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SXSW 2016: What are the secrets behind billions of emoji?

24th March 2016

BBQ, networking and fascinating insights into all aspects of the tech industry – SXSW 2016 has come and gone! The Interactive portion of Austin’s famously huge festival kicked off a little over a week ago, so some of the SwiftKey team headed south to take part in the event. SwiftKey’s CTO and co-founder Ben teamed up with Gretchen McCulloch, internet linguist and author, to host a session on the “Linguistic Secrets Found in Billions of Emoji”.

We covered everything from where emoji originated to how people use emoji to describe sex to where the future of digital communication is headed. You can find the full presentation, complete with audio, on SlideShare – but we thought we’d do a quick look at some standout tidbits from the presentation here. 

The ‘Tears of Joy’ emoji Emoji-Tears of Joy had a huge year in 2015, capping it off with the title of “Word of the Year” from Oxford University Press, and has started 2016 with an equally big bang, with the recent news that it’s been used on Twitter over 14.5 billion times.

Digging into the data showed us that the Tears of Joy emoji also has been used to replace a relic of past communication: the punctuation smiley. Below is a graph showing usage of the standard ‘smile’ punctuation emoticon (remember those days?) by SwiftKey Account users, compared with usage of the ‘Tears of Joy’ emoji over the same time period. You can see these trends crossing in Jan/Feb of 2015 – setting the stage for an emoji takeover.

TOJEmoji vs Emoticon SXSW 2016 SwiftKey

Speaking of popular, Gretchen noted that our data also showed how one person can affect not only how a emoji is used, but how often is used. Enter: DJ Khaled and his use of the key emoji Emoji - Key as a way to spread tips via Snapchat and Twitter, indicating ‘major key’ life advice. The graph below shows SwiftKey data on usage of the key emoji: a 500% increase in use of the key emoji from Dec 2015, when DJ Khaled started using the emoji, to January 2016.

DJ Khaled Key Emoji SXSW 2016

We also looked at data on emoji combinations for the first time, and discovered some cool stuff. We found that, similar to our findings with individual emoji use*, combos are mostly used in a positive, affirming and loving way. 70% of emoji combinations are positive – but we went ahead and broke it down further into categories to see what else people are expressing with emoji combos.

Emoji Combos SXSW 2016 SwiftKey

SwiftKey’s CTO and co-founder Ben talked about how the skew towards positive emoji in the data may correlate with how people tend to use social media. Namely, projecting an image of positivity and happiness that may not be entirely truthful. After all, life is not always 70% positive, but 70% of our emoji usage is made up of positive emoji.

Again, you can find the full presentation on SlideShare and we’d love to hear what you think – let us know on Twitter!

The SwiftKey Team

*Read more in our previous reports: Emoji Report Part I, Emoji Report Part II and our US Emoji Report.