You’ve probably seen this 🙃 emoji attached to a piece of political or tech or culture news in a tweet or a text in the last few months. Like this:
You often see the 🙃 atop the sort of news that might normally be accompanied by a skull, so as to say, my head has exploded and I am dead now. But the 🙃 carries a more chill, medicated, c’est la vie vibe, because only a fool could be shocked these days.
“Emoji nihilism?” a colleague replied when I asked how he would define the exact emotion being conveyed here. It’s not as if there’s a correct usage answer; the 🙃 doesn’t capture some real-life physical expression. Still, when asked conversationally, people generally described an inverted smiley face in similar ways. Someone compared the tone to Russian fatalism (more Gogol or Pushkin than Dostoyevsky; “hiding a deeper cut,” as this person put it in a now-deleted tweet). A survey of Slack and Twitter produced this tour through a breezy darkness:
“Wow things are kind of fucked up, but here I am living my life”
“This sucks, but what can you do”
“It’s like, ‘I’ve been inconvenienced but this is fine, nothing matters’”
“Everything is bad lol”
“A shrug so powerful it inverts you”
In 2015, Max Read argued that the use of emojis — at that point, the thinking-face emoji had become popular for politics commentary — served as a Jim Halpert–style, straight man’s reaction shot, in a medium that demands reaction. “But why insist that the reaction be despondent, terrified, or sarcastic?” he wrote. “Why can’t it be affirmative, as all proper fatalism should be? 🙃 knows people are weird and stupid and crazy — and it knows there’s nothing to be done so you might as well enjoy it.”
Take a smiley face; roll it over, SOS-style; and you end up with a cool distance between you and the great sadness.
An emoji can come into vogue without an exact tonal or substantive meaning, instead defined through some silent collective at work. And even though it might sound stupid to devote this much energy to what an inverted smiley face means, this is how people talk all day. Football players announce their commitments via emojis. An ongoing subplot of Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s new novel involves expansive use of emojis in divorcée sexting, and what any particular one might mean. (“Does [purple devil emoji] mean Third? Or Lex?”) For all the concern about artificial intelligence creeping into our homes or whatever, consider that we are not ourselves static robots at the mercy of algorithms, but in fact respond to them and constantly change the way we write. Every day, we pour thousands of words and images into machines. Twitter, Instagram, and texting are (hungry) machines that constantly demand new words and formats, which rise, fade or fall, and sometimes reemerge, with or without irony.
For instance, several people on Twitter — which, for once, was comparatively lighthearted and fancy-free next to Slack — compared the 🙃 to the “This is fine” cartoon dog, who sips his coffee in a burning room. I’m not sure the “This is fine” dog quite captures the tone of the inverted smiley, or at least this comparison underlines some little usage divide between “frantic, comical anxiety” and “emoji nihilism.”
Either way, consider the above chart with a few lines/memes that entered the English language over the last four years. (Some of them just for scale on trends, and yes, Google searches are imprecise measures in a lot of ways — e.g., people searching for partial phrases, people seeking definition or reference — rather than a reflection of usage.)
It’s slightly odd to think of thousands of people cycling through popular ways to joke that we cannot handle the deeper cuts, and settling on a cartoon dog and an inverted smiley face. Maybe we can’t beat simplicity.
The real question is the usage one: Is someone else out there seeing these 🙃 and wondering what they’re supposed to mean, given their own different understanding? Will the 🙃 retain the breezy darkness? Will the 🙃 endure? ●