The evolving meaning of the shrug emoji

The new year brought 230 new emojis, but a classic one has grown more embittered in our trying times


To understand how we got to the memoji present, it’s worth rewinding to the emoticon past.

In 1982, Carnegie Mellon University computer science professor Scott Fahlman was the first to use the 🙂 and 🙁 in a posting to the university’s online bulletin board. Later in the decade, Japanese users active in the ASCII coding art community started expressing emotion with “ASCII face” or, as we now refer to it, kaomoji (Japanese for “face character”). By utilizing the katakana syllabary’s wider scope of characters, this allowed for a more expansive set of expressions so what was :S (“confusion” in emoticon) could be (@_@) or (᷄ ・ ‸ ・ ᷅) in kaomoji.

Probably one of the most enduring kaomojis is the shrug. Yes, the ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Affectionally known as the shruggie, it carries gestural qualities in line with other confused-seeming kaomojis. I’ve used the raised arms, flat hands and smug smile in text messages, tweets and updates to indicate to friends and followers “I don’t know,” “I’ve given up” and even “I’m flawless.”

“Could it also be a ‘What the heck?’ and ‘Like, duh!?’” adds Marcel Danesi when I ask what he thinks it means.

The semiotics and linguistic anthropology professor at the University of Toronto believes the slanted smile adds a distinctive nonchalance. “That smile reminds me of the cat’s smile. It’s a wry, kind of knowing smile that says, ‘Yeah, you can’t fool me.’ It really is a fascinating emoji.”

Author of the hotly debated 2016 book The Semiotics of Emoji: The Rise Of Visual Language In The Age Of The Internet, Danesi believes emojis’ ambiguity bring much-needed nuance to written exchanges. “It eliminates fear of face-to-face conflict,” he says. “It mediates.”

By the 90s, emoticons and kaomoji flourished in Japan thanks to the pager boom driven mostly by teenage girls. As online messaging shifted to mobile devices, typing complex pictograms on keyboards became time-consuming. What if one click could express an emotion?

Enter the emoji. Widely acknowledged to have been invented by Japanese designer Shigetaka Kurita for the mobile phone company NTT DOCOMO in 1999, the first set of 176 emoji were designed on a 12-by-12 pixel grid for mobiles and pagers. (Last year, Emojipedia’s Jeremy Burge discovered that Japanese tech giant Softbank actually introduced the first set of emojis in 1997.) Fast forward to 2016: this set now belongs to the Museum of Modern Art, and is a global phenomenon thanks to Apple putting the emoji keyboard on its operating system five years earlier.

As of the most recent Emoji 13.0 release, there are now 3,304 emojis in the Unicode Standard the latest batch added the transgender flag and a man in a wedding veil, as well as the much-talked about Italian “pinched fingers” gesture. This, alongside more racially diverse skin tones, indicates the ways in which emoji are more like memoji – personalized emojis.

For Danesi, this transition speaks to the epigenetic quality of language. In comparing the Old English of Shakespeare to today’s fragmented texting vernacular, language has become compressed.

“We try to do more with less. Visual languages deal with meaning directly, through the icon,” he explains. “When we read the text in alphabetic, we’re really thinking of them as spoken and transcribed on paper. When we look at visual forms like emoji, you don’t think of what it sounds like or what words are probably there. You imagine it as a meaning, a sense, an emotion, a feeling.

“With the shrug emoji, it’s a mood, a stance, a satirical comment.”

The shruggie has been a noncommittal signalling of irony, indifference or a one’s ability to effortlessly surf the web. But in today’s over-saturated media climate, the increasing distrust in big tech’s power and influence has imbued the shruggie with a more embittered, rueful tone. To better understand this evolving icon, we spoke to a designer, lexicographer and a transmedia artist fluent in emoji.

Mia Cinelli's Shrug Sign

Mia Cinelli’s Shrug Sign is on display at Harbourfront Centre’s Artport Gallery through March 29.

An abstract shrug

Mia Cinelli is drawn to the ways in which memory and longing impact the here and now.

Known for her typographic work, the Lexington-based multidisciplinary artist and designer – and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky – was first drawn to type via Fayette, a typeface she designed inspired by the elegant cursive of an unnamed bank teller or accountant from the 19th-century Upper Michigan ghost town. It won a 2018 Graphis Silver Award for typeface design, and led to a preoccupying discursive design concern for the nuts and bolts of lettering, specifically the enduring and not-so-enduring qualities of special characters and glyphs.

Her latest typeface project is Speculative Characters, imagining new punctuation forms for the age of emoji. It’s part of the juried Future Retrospectives exhibition at Harbourfront Centre’s Artport Gallery (see listing).

For Cinelli, the project was inspired by our existing letters’ inability to convey facial expression, hand gestures and metaphor. “Emojis and GIFs can set the stage for immediate friendliness,” the typographer said over the phone during a brief layover at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. She was en route to Toronto for a DesignTO talk. “But when I am writing a letter of recommendation for someone, I would love to be able to use these kind of things without putting a big old smiley face.”

The project elegantly translates visual expressions like exasperation (an elongated horizontal x mark), snark marks (a pair of doubled w’s that literally looks like air quotes) and yes, the shrug. In capturing the latter, Cinelli sought to render a typeface character that captured its “heck if I know” and “collective uncertainty” meanings.

“If you could see me right now, I am making a ‘shrug’ in the middle of the airport,” she says with a chuckle. “Part of it was looking at emojis, of images of people shrugging, thinking how tall the form needed to be to write it, and how it look gestural without looking anthropomorphic.” Cinelli struggled to develop a glyph that encapsulated both the shruggie and the varying cross-platform shrug emojis, not to mention its lines, symmetry and other minute details. “I knew it was right when it looked right.”

