In the early days, the Internet and email were text-driven. But a decade after email began, the sideways smiley-face emoticon showed up, along with other symbols of emotion constructed largely from punctuation marks. Love ’em or hate ’em, they’re still around and have been joined by emoji, an extensive keyboard of images available on Apple products, and GIFs, a short-loop animation. Tech Tuesday explores the history, function and future of these images as a means of communication and their place in the tech lexicon.


  • Jennifer Golbeck Assistant Professor, College of Information Studies, University of Maryland; Director, Human Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland
  • Susan Herring Professor of Information Science and Linguistics, Indiana University; resident Fellow, Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University


GIF, or Graphics Interchange Format, is a file format used to create short animated clips. They’re constructed from videos or photos, often include text and continuously loop while playing. This is an example of a GIF from the Kojo Namdi Show studio that’s customized with text.

You can make a GIF by using Photoshop, a phone or tablet app or website. Several guides walk you through options, such as “How To Make a GIF in Five Easy Steps” and “5 Free Animated GIF Creators You Can Use Online.”

We made this one by exporting still photos from a video editing tool like Adobe Premiere and uploading the files to free web-based GIF maker Picasion.

create a gif


Emoticons are graphical representations of a writer’s mood or facial expression in the form of punctuation marks and other text. You’ve likely seen the classic smiley symbol 🙂 But emoticons can portray a spectrum of feelings, states of mind and even historical figures. What’s your favorite emoticon? Tell us in the comments.

:-O Surprised
🙁 Classic Frown
:-* Kiss
%-() Monkey face
^5 High five
`:-) Raised eyebrow
:-# Lips sealed or someone wearing braces
C=:-) I’m a chef
@}->– Rose
==):-)= Abraham Lincoln
IIIIII8^)X Cat in the Hat
^ ^ ^ Giggles
|-O Yawn
|-{ Good grief!
{{ }} Hug. The person whose name is in the brackets is being hugged. For example: {{Kojo Nnamdi}}


The iPhone emoji keyboard allows you to tell stories with detailed pictures of animals, household objects, weather events and more. Enable the app on an Apple phone by going into Settings, General, Keyboard and Add New Keyboard, choosing Emoji. Click the globe-like icon next to the space bar the next time you write a text message or email to see the variety of icons now available.
Emoji examples

Watch as two friends bring emojis to “life” while they plan their big night out.


An Internet meme is an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads rapidly within a culture via the Web. Text in pictures is one of the most common memes, popularized by websites such as LOLcats.



  • 12:06:41

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. Sometimes words fail us when we're talking face to face or even on the phone. There are other nonverbal tools we can employ to get a point across, like facial expressions or tone of voice. And when we're communicating in writing, we've got punctuation and the ability to italicize or bold words for emphasis.

  • 12:07:23

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIOr if we feel the need to shout, we can deploy all caps. But even with those tools, we can sometimes be at a loss. So what then? Well, as the saying goes, a picture is worth 1,000 words. The earliest days of email and the Internet were dominated by texts, but it wasn't long before images made their way into our tech correspondence, providing ways to communicate without saying a word.

  • 12:07:52

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to explain the origins and functions of some often used visual clues is Jennifer Golbeck. She's a professor with the University of Maryland where she also serves as director of the university's Human Computer Interaction Lab. Jen Golbeck, good to see you again.

  • 12:08:09

    PROF. JENNIFER GOLBECKThanks. Glad to be here.

  • 12:08:10

    NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from California is Susan Herring. She's a professor at Indiana University where she's also a fellow at the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics and the Center for Research and Learning and Technology. She's currently a resident fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford. Susan Herring, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:08:34

    PROF. SUSAN HERRINGIt's my pleasure.

  • 12:08:35

    NNAMDIYou too can join this conversation. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using #TechTuesday. Do you use emoticons or emoji in your emails or text messages? How and why do you use them? 800-433-8850. You can also go to our website, Join the conversation there. And if you'd like to see what we're talking about, you can find that at our website.

  • 12:09:08

    NNAMDIThere's a guide to emoticons, a sampling of emoji and a video that imagines what a real-life conversation would look like if people spoke in emoji. That's at our website, Susan Herring, I'll start with you. I understand that the emoticons, smiley-faces that can be made with some common keyboard strokes, has been around almost as long as email. When did they first come on the scene?

  • 12:09:36

    HERRINGThe first emoticon was produced by Scott Fahlman at Carnegie Mellon University in 1982, and he posted a message to a mailing list suggesting that we could use combinations of keyboard characters to indicate a smile and a frown. Basically to say if we're happy, we indicate a smile by typing two dots, a hyphen and a closed parentheses.

  • 12:10:07

    HERRINGAnd if you wanted to frown, you could show you were sad. You would type two dots, a hyphen and an open parentheses. So this was an explicit proposal that he made and from -- it took off from there. People started creating a whole variety of new emoticons using the keyboard characters.

  • 12:10:26

    NNAMDIIllustrated texts aside, were there are similar visual clues that predated the Internet age, or is this a relatively new phenomenon?

  • 12:10:34

    HERRINGNo, no. We've had representations of facial expressions in writing for a long time and in many cultures. Most recently, people have proposed -- I think in 1940s advertisements or films in the United States, they showed a circle with a smile within it. There have also been -- Mad magazine featured some emoticons made with letters in the 1960s. So this has been a sort of playful idea that's been around for a while.

  • 12:11:18

    NNAMDIIf they were in Mad magazine, I remember them, he claimed. Jen, like so many things that become popular online, emoticons were a bit of a fad at one point and then faded a bit. But they seem to be back in forms familiar and new. Why do you think that is?

