Published at
Updated at
Reading time

It feels unnatural to me to communicate without emojis these days. All my jokes are paired with a laughing face (๐Ÿ˜†). Surprises never come without an astonished face (๐Ÿ˜ฒ), and if I want to be cute, I use the see-no-evil ape (๐Ÿ™ˆ).

How did people communicate without symbols in the past? And how did they not misunderstand each other when emojis weren't a thing yet?

But just because we have emojis today, it doesn't mean that there are no misunderstandings. There are cultural and personal differences in play, too. People might look at the same emoji and have a different understanding of what it means. (If you text with your parents, you know what I mean...)

And to make it even more complicated, apps and operating systems render emojis differently, too. These differences lead to even more confusion.

Anguished Face emoji rendered on different platforms

Look at the Anguished Face emoji. I don't use it very often, but depending on who receives it can be perceived as way more dramatic than I intended. And that's just a slight "misunderstanding".

Do you remember the drama about the Hamburger emoji (๐Ÿ”)? How dare you Google to place the cheese below the meat on this tasty food? (I would question if a hamburger should include cheese in the first place, but that's another story. ๐Ÿคทโ€โ™‚๏ธ)

There was also the "gun emoji incident". Some vendors decided to render a toy pistol, but Apple went for a real gun. Inviting someone to play or threatening them depended on your operating system. Bad times, and luckily that's solved by now!

These examples show the wiggle room when it comes to emoji rendering. But in general, the symbol's meaning and visual representation seem to align. And that's good!

Today I learned about a case where things wholly diverged. Adrian Roselli's post Blaming Screen Readers ๐Ÿšฉร—5 describes the trend of using the ๐Ÿšฉ emoji and how this trend affects screenreader users. It's an excellent read on emoji accessibility!

The article includes a surprise: the "red flag" emoji (๐Ÿšฉ) isn't defined as red flag. The emoji spec defines it as a Triangular Flag ( entry), but surprisingly, all vendors render it as a red flag. This difference in representation and meaning comes with a severe accessibility problem.

How should a person that uses assistive technology understand what "Some message" Triangular Flag is supposed to mean when every sighted person sees a red flag? It's not supposed to be understood as a warning-red flag!

Funnily, even emojipedia uses the triangular flag as a warning sign on the pistol definition. ๐Ÿคฆโ€โ™‚๏ธ

๐Ÿšฉ Appearance historically differs greatly cross-platform. Use with caution. ๐Ÿšจ

The "Triangular flag" case shows a big issue with emojis. Just because there is a symbol definition, it doesn't mean that people or vendors will follow it. People will use emojis and come up with their own understanding no matter if that's matching the emoji's initial intention.

It's a real problem without an obvious solution. Should vendors purposefully render different emoji symbols or should they align better? It don't know.

But I wonder if there are more inaccessible emojis that have a different meaning for sighted people. If you know some, please let me know!

Was this post helpful?
Yes? Cool! You might want to check out Web Weekly for more WebDev shenanigans. The last edition went out 8 days ago.
Stefan standing in the park in front of a green background

About Stefan Judis

Frontend nerd with over ten years of experience, freelance dev, "Today I Learned" blogger, conference speaker, and Open Source maintainer.

Related Topics

Related Articles