The series, also on view at North Vancouver’s Seymour Art Gallery, imagines how communication might evolve. Cinelli is building a potential future where complex verbal and non-verbal expressions are visible.

Jane Soloman EmojiInfluencer-1.gif

Jane Solomon is an “Emoji Influencer” on Instagram – and as a member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee.

The dissatisfied shruggie

Looking at emojis through the lens of a lexicographer – one who writes, compiles or edits dictionaries – Oakland-based lexicographer and self-described emoji expert Jane Solomon sees punctuation.

A member of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, which is responsible for selecting emoji icons, she has written extensively on emoji linguistics for Emojipedia and elsewhere, even dwelling on the particulars of proximity of face emojis to gun emojis.

She is critical of the ways in which the shruggie kaomoji was not successfully interpreted in its emoji form, which Unicode introduced in 2016. That followed the emoticon’s reemergence, which came to express the Zen-like acceptance of “the experience of being online,” as The Awl’s Kyle Chayka wrote in 2014. At that time, Solomon was the lexicographer at Dictionary.com and had concluded the “specific expression” of the shrug emoji is lost across different platforms.

“I personally never use the shrug emoji, because I think in making it an emoji, it lost its universality that the kaomoji version has,” she says.

Solomon takes me through the different cross-platform designs featured in the Emojipedia entry for the shrug emoji. Indeed, the details vary: hands are raised higher, there are small smiles, bigger smiles and even frowns (see the Facebook version). “They all have slightly different meanings, and I think something is lost there.”

For Solomon – who is quick to point out the shrug emoji was approved before she joined the Unicode Subcommittee – the smugness, the sarcasm, the bemusement is missing from anthropomorphic emoji versions.

Solomon, who now freelances on various emoji projects and published the children’s book The Dictionary of Difficult Words last year, also maintains Emoji Influencer, an Instagram art project satirizing influencer culture. The account is in the guise of an Insta influencer who, whether through makeup tutorials or being “a creative,” is focused on developing her brand and living her best “moji” life. She has come to see how the shrug kaomoji’s use gives an out for any public-facing online persona struggling to keep up with constant self-promotion bordering on braggadocio.

“When you end a social media post with a smug shrug – and it is actually used in a smug way – it evokes ‘here’s an opinion, but who am I to say? What do I know?’ in a sarcastic way,” she explains. “It’s this way of tossing off anything you say as incidental, and not valuable, which, if you’re throwing out a lot of hot takes, is a layer of protection: ‘I’m actually joking, can’t you tell?’

“It also means you never have to be serious, which is maybe an escape from this time of over-saturation of terrible news.”

Emojis weather ecological disaster in Carla Gannis’s animated twist on Hieronymus Bosch, The Garden of Emoji Delights.

Shrug-pocalypse

In remixing historical art references like assiduous recreations of 16th-century mannerist paintings using fruit and vegetable emojis, Carla Gannis’s exploration of digital semiotics is truly high and low.

“Perhaps some of this comes from my own awareness of class stratification,” she says, seeing her work as part of a tradition of 1960s artists like Andy Warhol or even the 13th-century painter Giotto, both of whom “put the vernacular of their day to use in their art practice.”

The Brooklyn-based interdisciplinary artist first experimented with emojis in 2013 via her monumental digital collage The Garden Of Emoji Delights. In replacing the religious iconography with digital symbology, her take on Hieronymus Bosch’s intricate oil triptych became a vehicle to consider, as curator Sabin Bors wrote in the essay accompanying Gannis’s 2014 solo exhibition at Chicago’s Kasia Kay Art Projects, how her work both resists and embraces “the relation between expressions and consumer culture.”

Since then, Gannis has continued to recontextualize historical art using smartphone vernacular. Inspired by the fruit-, vegetable- and fish-formed portraits by 16th-century Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Gannis has been working on a recent series of emoji-formed female avatars for upcoming solo shows at San Francisco’s Telematic and New York’s On Canal program. There’s the fictitious AI assistant Lady Ava Interface, a critique of Alexa and Siri, whose white cloud hair is accessorized with unicorns , panda bears and cookie skin. Her tribute to tech visionary Ada Lovelace comprises internet cultural symbols, and was the subject of a 2018 Whitney Museum commission that visitors to the website encountered during sunrise and sunset.

“[I’m] looking at the tropes, the routines and habits that we’re forming today and finding a way to address those, but in a playful, sometimes nonsensical way.”

Despite being an industry professor at New York University’s Integrated Digital Media program Gannis has surprisingly not engaged with the shrug emoji in her work. But she sees the shrug emoji as useful in our networked exchanges.

“Everything is all TLDR, and emoji is the way to come in and make an instant impact,” she says. “People often see the emoji before the text – particularly with the shrug emoji. It’s so easy for things to be taken out of context, especially when they’re abbreviated.”

In considering how emojis have evolved since she began working with them in her art six years ago, she brings up the last panel of the Garden Of Emoji Delights. In the “hell” animation, an ecological disaster freezes the flames burning a city skyline as sick emoji faces hold needles and half-drunk bottles.

“I’m wondering if, in 2020, there is a malaise to [the shrug],” she says. “We all feel gravity in a way I don’t think we were feeling it in the early networked days.

“I like the idea of the shruggie emoji: ‘What is true anymore? I don’t know,’” she says, alluding to how the pressing concerns like climate change, rising populism and strong- arm politics have impacted its meaning. “That is terrifying for me. Particularly with AI and deepfakes, we’re in this 1984 scenario. History is being rewritten and we’re not even capable of tracking that.”

UPDATE (February 8): This story has been corrected to reflect that carrier Softbank is responsible introducing the first set of emoji to Japan. This story has been updated.

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