  • 12:11:33

    GOLBECKYeah. This is a really interesting way to look at how things have progressed in online communication in one form or another. So if you go back to, like, the days of AOL, right, where you just had an AOL account and you're only emailing other people within AOL, people were doing chat with each other there. And chat was a huge thing. And then people were using emoticons. So they certainly were in emails.

  • 12:11:59

    GOLBECKBut chat was something where you're having a real conversation and you'd want to use these emoticons basically to have some nonverbal communication there. So sometimes it's really hard, as I'm sure everyone has experienced, to get your point across exactly how you mean it with just texts. So the emoticons help with that. And since people were chatting, they were using these all the time.

  • 12:12:19

    GOLBECKYou're sitting at a computer, so you could click on a button. It would bring up this huge palette of emoji to pick from, and you could put hearts and little dancing guys in a glass of beer. And then that kind of communication started shifting to be texting. So instead of sitting at a computer, you were doing it on a phone, but not on a smartphone, right? You were doing it on a standard keypad where you'd have to do two, two, seven, seven, seven...

  • 12:12:44

    NNAMDIOh, yeah.

  • 12:12:44

    GOLBECK...five, five. And then we didn't have time to be, you know, finding where the colon was and where the close parenthesis was, and you didn't have an interface that would make it easy for you to pick an emoji out of a palette. But now that we have smart phones, you again have a regular keyboard. And on the iPhone and other smartphones, you have an emoji keyboard where you can just slide through that palette. And so the technology has kind of caught up to let us do texting which has replaced a lot of instant messaging, but to put the emoji back in there.

  • 12:13:15

    NNAMDISusan, through your research, you've outlined a few primary ways people use emoticons. Could you walk us through the typical usages?

  • 12:13:24

    HERRINGYes. In my research, I've identified three main ways that people use emoticons. The first is as an indicator of emotion, kind of mapping directly onto a facial expression. So a smiley face would indicate that a person was feeling happy, a frowning face that you were feeling sad. But the second usage is not so much a direct mapping. So for -- this would be indicators of non-emotional meanings that are mapped conventionally onto facial expressions.

  • 12:13:54

    HERRINGSo, for example, a wink. A wink doesn't express emotion. It indicates a kind of metamessage saying that perhaps I'm not entirely serious about what I'm saying. So that's the second function. And the third function is an indicator of a metamessage that is not mapped onto a facial expression. So an example that I like a lot, because I think it illustrates this very strongly, is I had a message once that I came across where a woman was complaining on a health forum for people suffering from fibromyalgia that she was having a very bad experience with her fibromyalgia.

  • 12:14:36

    HERRINGAnd she posted: I'm 23 with fibromyalgia and some other things. I was diagnosed about three years ago, but I've been ill much longer than that. I'm sick of the crying and moping, too. I was actually in a really down mood and decided to go on to see if anyone had posted. I've been inactive for a while. I'm in a pretty bad flare up right now, and that definitely affects my mood.

  • 12:14:57

    HERRINGI'm very sensitive and cry easily, and it gets even worse when I feel awful. Smiley face. So, clearly, the person posting is not happy about the conditions that she's describing. Rather the smiley face seems to be a metamessage to downgrade the force of that complaint and say: But I'm not really a whiny mopey person. I'm an OK person.

  • 12:15:23

    NNAMDIFascinating use of it. In case you're just joining us, it's a Tech Tuesday conversation on emoticons, emoji and GIFs, and we're inviting you to join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850. Are you someone who just can't stand emoticons and emoji? What do you not like about them? You can also send us an email to or send us a tweet, @kojoshow, using #TechTuesday.

  • 12:15:49

    NNAMDIJen, there is also a new kid in town. But before we get to that, let's talk about why emoticons seem to be everywhere. But you have found that they're not as common, Susan, as we might think. What are some of the stereotypes about their use that either ring true or hollow?

  • 12:16:07

    HERRINGThat's right, Kojo. Most people imagine that text messages and instant messaging and emails are riddled with emoticons. But empirical studies show that they're actually relatively infrequent -- no more than 4 percent of text messages in one study that was done recently. They're also associated stereotypically I think with girls and women more than with boys and men. And that stereotype is true.

  • 12:16:34

    HERRINGWomen and girls do use them more, especially smileys. The only kind of emoticons that studies have found that men use more are the winking emoticon, and it's been suggested that that's because that emoticon has a flirtatious meaning, a flirtatious connotation. And so a lot of online communication -- mixed sex communication in public groups involves men being flirtatious with women.

  • 12:17:01

    NNAMDINo comment.

  • 12:17:03

    NNAMDIJen, there's also a new kid in town. Emoji, a keyboard of images that comes standard on iPhones. What are they, and where did they come from?

  • 12:17:14

    GOLBECKYeah. So we started off with emoticons, which were the colon and the parenthesis and the things that Susan has been talking about. But as people started chatting in these chat forms, like I mentioned before, they wanted to do more than that. And so you see people who are, you know, they'll do a colon and a P, and that's your tongue sticking out of your mouth. And so people would get more and more creative with this, but they wanted more than you could come up with the keyboard.

  • 12:17:41

    GOLBECKSo emoji actually originated in Japan, and it's basically an expanded set of emoticons. But you get little pictures. And this was something, again, that AOL did. At some point, they would take your colon and your parenthesis and turn it into a yellow smiley face. So that yellow smiley face would be the emoji, and there's tons of these available. So I was installing the emoji keyboard on my iPhone and...

