The Meaning of Your Emoticons on Twitter

14/10/2011 23:58 BST | Updated 14/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Within the last 24 hours you have probably written a text message, email or tweet with an emoticon. But do you ever stop to think what they actually mean?

While you probably have a good idea about the meaning of the basic happy and sad emoticons, :) and :(, what do people mean when they use others such as :/, <3 or ^_^? It's likely you have a vague idea of what feeling they represent, but can you really be sure? And are you sure that everyone thinks of them in the same way as you do?

Thanks to the huge amount of data available on Twitter, we can analyse millions of status updates to try and understand how people use emoticons. One very simple way of trying to understand what a particular emoticon means is to look at all the tweets where it was used and see which words commonly occur with it, but that would only begin to scratch the surface. With new techniques from the field of machine learning, we can now take into account the subtle web of connections between the different words that appear on Twitter, and as a result, get a much more accurate picture of the meaning of our emoticons.

The findings have proven to be interesting, somewhat unexpected and occasionally not PG-rated. You can see the results for six different emoticons visualised here. As it turns out, two emoticons that you might think represent the same emotion, don't actually mean the same thing.

You may not have seen this emoticon before: ^_^. This is a happy emoticon, seemingly the same as :), that originated in East Asia. It is read vertically, with the two carats as eyes and the underscore as a mouth. This was once used exclusively in online communities in Japan, Korea and surrounding areas, where it was used instead of :). The reasons for this are fascinating and are well worth reading. Over time, due to the global, free-flowing nature of the internet, this emoticon has slowly been adopted by different communities in the western world. And as this adoption happened, the meaning and context in which it is used has subtly changed as well.

Through these visualisations, we can see how the contexts of these two emoticons are now completely different. The visualisation shows that our original happy emoticon, :), emerges as a "social happiness" emoticon, associated with terms like "welcome", "birthday", "congrats", "wish", "thanks" and "luck". It appears that this is the emoticon we use when we want to convey happiness in a social context; for example when we want to express our happiness towards someone, or for something that someone has done for us. Conversely, ^_^ could be better described as a "pleasure happiness" emoticon, associated with terms like "chocolate", "shopping", "cake", "wine", "beach". This shows us expressing our happiness over things that we have or are doing; whether that be food, holidays or shopping.

This is just one small example of how big data can lead to interesting and unexpected insights and further, how it can start to give us a deeper understanding of how we, as an online society, communicate. :).