In the early 2000s, many people despaired at the use of text speak — replacing “you’re” with “ur”, changing “to” into “2”, and dropping punctuation entirely to speed up typing and save precious space. Thankfully capacitive touchscreens, cheap data and autocorrect helped us break this bad habit.
And soon another form of self-expression unveiled itself: emoticons, which have now evolved into emoji. Today, most of us use them haphazardly without knowing what some of them mean.
It turns out that picking the wrong emoji might land you a date in court, at least if we take a recent case in Israel as an example.
An Israeli couple were interested in renting a property via classified adverts site, Yad2, and so exchanged messages via WhatsApp with the landlord for a few days. The first of these enquired about the house but asked for further details, alongside a series of emoji, including dancing women and a champagne bottle. The landlord, Yaniv Dahan, thought a deal was done and took down the advert, only for the couple to stop responding to messages.
So far, so familiar. This sort of thing that happens everywhere, whether it’s something substantial like a rental or smaller deals carried out on auction sites. People lose interest or find better deals elsewhere. Many would-be landlords simply replace the advert and hope the next party won’t be a “time-waster.”
— Emojipedia ? (@Emojipedia) May 11, 2017
Except this particular landlord, who filed a lawsuit against the couple, claiming the messages were essentially a statement of intent. The pair were forced to pay 14,500 Israeli shekels (around $4,030), partly due to their use of emoji, after their communications were deemed “misleading” by the judge, who explained:
“The combination of these — the festive icons at the beginning of the negotiations, which created much reliance with the prosecutor, and those smileys at the end of the negotiations, which misled the Plaintiff to think the defendants were still interested in his apartment — support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith in the negotiations.”
The pair, Yarden Rosen and Nir Haim Saharoff, said they were concerned with the property’s condition and so went elsewhere to rent. Dahan, meanwhile, did find someone else to rent the house.
It Can’t Be That Simple, Can It?
Well, no. Rosen’s messages very much read like statements of intent from one perspective. They claimed to be putting their possessions in storage, so Dahan then asked about signing the contract on a Tuesday. Rosen replied:
“Tuesday we’re moving the apartment. Maybe Wednesday? By then Nir will have corrected the contract :)”
It’s hardly a binding contract, but you can see where the landlord was coming from.
Judge Amir Weizebbluth, however, specifically addressed the use of emoji as an indication of intent, not solely the original SMS but also the continued use of smileys:
“Indeed, this negotiation’s parties’ ways of expression may take on different forms, and today, in modern times, the use of the “emoji” icons may also have a meaning that indicates the good faith of the side to the negotiations. The [emoji-laden] text message sent by Defendant 2 [Rosen] on June 5, 2016, was accompanied by quite a few symbols, as mentioned. These included a “smiley”, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more. These icons convey great optimism.”
It’s a jaw-dropping statement. Does this foreshadow an era where the significance of emoji increases? Or is this a case blown out of proportion?
? Man in Business Suit Levitating replaced his business blue tie with a skinny black tie in the latest Twemoji update pic.twitter.com/4sf9JE1d1e
— Emojipedia ? (@Emojipedia) May 24, 2017
It’s not the first time the use of emoji has ended up in a court case. In 2015, 17-year-old Osiris Aristy was arrested for threatening the police using emoji in Facebook messages. In an obvious example, he paired an emoji of a police officer with a gun. Some argue this was merely an expression of anti-authoritarianism while others see it as more threatening, considering Aristy’s record of assault and criminal possession of a weapon.
What Do Emoji Mean to You?
Smilies, emoticons, and now emoji rose to prominence as a way of implying tone. It’s difficult to convey sarcasm and implied context online. Emoji are there as a form of self-expression, perhaps reassuring someone you’re joking, mean something in a friendly way, or reaffirm that you’re angry. Generally, they’re a force for good. It’s a way to show body language without actually being there in person.
You may understand why the landlord inferred a statement of intent, even if it’s not a firm agreement. You may also disagree that non-written communication can imply intent in such a manner
Emoji can mean different things to different people. In that context, the most meaningful emoji is the champagne bottle — a celebration of an event, like moving house. The dancing ladies, less so. Indeed, Bradley Shear, a lawyer specializing in social media law, says:
“There’s all these different variations, and so what one emoji may mean to one person may mean something slightly different to another.”
Emoticons were fairly plain and obvious, but can you say with certainty what the sinister smiling clown face is supposed to convey? What cultural significance does the floating business man hold? In light of this case in Israel, the more pertinent question might be, what meanings might you convey without intending to? And then there are cultural differences between countries, where one symbol could have a very different meaning depending on who is reading it.
Fortunately, the only legal examples we’ve seen also have wider contexts that have been taken into consideration. Yarden Rosen’s messages appeared to show further interest, even planning when a contract were to be signed. Osiris Aristy’s police record was taken into account when he used the “gun” (now a water pistol) next to “police”.
In these cases, emoji evidence was used to support text, not held as examples in isolation.
Language and Lawsuits
But language adapts, that’s why we have emoji in the first place. If they are a universal language, they could be used to threaten. Why else would Apple have changed the gun emoji to a water pistol just last year? It was, arguably, used in a threatening manner in Aristy’s instance, but it’s more widely used alongside a head signifying a sarcastic “shoot me now”.
Nonetheless, you’ll notice a knife and a bomb as other options. Apple can’t scrap them altogether because it’s simply not up to the company. The Unicode Consortium is an organization aiming to enable people to understand computers in any language. It also creates and maintains the library of emoji.
Once Unicode decide what to include in an emoji keyboard, it’s down to operating systems to determine how to visualize them. That means that Apple opts for the water pistol, whereas Android displays a firearm.
@GetEmoji bring back the real gun please. You're making a mockery of me wanting to shoot myself in the face with that water pistol. ?? ?
— Emma (@ejayod) May 4, 2017
This does at least demonstrate that Apple takes its emoji very seriously. Similarly, in May 2016, Microsoft joined Apple to block Unicode’s proposal to include a rifle emoji in its ninth version; due to their combined weight, you won’t find a rifle in your keyboard.
Beyond discussion of emoji, it’s also worrying that such instances can result in court rulings. Is it a sign that society is becoming blasé about suing others for seemingly-minor concerns? In Yarden Rosen’s case, someone did rent the property, so the landlord didn’t lose any cash. In a more comical example, a man sued his date for texting during a cinema screening of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. It caused some laughter online, and even director James Gunn joined in on the debate, but it is indicative of a worrying trend.
What Should You Take From This?
Don’t get carried away with your emoji, at least not when talking to someone on a professional level. It’s doubtful your emoji will be used against you, but ambiguity is rarely a good thing in such negotiations. It can also be construed as amateurish.
If you’re using them solely when chatting to mates, you’re probably okay to carry on as usual. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on how this evolving language develops further.
Has an emoji ever got you in hot water? What’s the most confusing emoji in your keyboard? And just how often do you send the “poop” icon to someone?