  • 12:18:05

    NNAMDIAs I have done just today.

  • 12:18:06

    GOLBECKEveryone has it. It's part of the international options. So you go to a language reference, you can pick emoji, and then you get a keyboard. And it has 189 different faces.

  • 12:18:17

    NNAMDIYou counted.

  • 12:18:17

    GOLBECKI counted just for your show.

  • 12:18:20

    NNAMDIThey just look like a lot to me, but go ahead.

  • 12:18:21

    GOLBECKIt's a lot. And then there's also -- I counted 641 different icons which are up arrows and down arrows. There are pictures of pieces of cake or CDs or just all these tiny little icons that you can put in. And the idea is that, you know, you want to send messages. Sometimes you'll use it in a shorthand. I have a niece named Kate, and she'll put a picture of cake to sign her email.

  • 12:18:44

    NNAMDIHow do you use them? The use of these symbols can have their ups and downs. How do you use them? What have you found to be the advantages and disadvantages of deploying them in messages?

  • 12:18:53

    GOLBECKThey allow people to have some nonverbal communication. And so really it's extending what you can do with an emoticon. So if I send you a message and it says nice dress with a smiley face, and I send you the same message as nice dress and it's got a face with just like two straight eyes and a straight mouth, it means something different, right? One is sarcastic, and one is happy. And you can't get that just with the text.

  • 12:19:20

    GOLBECKSimilarly, if I want to send someone, you know, a cute flirtatious note, maybe I'll put some hearts in there and some winky guys in there. If I'm really excited, I could put the little dancing guy who's celebrating, and, you know, there's all of these options that it just allows you to expand on what you're able to communicate with texts. And emojis really are pretty humorous, like you're not going to have a serious conversation with the dancing guy with the glass of beer.

  • 12:19:45

    NNAMDI800-433-8850. Do you find that images help clarify the meaning of an email, the meaning of a text, or are you sometimes more confused by the insertion of a smiley face or emoji? Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Some people say it's bad form to use emoticons, especially in professional correspondence. What say you?

  • 12:20:07

    GOLBECKI say it depends on the professional context. The emojis, these really kind of complex ones with all sorts of different faces and icons you can make, I probably would steer away from. But I have to say in my professional correspondence, it's not uncommon to see a smiley face pop in there. And often times, that's when there's a serious conversation going on. But everyone wants to be clear that we're not angry, everything's OK, so you'll put a smiley face at the end.

  • 12:20:34

    NNAMDIWhat say you, Susan, bad form to use emoticons in professional correspondence?

  • 12:20:40

    HERRINGAlmost as soon as the first emoticons were introduced in the early 1980s, there was a backlash against them with some people on the Internet saying that it was shallow and superficial. And if you couldn't figure out what you wanted to say using text, then you probably weren't very intelligent. And despite that backlash, emoticon use persisted in limited context. And I think that I see it quite a bit in my own professional correspondence.

  • 12:21:11

    HERRINGI have -- I use them occasionally myself judiciously. You don't want to pepper your messages with emoticons. An emoticon after every sentence would definitely be too much. But one in an email message, I think, is becoming quite accepted. So despite the resistance over the years, I think they have become quite accepted including in professional correspondence.

  • 12:21:34

    NNAMDII'm not sure Gordon in Washington, D.C. agrees with you. But, Gordon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:21:40

    GORDONHi. Thank you. Great show and a fun topic. I'm calling because what I noticed in communications, particularly kind of group emails or chain conversations, is that there tend to be a few people who overuse these emoticons in a manner that is sort of self-editorial or self-critiquing of their email. And your commentators are talking about people kind of breaking the tension or something like that.

  • 12:22:06

    GORDONBut I'm talking about instances where people are always putting in a little laughing icon or a serious icon to underscore what they think of as the humor in their email which actually isn't there or the seriousness of their email which hasn't been well communicated. And it reminds me of that scene in the Woody Allen movie, "Annie Hall," where Woody Allen is still because he's watching people put laugh tracks over their television program.

  • 12:22:38

    NNAMDIThank you very much for that comment. I'd be interested in hearing how Jen Golbeck and Susan Herring respond to it. I know that rather than an emoticon, if somebody sends me an email and it says in the subject line, this is funny, I'm not reading it.

  • 12:22:52

    GOLBECKYeah. I have exactly the same reaction. That little laughing emoticon, especially the one's that animated and he just kind of bobs up and down, and that drives me crazy. So, yeah, it is kind of like a laugh track, right? It's someone making sure that you're going to laugh at their joke. So, yeah, I'm not a big fan of that one either.

  • 12:23:09

    NNAMDIOn the other hand, Susan Herring, there are some people who tend to take things so literally that you want to make sure that they know that something isn't intended to be taken literally. Wouldn't that be an appropriate place to put an emoticon?

  • 12:23:21

    HERRINGYes, it is. And I think that -- I know people like -- what the caller -- who the caller is describing who do put the smiley faces after every message. And I think that instead of assuming that they think that everything they say is funny, I might suspect that they feel nervous or want to make sure that they come across as friendly. I think for a lot of people, emoticon use is a metamessage saying, I'm just trying to be friendly. I'm trying to be not too serious, but not necessarily that they think they're funny. So, of course, context would make the difference there.

