Hey millennials, stop ruining emoji for Gen Z


When I saw the news that Apple would be releasing 217 new emojis to the world, I did what I always do: I asked my undergraduates what it meant to them. “We hardly use them anymore,” they scoff. To them, many emojis are like over-enthusiastic dance moves at weddings: only for awkward millennials. “And they’re all misusing them anyway,” my Gen Z cohort added sincerely.

My work focuses on how people use technology, and I’ve been following the rise of emojis for a decade. With 3,353 characters available and 5 billion sent every day, emojis are now an important language system.

When the emoji database is updated, it usually reflects the needs of the time. This latest update, for example, features a new vaccine syringe and more same-sex couples.

But if my undergraduates have something to do, emojis are also a generational battleground. Like skinny jeans and side dividers, the ‘laughing crying emoji’, better known as 😂, fell into disrepute among young people in 2020 – just five years after being chosen as the word of the year. 2015 Oxford Dictionaries. For Gen Z TikTok users, clueless millennials are responsible for rendering many emojis completely unusable – to the point that some in Gen Z barely use emojis.

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Research can help explain these bursts on emojis. Because their meaning is interpreted by users and not dictated from above, emojis have a rich history of creative use and coded messaging. Apple’s 217 new emojis will go through the same process of creative interpretation: accepted, rejected, or reused by different generations depending on pop culture currents and digital trends.

Two syringe emojis - one dripping with blood, the other with clear liquid