’It Wasn’t Supposed to be Hairy’: From Variant Glyphs to Rendered Ecologies of Code, Constraint, and Culture

Kellie Gray

Major Professor: Douglas Eyman, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Alex Monea, Emily Vraga, Laurie Gries

Fenwick Library, #3001
April 10, 2019, 03:30 PM to 04:45 PM


This dissertation uses an ecological approach to examine a type of emergent, dynamic text that’s rapidly permeated both public and private everyday communication/communicative practices around the world: emoji. Unlike visually similar “smiley” graphics, emoji are encoded characters supported by the Unicode Consortium. While many popular “emoji” keyboard apps, such as Bitmoji, simply make it easier for users to copy and paste an image into a message, emoji are cross-platform compatible characters with variant glyphs, and each emoji character has a unique hexadecimal codepoint provided by Unicode. It is in part due to this compatibility that emoji are becoming increasingly relevant on a global scale­—both in terms of their cultural significance and the manner in which they facilitate a growing worldwide trend of hybrid writing (Danesi, 2017). Yet the encoded nature of emoji also presents technological and cultural constraints, such as (1) unexpected design variations across platforms (as suggested in the title of this dissertation), (2) deficiencies in text mining tools that either don’t account for emoji accurately or omit them altogether (as demonstrated in my four-month quantitative study of U. S. Senators’ emoji use on Twitter [chapter 4]), and (3) the Unicode Consortium’s absolute control over which emoji it chooses to adopt, encode, and support (as explained in my analysis of the emoji proposal system [chapter 5]).

While the fields of digital and visual rhetoric, writing studies, and professional communication have addressed and analyzed both the rhetorical nature of visual texts and the rhetorical properties of the systems which process texts and through which texts circulate, emoji rhetoric represents a unique intersection of these fields and challenges some of our past and present methodological paradigms for visual and digital rhetoric. In response, my dissertation aims to expand upon previous work in digital and visual rhetoric as well as circulation studies in order to create the sorts of digital rhetoric methodologies that are necessary to theorize the rhetorical affordances of emoji and to account for the technological, cultural, and political factors that mediate those affordances. I argue that the rhetoric of emoji necessitates a flexible methodological and theoretical framework that can balance the deterministic elements of code and platform, the creative agency of digital writers, and the broader structural, cultural, and political elements that influence how emoji circulate (or fail to circulate) across different platforms and networks. This project will demonstrate that emoji rhetoric represents a convergence and expansion of the field’s establish interests in digital, procedural, public, algorithmic, visual, and machinic rhetoric(s).