  • 12:23:57

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Got to take a short break. When we come back, if you have called, stay on the line. We'll be continuing this Tech Tuesday conversation on emoticons, emoji and GIFs. 800-433-8850. You can call us or you can send us a text, You can send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to Are you aggravated by images that won't load on certain platforms? Would you like to see even more universal tools? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:26:02

    NNAMDIWelcome back. We are having a Tech Tuesday conversation of ways of communicating in text online. We're talking about emoticons, emojis and GIFs with Susan Herring. She is a professor at Indiana University where she's also a fellow at the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics and the Center for Research and Learning and Technology. She's currently a residential fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

  • 12:26:27

    NNAMDIAnd Jennifer Golbeck joins us in studio. She's a professor with the University of Maryland where she also serves as director of the university's Human Computer Interaction Lab. I'd like to clarify something by going to Yutie (sp?) in Arlington, Va. Yutie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:26:43

    YUTIEYes. Hi. I enjoy your show, and you always have such fascinating guests. And my question is I was wondering if the word emoji is derived in any sense from Japanese like kanji, romaji, things like that for their system of writing. If -- I just saw that name, and I was just wondering about that.

  • 12:27:07

    NNAMDIJennifer Golbeck.

  • 12:27:08

    GOLBECKSo I know that they originated in Japan, but I have to say that the Japanese language is not my specialty.

  • 12:27:13

    NNAMDIHow about you, Susan, can you say?

  • 12:27:16

    HERRINGYeah. I know just a little bit. So emoji apparently means literally picture letter. E means picture and moji means letter or writing. And I don't know -- I can't say with absolute certainty that the ji is the same ji as moji, but I strongly suspect that it is.

  • 12:27:35

    NNAMDIYutie, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:27:37

    YUTIEThanks a lot.

  • 12:27:38

    NNAMDIYou know, Jen, the issue of emoji not being supported on all platforms, can you clarify?

  • 12:27:44

    GOLBECKYeah. So we were talking that I had installed the emoji keyboard on my iPhone, and you have it on yours. So we could send messages with all sorts of emoji back and forth to each other, and it would work great. But if I send one of those messages to someone with a Blackberry or an Android, they're not going to be able to see the emoji because it's actually platform specific. Same thing goes...

  • 12:28:04

    NNAMDIWhat will they say?

  • 12:28:06

    GOLBECKIt depends. Sometimes you don't see anything. Sometimes you just get a square that doesn't have anything in it. You've seen this sometimes in emails where I know people have typed a smiley face, but it comes across as a letter J for some reason. And this is a problem with emoji. There's not a standard way of representing them where with the basic emoticons like the smiley face, you can always just see the colon and the parenthesis. But a lot of systems know how to interpret that. So it is problematic to communicate across a variety of platforms with emoji because they're not all supported.

  • 12:28:38

    NNAMDISusan, we're familiar with question marks, exclamation points, the pause of the comma and finality of a period. Are these images that were talking about, in a way, a new form of punctuation for a new way of communicating?

  • 12:28:54

    HERRINGI think that the emoticons, textual emoticons are evolving to become like punctuation. They're mood indicators. Punctuation, the question mark, the period, the exclamation point indicate the mood of an utterance, whether it's exclamatory, making an interrogation or making an assertion. And emoticons also express -- they can express mood. Some of them are being reduced to a smaller number of characters. So we start with the smiley face that has the eyes, the nose and the mouth.

  • 12:29:27

    HERRINGIt gets reduced just to the eyes and the mouth. So you just have two key strokes. And we also have a growing trend for punctuation marks to combine key strokes, to combine punctuation marks, so, for example, the interrobang, the combination of an exclamation point and a question mark right on top of each other. There's also the question comma which is a comma with a question mark over it, and the exclamation comma, comma with an exclamation point.

  • 12:29:55

    HERRINGAnd I just recently learned about the snark mark, which was period followed by a tilde by a wave line to indicate that what you've just said is snarky. So these are new developments, and yet, historically, there have also been punctuation marks that blur the boundary between punctuation and emoticons. In 1912, Ambrose Bierce proposed the snigger point which was a backwards slash, an underline and a forward slash to look like a smile. The idea was that it was kind of a sniggering smile.

  • 12:30:31

    HERRINGIn 1966, a French author, Herve Bazin, proposed the love point, and what this was was two question marks tilted slightly so that they form at the base facing each other to look like a heart. So here you have punctuation and emoticons blurring, almost becoming the same sort of thing. So I think this has happened historically, and I think it's happening again.

  • 12:30:55

    NNAMDIDo you use emoticons or emoji in your emails or text messages? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. Tell us how and why you use them. Or if, on the other hand, you're someone who simply can't stand emoticons and emoji, also give us a call and tell us what you don't like about them, 800-433-8850. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 12:31:15

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Mary Ann, who says, "Beware, use of emoticons dates you in the eyes of your teens. The upcoming digital natives appear to interpret them as text noise. And as a parent, I've learned to avoid their use especially when communicating with that age group." Have you noticed this demographic dispute, if you will?

  • 12:31:35

    GOLBECKInteresting. I've got to say that I have plenty of undergrads who use emoticons in their emails to me, so for what that means.

  • 12:31:43

    NNAMDIWhat have been your observations, Susan, about teens?

  • 12:31:48

    HERRINGI think teens are using emoji. They're using the newer, more multimodal form. So I would say more than the textual form, certainly. Another trend that we haven't talked about yet is GIFs.

  • 12:32:05

    NNAMDIOh. Were about to get to that shortly. We'll be getting to it.

  • 12:32:08

    HERRINGOK. Well, I think that we're seeing that -- that's becoming very popular in Web forums and microblogging sites like Tumblr where a lot of teens are participating. So I think that the teens have gone on, perhaps, to use some of the newer forms of graphical facial expressions, and the textual ones, certainly, would be seem old fashion.

