and cherries all symbolise genitalia. The peach and the doughnut are also not typically used to mean foodstuff (you get the idea...).

The eyes emoji, meanwhile, symbolises sexual attraction, especially when it is sent via DM.

Ella explained that the meanings behind these emojis often develop on Snapchat and TikTok, meaning that they become part of a common language used by those apps' Gen Z user base.

An example of this is that 'Directioners' (fans of One Direction) like herself send each other clown emojis to berate themselves for getting their hopes up that the band will reform.

Young people don't just use emojis to express emotion.

As 19 year-old Louis Gilbert explained, their use is usually much more ironic than that.

There's no emotional attachment to emojis, and the younger generation don't actually feel the way the emoji is trying to express for them. Like they don't actually mean they are crying with laughter. 

The older generation rarely use emojis, but when they do there is a more emotional attachment to them. Or they are just using them to make their sentence look more fun and to try to connect with a younger audience. 

Every language evolves over time and varies between generations and demographic groups. Emojis are no different.

Even among Gen Z, various subcultures use emojis in different ways.

'AAVE Twitter' (that's African American Vernacular English) and, as ever, 'stan Twitter' by extension, have begun using photos of emojis with accessories like false eyelashes and long nails added on.

Some subcultures are even defined by emojis.

Like 'Cherry Emoji Twitter', which is defined by Urban Dictionary as: "that group of pretty girls online that are obsessed with Megan Fox, listen to Lana Del Rey, repost videos of 90s supermodels, adore red lipstick and love to glamorise daddy issues and smoking".

So many emojis being used in so many different ways can lead to misunderstandings, not just between Gen Z and boomers but even between Gen Z and millennials.

Keith Broni, deputy emoji officer of Emojipedia, explained this further.

People’s emoji usage is very contingent on demographic factors. We’ve already seen some very amusing cases of differences in understanding with millennials and older generations, the classic example being the eggplant and the peach, and it’s guaranteed to be the same between millennials and Gen Z-ers.

For example, the very slightly smiling face is a prime area of more ironic use than perhaps even millennials realise. It can veer into passive aggressive territory. Many of the other icons could be used highly ironically as well. The thinking face is going to be a key area of misunderstanding.

The thinking face, by the way, is used to suggest consternation at a questionable opinion.

Gen Z, and the various different subgroups and subcultures within that generation, have every right to redefine what emojis mean.

It's only natural that they adapt words and symbols to best fit their own identities and the environments they find themselves in on social media.

But sadly it's also only natural that even millennials get left behind.

Sixteen year-olds were born the year Facebook was created. There are teenagers alive today who are younger than Twitter.

So we're very sorry millennials, but if you remember playing pinball on your computer or making fun of Smarterchild on MSN Messenger, you're probably already out of touch.

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