Photo: Unicode Consortium
Did you recently get engaged? Great, I’ll be replying “💍😍” when you announce it on Instagram. Or finish a big project at work and head out the door for a vacation. “🙏🙏.” A picture where you look cool but I have nothing substantive to contribute earns you a “😎😎😎.” Post a thirst trap? “🔥,” I’ll comment. (Perhaps a “💦” or two for good measure.)
There are nearly 3,000 emoji in the Unicode standard but, in reality, the number most people use in daily interactions is much smaller. Commenting an emoji is the least you can do to engage with somebody’s content. Sure, it’s more effort than just liking a photo but it requires no real thought. An emoji says I care about you and your content enough to reply with this tiny picture that will help your photo perform better in the Instagram algorithm but I don’t really have anything else to say. On Instagram, the most-used emoji by far are some combination of 💯🙏🔥✨😍. Instagram auto-suggests emoji for comments based on the ones you’ve used most recently in the app. For me that’s a lexicon of 🖤👏✨✊😘🌈. Useful, sure, but also derivative.
But last weekend, something weird happened on Instagram. The app started suggesting emoji out of nowhere — random pictograms users had rarely, or never used before. For me, this meant Instagram was suddenly prompting me to reply with the 🧣. (That’s a knotted scarf, in case you can’t tell.) And, oddly enough, I felt compelled to follow Instagram’s suggestion. A photo of a couple I know standing amid the New York City Pride parade? Who needs to comment a derivative, played-out 🌈, when you can reply “🧣🧣.” On a post from another friend I noticed a string of random 🦔🦔🦔. “IG is recommending I use this emoji!!!!!,” the person wrote. “Wow yes IG thank you for this service,” my friend replied.
The Instagram algorithm knows me. Or, at least, it knows the version of me that mostly comments “YASS 🔥🔥!!!” So when it suddenly started recommending I use an emoji I’d never used and, frankly, never seen before, I felt almost lost. Conditioned to believe an algorithm knows me better — me here being my emoji preferences — than I know myself. Wirecutter photo editor Sarah Kobos was shown the 🥔. Her colleague over at the New York Times, Kate Conger, was recommended the 🧦. Another Twitter user said they were “baffled and amused” by Instagram’s recommendation of the 🥩. Somebody else got 🥛. 🥒. And a slightly too on-the-nose 🤡. “Instagram suggesting people to comment the clown emoji on my pic sums up my whole existence,” one user tweeted.
As quickly as this weird moment of joy came, it went. An Instagram spokesperson told me a team was already fixing the bug as of Monday and the app would be back to normal soon. Indeed, the scarf has vanished from my recommended emoji. But I almost wish it hadn’t. Seeing it there was a moment of whimsy. A moment that made me think Well why the hell haven’t I ever used this dumb emoji. What other dumb emoji are lurking in my keyboard just waiting to be unleashed on unsuspecting comments sections? A realization that I’d been ignoring what is, at its core, kind of the point of emoji: to have a wide range or ways to say what’s on your mind without having to type it out or formulate a sentence. But instead I’d been relying solely on a half dozen emoji that I use so frequently they’ve come to meaning nothing. The emoji comment equivalent of ending a text with “lol.”
By comparison, Gmail’s automatic email responses, which use a neural network to determine appropriate replies, are often the source of griping. They’re boring. They’re unoriginal. They are, in a word, robotic. This Instagram glitch, on the other hand — despite being the fault of robots — is anything but. It’s the perfect anecdote to the perfunctory “like” and canned, clichéd response. Replying “Sounds good!” or “Thanks, got it!” is drudging, unfeeling. Replying 🥔🥔🥔 is hilarious. It’s weird. There’s no context so it’s up to the person viewing it to interpret 🥔🥔🥔 on their own terms. An insult? A compliment? A proposition?
There’s something fun about picturing an Instagram feed full of photos with comments laden with random emoji. Colorful replies with absolutely no relevance to the photo or video at hand. A pictographic chaos. It might have started out as an error but the platform should really consider building this out into a fully fledged feature. An emoji roulette of sorts that would randomly select a different emoji option each time, nestled in beside your usual suspects. Just think of the possibilities. ☣️! ⚓! 🏵️! 📐! 🍡! 🧣!