  • 12:32:33

    NNAMDIWell, you brought up GIFs. So, Jen, some days, it seems as if everything old is new again which, to a great extent, is the story of GIF. What exactly is a GIF, or maybe it's a GIF, and when did they first hit the web?

  • 12:32:45

    GOLBECKThat's a nerd argument from the 1990s, if it's pronounced GIF or GIF. I'm a GIF person, and I have to say I'm a huge animated GIF fan. So I'm really happy we get to talk about this. So if you think back to the bad, old days of the Web in early to mid '90s when everything was really ugly, what you'd often see are like these rotating planets, or they'd be like a message for like email, and there'd be an envelope that like bounce back and forth. These were animated GIFs.

  • 12:33:12

    GOLBECKAnd so basically, it's an image just like any other image you'd put on the Web. But GIFs, which were actually developed by CompuServe, have this option where you can put a series of them together in a frame, put a frame rate on it, and they'll animate themselves. So they were common in the, you know, early and mid-'90s on Web pages for putting these interesting little animations on there, and then they started to get really dated.

  • 12:33:38

    GOLBECKYou never see that kind of thing on a decent Web page anymore. So they kind of just fell out of fashion. And then what we started getting in the place were things like flash websites, flash buttons, little animations and then lots of video support. And so that was kind of taking the place of these really simple animations 'cause we could have this more technological stuff.

  • 12:34:01

    GOLBECKAnd then people started looking at stuff on their mobile devices, or it turns out it's really a pain to load a video if you just want to watch five seconds of something. And so now, animated GIFs have come back where they're actually replacing video. So my favorite blog in the D.C. area is Russian Machine Never Breaks which is a Capitals fan blog. And...

  • 12:34:24

    NNAMDIAnd you are a Capitals fan yourself.

  • 12:34:26

    GOLBECKI am a huge Capitals fan, and...

  • 12:34:27

    NNAMDIBig hockey fan, yes.

  • 12:34:28

    GOLBECKYeah. They have a great blog, and they use animated GIFs regularly. So they'll get video of plays from a hockey game. And instead of embedding the video on the page where you need to, you know, load up the whole video and wait for it to play and there's sound, you can just have an animated GIF that has that -- the section of the video that you want to see that has the play.

  • 12:34:46

    GOLBECKAnd it just plays it in a loop. There's no sound. It loads really fast. There is no player or viewer. It's just a regular image on the page. So it takes away a lot of the overhead and bandwidth requirements of watching a video. So it's kind of stepped in to replace a technology that, on one hand, replaced GIFs in the first place, right?

  • 12:35:06

    NNAMDIYes. Well, Susan, are you a GIF or a GIF person, and do you use either?

  • 12:35:12

    HERRINGI don't use them personally, but I am currently involved in a research project to study the use of GIF on Tumblr. We're comparing when a person reacts using an animated GIF as opposed to when they react using a text message, using words. And so far -- this project is in its early stages. But so far, we're finding that the use of GIFs to react tends to be humorous and playful. And if they want to make a more serious comment, they'll type it out in text.

  • 12:35:47

    NNAMDIYou can understand, I can't say GIF anymore because Jen is in the studio, and she's close enough to punch me if I say GIF. So I'll be saying GIF from now on. As we go to Nick in Fairfax, Va. Nick, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:36:00

    NICKHey, guys. Thanks for having me. This is a wonderfully close topic to me. I am a college student with bounds of free time, and so I spend a lot of that free time on forums. And one of the most interesting things to me is to see the reaction memes and the constant memes. And so you might have a forum thread with 40 or 50 responses.

  • 12:36:20

    NICKBut there's maybe only eight or nine lines of dialogue. Everybody's using reaction faces or reaction GIFs. And it's kind of interesting to see and maybe a little alarming in some sense that we're just -- we're straying away from language. We're able to more effectively animate the emotion. And I was wondering, you know, what's the opinion on that, or how have you guys observed that?

  • 12:36:42

    NNAMDIWell, memes featuring images generated using emoji and GIFs or GIFs fly around at lighting speed. I'd be interested in hearing both Susan and Jen commenting on how integral to these phenomena is the ease of sharing via social media and smartphones as you respond to Nick's question. First you, Jen.

  • 12:37:00

    GOLBECKSure. So I think the ease of using these is important because we didn't use these things as much. For example, we didn't use emoji as much before we had mobile devices. And so to get to one of Nick's points, I think when you see these conversations that happen in forums where people -- instead of responding with text to one other are responding with their own animated GIF is actually really creative activity, right?

  • 12:37:25

    GOLBECKSo if there is a bunch of people posting animated GIFs back and forth and they're kind of one-upping each other, you know, what can you come up with, what can you extract from some TV show that has the right kind of reaction? I think that those are really amusing and actually engaging conversations because you're being creative. And I don't worry that, you know, we're replacing text conversation with other things.

  • 12:37:49

    GOLBECKAnd this comes up when we talk about social media and all sorts of things, and we're replacing traditional kinds of interactions with this digital thing that's less meaningful. And my answer to that is always that people are still having conversations, and they're still going to bars and parties and talking to each other. And we're not just flashing GIFs up on our mobile phones to one another in place of conversation.

  • 12:38:10

    NNAMDIThat's what Jen says. Susan, on the other hand, some people say that this is a harbinger of doom. What is your take?

  • 12:38:17

    HERRINGNo, I agree with Jen. I think that this is primarily playful activity and a creative activity. We've -- some people that I've been working with have been studying the use of images in conversational exchanges for the past 15 years. So that's really taking off now, but we had the earlier harbingers of it.

