Commodities: Sometimes an Emoji Is More Than Just a :)

Anthropologist Marcel Danesi was teaching a linguistics class at the University of Toronto when a student asked what he thought about emoji, the tiny images of faces, animals and everyday objects increasingly inserted in digital conversations.

“I knew what they were,” Dr. Danesi says, “but they never struck me as something I could study.”

He asked whether students would share their text messages with him for research and received more than 300 submissions. He found that while emoji are used to convey emotion in a way “that written language probably cannot do,” he said, they could be surprisingly lacking in substance—used as small talk when an in-person conversation might turn to the weather, for instance.

Dr. Danesi is one of several scientists at the leading edge of a new school of academic and corporate research: the study of emoji and their use in human interaction. Researchers and tech companies have seen that people can use them in unexpected ways, and even the most basic emoji can spawn misunderstandings instead of making communication more clear.

Interest in understanding this new form of communication is growing as emoji use proliferates and companies increasingly incorporate them into their business models and marketing strategies.

Emoji marketing “has become a lot more serious from a commercial perspective in the last couple years,” said Pamela Clark-Dickson, lead analyst for digital communications and social networking consumer services at consultant Ovum.

Emoji have been a “gold mine” in terms of understanding how consumers use the payment app Venmo, said Ben Mills, Venmo’s head of product. Asking people for money can be awkward, he said, but emoji make such interactions “more playful.”

Thirty percent of payments include emoji—a figure that is increasing, according to the company, which is owned by PayPal Holdings Inc. Food, drink and rent-related icons, such as the pizza, beer mug, and house and “flying dollar bills” emoji, are among the top emoji used, Mr. Mills said, and such insights could help Venmo connect customers with merchants.

Despite the huge variety in emoji options, several research projects indicate that only a handful are in common use. Analyzing anonymized data from users of the keyboard app SwiftKey, which estimates more than 300 million devices world-wide offer its technology, linguist Gretchen McCulloch found the emoji used most often were faces, hands and hearts, with the “tears of joy” emoji as No. 1. An analysis of emoji used on messaging apps developed by Alphabet Inc.’s Google found similar results.

Getting people to use new emoji, or to use them in new ways, could depend on the context of conversations.

New York City-based messaging platform Emogi has teamed up with companies such as McDonald’s and a handful of others to develop emoji-based campaigns, according to Alexis Berger, Emogi’s chief strategy officer. When a user types a message like “Want to get a burger?” Emogi’s emoji keyboard brings up a series of Big Mac-related emoji a user can send to friends. The service draws on users’ location, emoji data and certain keywords to make emoji suggestions, Ms. Berger said.

“There’s a huge opportunity for brands” to connect with consumers through emoji, she said.

Brands are using emoji not just to target specific groups, but “to gather information” to improve future services, according to Ovum’s Ms. Clark-Dickson. She expects the market to grow as machine-learning software facilitates emoji communications among older people, who may be less fluent in emoji.

Google recently developed tools that harness artificial intelligence to suggest emoji for texts sent through its messaging app Allo based on user conversations, according to a company spokeswoman.

One challenge for companies and researchers is understanding the different ways people might interpret an emoji.

In Japan, the motherland of emoji, the “surfer” emoji can imply the sender wants to break up, as in they’re surfing out of the relationship, according to Rachel Law, co-founder of Kip, a service that helps offices put together shopping lists for workplace purchases such as office supplies and food deliveries using software.

“That meaning doesn’t carry in America,” said Ms. Law, who grew up in Asia. Her New York City startup recently added emoji-based search to its service. Tapping the chicken and noodle bowl emoji, for instance, turns up suggestions for chicken noodle soup, she said.

And though the Unicode Consortium standardizes a canon of emoji, Google, Microsoft and Samsung platforms each have different ways of illustrating the same emoji.

“People look at the same exact emoji rendering and interpret it differently,” says Hannah Miller, a University of Minnesota human-computer interaction researcher.

Ms. Miller found there were wide disparities in whether people interpret icons as having positive or negative sentiments.

In 2016, Apple Inc.’s version of a grinning emoji had a straight-line mouth showing teeth, while on other phone platforms, the mouth curved up into a toothy smile. In Ms. Miller’s research, participants rated the sentiment of the Apple version as slightly negative and the other platforms’ as positive. Apple has since changed its emoji to show a curved grin.

Apple says it redesigned most of its emoji with the launch of the latest iPhone operating system.

The placement of emoji within a message matters, too. Dr. Danesi found they mark a shift in emotional tone, so putting them in the wrong place can cause miscommunication. Using emoji involves competence, he says, “like a foreign language.”