  • 12:38:38

    HERRINGEven in the late, well, I would say -- no, more like the late 1990s with bandwidth increasing on the Internet, it has become increasing possible to transmit images and animated images because previously it was impossible in part because there wasn't enough bandwidth to make the exchange possible. So, yes, absolutely, technological developments are making this easier and easier because people can do it. They do do it. It's fun. It's playful.

  • 12:39:08

    HERRINGI don't think it's going to replace textual communication. So I entirely agree with Jen there. But the caller mentioned memes, and I think that's an important point to bring up, and we're talking about animated GIFs. So I see animated GIFs as the convergence between emoticons on the one hand and other kinds of memes on the other hand.

  • 12:39:31

    HERRINGSo by a meme, we're talking about an image, or it could be even just an expression or verbal expression that spreads virally and becomes very popular. And we've had a lot of -- we started on the Internet with memes on YouTube, videos that memed and spread around, and everybody was watching them, and everybody was talking about them. And more lately, we've actually seen more static text in image files where you'll have, for example, LOLcats, which I think some people have probably heard of.

  • 12:40:03

    HERRINGI can have cheeseburger, a picture of a cat with fractured grammar text written over its image. Lately, we've seen memes with grumpy cat, which is -- who is a cat on the Internet that looks grumpy. And then grumpy cat is said to be saying various kinds of things. The basic idea is that you can have an image, and you could have text. And either one can be manipulated.

  • 12:40:26

    HERRINGWe've had a lot of memes lately about the new pope. First of all, before the pope was appointed, different male individuals or female individuals dressed up as the pope. That was the meme that so and so could be the pope. Now that we have the new pope, the pope looks like Woody Allen, so we see memes of the pope and Woody Allen next to each other and similar sorts of expressions.

  • 12:40:47

    HERRINGThere's the Dos Equis man. I don't always drink beer. But when I do, I drink Dos Equis. This is a television commercial. But now we see that same man with variants of this, such as I don't always drink beer, so I'm probably not the best authority on it. Or I don't always go to Starbucks, but when I do, it's to use the bathroom and so forth and so on.

  • 12:41:06

    NNAMDIYeah. There's one of him on our website, as a matter of fact, at

  • 12:41:09

    NNAMDIBut go ahead, Susan.

  • 12:41:11

    HERRINGSo this is a -- this is another form of creativity where you take the image and the text, and you sort of juxtapose new text on the old images to create new jokes as it were. And then these are jokes, right? So I'm very intrigued by Tumblr as a micro-blogging site, where the primary activity, as the caller said, is exchanging images. And this is one of the things I'm in the process of studying right now.

  • 12:41:38

    HERRINGWe're interested to know just how conversational those can be. The technical definition of a conversation is an exchange of messages. So A says something, B replies, maybe A replies to that. Those messages typically are in words, but what if those messages are pictures? Literally, technically, that's a conversation, right?

  • 12:41:58

    HERRINGYou post a picture, I post a picture back. If my picture responds to yours in some way, I have made a conversational move by posting that picture. So I'm going to be -- in the coming months here at Stanford, I'm going to be looking deeper into that question of just how conversational those exchanges of pictures are.

  • 12:42:18

    NNAMDIJen, she mentioned Tumblr. There are plenty of websites and apps like Tumblr, Pinterest and Instagram that seem to underscore our desire to communicate using images. Is part of the shift we're seeing a result of just how easy it is to create and share images now, a point I think you were making earlier?

  • 12:42:36

    GOLBECKYeah, I think that's right. So creating an animated GIF -- I remember teaching my students to do this back in the late '90s when I taught a Web design class, and you had to get program and piece everything together. And it was doable, but it was kind of pain. Now, if you want to create one, there's sites like GifSoup or YT2GIF, which you can give the URL for a YouTube video, give the start time and end time, and it will just make you a GIF of that.

  • 12:43:02

    GOLBECKThere's iPhone apps like GIFMill and Cinemagram which allow you to make really interesting and beautiful GIFs on your phone. So people can create them pretty easily. It's very easy to share images through a mobile device, which is how a lot of people are accessing the Internet. And then these sites that you mentioned, like Tumblr and Pinterest -- Tumblr, for your listeners who don't know it, is kind of like Twitter underneath in that you have an account, you can follow people.

  • 12:43:32

    GOLBECKAnd when you log in, you get one screen that shows all the posts by the people that you're following, but it tends to be, as Susan said, mostly images that people are sharing there. So it's a nicer environment for sharing images because on Twitter, you need to click to get the image to come up. And on Tumblr, it's there right away. So the technology has evolved in a lot of ways to make it easy to share and view these kinds of images.

  • 12:43:53

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have calls, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. However, the line seemed to be filled up at this point. So if you're still trying to get through, go to our website, Or send us a tweet, @kojoshow using the hashtag Tech Tuesday. There's always email to I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 12:45:51

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our emoticon, emoji, GIF, GIF conversation. It's Tech Tuesday, and we're talking with Jennifer Golbeck. She's a professor with the University of Maryland where she also serves as director of the university's Human-Computer Interaction Lab. Susan Herring is a professor at Indiana University where she's also a fellow at the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics and the Center for Research on Learning and Technology. She's currently a residential fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford.

  • 12:46:23

    NNAMDIYou know, emoticons may be something sometimes a target of derision, but emoji seems to be serving as a bit of inspiration for some artists, which we mentioned earlier. We talked about adoption of the images for projects ranging from emoji art history. But what I did not mention earlier -- and I am really not making this up because you have a copy of it here in the studio with you -- is "Emoji Dick," an interpretation of the literary classic "Moby Dick." What's up with that?

  • 12:46:56

    GOLBECKIn emoji form, it's actually a really interesting project. So it's a huge book, about 800 pages. The title is "Emoji Dick Or," and instead of the whale, which is supposed to come next, there is just an emoji with a picture of a whale, which is a really cover clever -- a really clever cover.

  • 12:47:15

    NNAMDIA cover clever too.

  • 12:47:16

    GOLBECKYes. The comments on the back include that's astoundingly useless. And Emoji Dick doesn't seem very interesting. So some mixed responses to it. But the process that they used to write this is really interesting. So this was a Kickstarter project. Kickstarter...

  • 12:47:34

    NNAMDIThat's what they raised the $3,500 for.

  • 12:47:36

    GOLBECKThat's right. So people online pledged money to do this. And the author of the emoji version of this took each sentence from "Moby Dick" and put it on to Mechanical Turk, which is a website where people can get paid a few cents to do small tasks. And he asked people to translate a sentence into emoji. Each person got paid five cents for doing that translation, and they had three people translate each sentence. And then those were the three options of the emoji translations for the sentence. And then other people would come in and get paid two cents to vote on the best one.

  • 12:48:10

    GOLBECKAnd the one that got the most votes won and went into the book. So every sentence has an emoji translation. I have kind of read this book, and I've got to say it doesn't make a lot of sense in a lot of places. So call me Ishmael, which is the opening line of the book, has an emoji of a phone and then some mustached dude's face, a picture of a whale, a picture of a sailboat and then a picture of a hand making an OK sign. So I'm not quite sure how that gets you to call me Ishmael, but it's an interesting book to kind of flip through and see what people thought.

  • 12:48:43

    NNAMDIThis book, in text, took me months to read in high school, Susan. Tell me about your feelings about "Emoji Dick." Would have I enjoyed that more in high school, you think?

  • 12:48:56

    HERRINGIt's hard to say. I...

  • 12:48:58

    HERRINGThis is the first that I've heard of "Emoji Dick," and I'm sort of flabbergasted.

  • 12:49:02

    GOLBECKWell, there is a...

  • 12:49:03

    HERRINGIt reminds me of the LOLCat Bible. There's been a collaborative project on the Web to translate the Bible into lolcat speak. It starts off in Genesis, "Oh hai. In teh beginnin Ceiling Cat maded teh skiez An da Urfs, but he did not eated dem." In the beginning, God made heaven and earth. So there's -- there is a history of these kinds of projects, but to have a translation entirely in images kind of blows my mind.

  • 12:49:34

    NNAMDIBlows my mind, too, but apparently, it's not blowing Jen out of the water in terms of how much she liked the book.

  • 12:49:39

    GOLBECKYou can get your own copy for $40 on the Internet.

  • 12:49:43

    NNAMDIIt's in the Library of Congress, the first such book of it's kind. Here now is Andrew in Annapolis, Md. Andrew, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:49:51

    ANDREWHi. Thanks, Kojo. You have very interesting show. Long-time listener, first-time caller. I wanted to ask the guests their opinion on basically the situation where oftentimes, in popular culture, advertisers and marketers will pick up on these languages and ways of communication. And I think this is no exceptions with animated GIFs, emoticons or the like. And, you know, in the case of online advertising, it's pretty instantaneous as well. Like, there's no -- as soon as the meme is out, you know, it's immediately hijacked by something.

  • 12:50:25

    ANDREWAnd, well, we often have an advertising is that when things like this -- when we start to see lots of things just -- but we know are advertising, we start to tune it out, it becomes communicative like chat. So I was curious to know if -- and this harkens back to the email you read on the air a little while ago that, you know, some youngsters today really aren't using emoticons at all 'cause they don't, you know, that sort of dates -- those would be early be early 2000s, late '90s. I was wondering if the guests could comment.

  • 12:50:58

    NNAMDIStarting with you, Jen.

  • 12:50:59

    GOLBECKSure. So this is something that we're seeing, especially if we look at the animated GIFs. There are some studios who are starting to use them in the online marketing of their films. So there's a couple movies, Letters to India is one and "Stoker" is another that have online presences now, and they are releasing animated GIFs to go with the film. Some of them are really kind of creepy and interesting.

  • 12:51:25

    GOLBECKSo when I saw yesterday had -- a woman drinking a glass of wine, and the only thing moving in the GIF was the wine and her eyes just looking all over the place on the screen. And they're supposed to evoke the feeling of the movie. And I think its being done really well here. Some of them are just using this for animated movie posters. Again, it's very well done. They have very high production value for an animated GIF, but you are starting to see it creep in there.

  • 12:51:53

    GOLBECKI was also mentioning to Kojo over the break that I just happened to stumble upon a project yesterday by an artist, Jason Lazarus, in Chicago, who has just completed a 96-minute film made entirely from animated GIFs. Its release in April, so we haven't seen it yet, but it would be a pretty interesting thing to take in.

  • 12:52:12

    NNAMDICan't wait. Here is John in Bethesda, Md. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:52:17

    JOHNHi, Kojo. I'm about 24, so I grew up with most of this.

  • 12:52:20

    NNAMDIWhat do you mean about 24? You're either 24 or you're not.

  • 12:52:23

    JOHNI'm 24 in (word?).

  • 12:52:24

    NNAMDIThank you, John.

  • 12:52:26

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please.

  • 12:52:27

    JOHNI'm glad I got to pronounce GIF correctly. All right.

  • 12:52:30

    NNAMDIGo ahead, John.

  • 12:52:31

    JOHNI just noticed that over the course of my lifetime, as you said, there seems to be sort of a decline in the use of emoticons among my friends except predominantly the semicolon and capital P, which, in most systems, will make a little smiley face sticking its tongue out in a kind of silly fashion, usually meant to indicate humor.

  • 12:52:51


  • 12:52:51

    JOHNSo I was thinking if your guests might comment on whether there's something about humor, they're saying most GIFs are humorous, too, if there's something in humor as a metadata item that makes it more difficult to portray in text and thus more likely to be portrayed by an emoticon or a GIF.

  • 12:53:09

    NNAMDISusan Herring.

  • 12:53:11

    HERRINGWell, intonation plays a very important role in humor and irony and sarcasm, right? So you can imagine the word great pronounced in a different way as great, which is enthusiastic, or great, which is sarcastic. So we don't have that intonation in textual communication or in pictures for that matter. Gestures, facial expressions, the wink, the classic wink, right, indicates that what I'm not saying is not serious.

  • 12:53:38

    HERRINGSo, yes, I think absolutely, there's something about humor that is not always easy to translate into text, and that's where the graphical representations come in handy. I would just say about the pronunciation of GIF or GIF. The original inventors of the technology pronounced it GIF, deliberately playing on the...

  • 12:53:59

    NNAMDIDon't punch me. Go ahead, please, Susan.

  • 12:54:01

    HERRING...the peanut butter, right, the peanut butter GIF. That was their play on words. But the Oxford English Dictionary list both translations as -- I mean, both pronunciations acceptable.

  • 12:54:13

    NNAMDINot that it's going to change Jen Golbeck's mind. John, thank you very much for your call.

  • 12:54:18

    NNAMDIHere is Craig in Prince Frederick, Md. Craig, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:54:22

    CRAIGThank you very much for taking my call. I wanted to call in and address something that I've seen in my profession. I'm an attorney, which is legal practice is not particularly well known for the adoption of technology with open arms. But I have noticed in recent years, obviously for interaction with clients, texting has become more popular. I'm not a natural texter myself, but I have been drawn into it kicking and screaming because a lot of clients now communicate that way primarily, but also other attorneys have been communicating that way.

  • 12:54:54

    CRAIGAnd so I've seen an increased use of emoticons between attorneys in texting. And then just recently, within the past couple months, I've started seeing it crop up in email communications, which, at least in my experience, have -- you generally try to stay fairly professional in your email communications between attorneys because there's something that can eventually become part of court record.

  • 12:55:16

    CRAIGThey're not privileged given that it's between attorneys. And I -- in fact, just last week, I had a response to a fairly lengthy email I sent to another attorney who responded just with a smiley face. A smiley face emoticon, not a emoji, but an emoticon colon and parenthesis, and that was it. And then below that, of course, was the standard wrote signature, so it came out as smiley face, sincerely the attorney's name and so forth.

  • 12:55:44

    CRAIGAnd I agree that they certainly have their place especially in less formal communication like text, but I'm in my mid-30s. I'd like to think I'm fairly technologically adept, but that seems to be a little bit over the line for me at least in an area of the profession that had long been bastion of fairly formal communication even between attorneys who are friends in their personal lives. And so I was just curious if any one had any comments on that or in other areas of professional practice.

  • 12:56:16


  • 12:56:16

    CRAIGAnd I'll take my comments off the air.

  • 12:56:17

    NNAMDIThank you for your call, Craig. Jen.

  • 12:56:19

    GOLBECKYeah. That's interesting. So not knowing the specifics of your situation, you know, it could be that this attorney that responded to you with the smiley face really feels like you have a comfortable friendly relationship. But I do agree, when we were talking about professional communication before, it seems to me that the legal profession was one place that you didn't often see these kinds of emoticons because it's very important in that sense to be precise in the messages that you're communicating. You don't want any misunderstanding especially if things become part of the record.

  • 12:56:50

    NNAMDICynthia in Arlington, Va. Can you tell us your story in less than one minute?

  • 12:56:55

    CYNTHIAYes. Just very quickly. It's also concerning the use of the emoticons in a professional situation. My husband, who really never used them at all, just the other day sent one in an email to an employee as a way of encouraging her because she'd done well on something that he'd been working with her on. So he sent a little message saying good job and put a little smiley face. And she came in extremely upset and offended and had gone to her mentor to say that he done this condescending thing. And so I just thought that was interesting.

  • 12:57:24

    NNAMDIShe thought it was condescending because he put a smiley face. Danger of using it in professional communications because it might be misinterpreted. Susan Herring, we only have about 30 seconds left. Do you think this is a trend or fad? Do you think we'll see emoticons and emoji replaced by the next hot thing a few months from now?

  • 12:57:43

    HERRINGNo, I don't think so. I don't think emoticons are going to completely go away. I don't want to speak for emoji 'cause that's the new hot trend and -- but, no, I think we're seeing these uses evolve. And Craig's and Cynthia's comments kind of support this, that more and more, they're coming into professional communication.

  • 12:58:01

    NNAMDIAfraid that's about all the time we have. Susan Herring, who seems to be having way too much fun doing her research, she is a professor at Indiana University, where she's also the Rob Kling -- at the Rob Kling Center for Social Informatics and the Center for Research on Learning and Technology. Jennifer Golbeck is a professor with the University of Maryland, where she also serves as director of the university's Human Computer Interaction Lab. Thank you both for joining us. And thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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