Emoji as Media Signs

Icons, indices, symbols

Cara Wallenhorst



In 2015, the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji was selected as the “Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year”, even though it is not even a real word but a pictogram. It was chosen because it was the most used emoji at that time and as such, it “best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”. This famous example shows how deeply emoji are embedded in our everyday communication, mostly in the social web, and are very easily overlooked as they are so quotidian for us.

Face with tears of joy

It is safe to assume that the use of emoji has tremendously increased since the year 2015, as platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp or Instagram continuously introduce new emoji functions and adjustments, while emoji have also long found their way into literature, newspapers, social debates, economy and art. Apart from the changes they bring to communication, we rarely deeply look at emoji and their usages. Surprisingly, research has also not payed as much attention to them even though they are so widespread in the communication practices of our society.

In this article, I am going to approach emoji from a semiotic perspective following Peirce, seeing emoji not just as media representations but also as media signs. In particular, I am going to use Peirce’s classification of signs regarding their relation to its object, namely icon, index and symbol. The question to be asked is to what extent emoji cannot only be described as iconic signs, but also as symbolic and indexical signs. First, I am briefly going to introduce Peirce’s theory of signs, focusing on the mentioned classification. Then, I am going to apply the theory on the media phenomenon in question: emoji. In the conclusion, the research question shall be concerned again keeping the findings from the article in mind.

Peirce’s Theory of Signs

Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914) was a famous American mathematician and philosopher, who influenced different fields of study with his thoughts and theories. In particular, with his theory of signs, Peirce is considered the founder of modern semiotics, “the study of signs and symbols”. While his overall sign theory is very complex with many ideas and several taxonomies, I am only going to introduce his basic idea of the structure of a sign and then focus on the classification into icon, index and symbol that will be used for my analysis.

For Peirce “all thought is in sign” (EP 1:24). With this notion, he turns against the possible assumption of a sign-free cognition and against a representational idea of signs (cf. Short 2007, 32-36). Therefore, Peirce develops an anti-representative perception of signs, but unlike other semiotics, his theory refers to any form of sign, such as also non-linguistic signs (cf. ibid.). Thus having established that every form of knowledge is sign-mediated, Peirce goes on to define a sign as a reciprocal triadic relation between its representation, its interpretant and its object:

A sign, or representamen, is something which stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity. It addresses somebody, that is, creates in the mind of that person an equivalent sign, or perhaps a more developed sign. That sign which it creates I call the interpretant of the first sign. The sign stands for something, its object. It stands for that object, not in all respects, but in reference to a sort of idea, which I have sometimes called the ground of the representamen. (CP 2:228)

With other words, the sign or representamen is not something in the head but depicts the material qualities of a sign. It has to be interpreted from someone to become significant (cf. Short 2007, 30). The interpretant then is a following second sign that originates in the interpretation of the first sign, which can be a thought, a reaction, a feeling and so on. As such, the interpretant can also be described as the effect of the sign on its interpreter, which itself has the form of another sign (cf. ibid., 29). Thus, there is not only one interpretant but many potential ones from which the interpreter chooses. By object, Peirce refers to the actual object a sign stands for, but only concerning certain aspects of said object, which cannot be experienced without signs. Thomas L. Short summarizes the interaction of the three as follows: “Significance […] is a triadic relation, wherein, in one respect, the sign mediates between object and interpretant and, in another respect, the interpretant mediates between sign and object” (2007, 30).

Having Peirce’s basic concept of signs in mind, now the focus should be set on one of his famous taxonomies of signs, namely the classification into icon, index and symbol, which “is based on the relation of a sign to its object” (ibid., 214). Firstly, Peirce defines an icon through a direct relation to the object: “An Icon is a sign which refers to the Object that it denotes merely by virtue of characters of its own, and which it possesses” (CP 2:247). As such, the relation between sign and object is characterized by physical resemblance, similarity and “likeness” (EP 2:13). One example for an iconic sign would be a road sign warning of animals on the streets showing the picture of an elk. We can identify the iconic resemblance of an elk, even though there is no elk to be seen on the street, as we know exactly how an elk looks like.

An index, on the other hand, has an actual physical connection to the object it refers to. This relation can be causal, established through contiguity or via attentional orientation (cf. Short 2007, 219). For Peirce an index is a sign “which refers to the Object that it denotes by virtue of being really affected by that Object” (CP 2:248). As there is an actual connection between the sign and the object, the depiction is associative. An example for a cause-effect relation would be smoke as an index for fire, or, shorter hair as an index for having been at the hair dresser. Furthermore, pointing gestures, eye movement or arrows consist of the fact that they draw the attention to a specific object and can indeed also been seen as indexes.

Finally, symbols show no relation between sign and object. Their completely arbitrary relation is defined only through conventional usage rules (Short 2007, 221). Examples are most of our words, as they have no link to the object they represent except for the conventions we have normally learned in our childhood. Peirce himself calls this the “virtue of a law, usually an association of general ideas” (CP 2:249).

To sum up this taxonomy of Peirce’s in a few words, the iconic relation between the sign and the object is produced via similarity; the indexical relation is produced via physical relation, contiguity or attentional orientation; while the symbolic relation is produced via conventions. Especially in his later works, Peirce repeatedly emphasized that icons, indexes and symbols are not mutually exclusive types of signs but rather denote different dimensions of a sign, which makes the taxonomy a quite open system (cf. Short 2007, 226-227). For this reason, signs can simultaneously have iconic, indexical and symbolic dimensions, which is the case with emoji.

Emoji as Icons, Symbols and Indexes

In many research contributions on the subject of emoji, one can find the implication of Peirce’s theory of signs. Firstly, there is no general answer to the question, whether emoji are iconic, symbolic or indexical characters. This originates on the one hand in Peirce’s notion that icon, index and symbol should be seen as a graduated scale rather than an absolute divide, and on the other hand, the same emoji can be used as either icon, symbol or index. Therefore, the categorization of an emoji is also highly dependent on the specific use of the emoji and the context surrounding it.

First, it cannot be denied that most emoji have an iconic resemblance with entities that we know of our world. This is obviously the case with most non-facial emoji, namely those “that depict animals and objects, such as food, fruits and vegetables, beverages, vehicles, sports [or] commodity items” (Siever 2020, 128). We can understand what those emoji stand for in an iconic sense, because we know how a train, a bike, or an apple looks like in real-life. Otherwise, also facial emoji, such as the ‘face with tears of joy’ emoji mentioned in the introduction, can be seen as iconic characters as they originate from actual human mimic expressions. Many of the emoji’ expressions seem familiar to us, because we know the mimic expressions in the everyday communication with humans.

Traditionally, this likeness of facial emoji with actual human emotions lead to many scholars believing in the usage of emoji as “a compensation strategy for missing mimic signs” (Albert 2015, 3) in computer-mediated communication. The question is, whether this compensation theory for missing emotional indicators is still valid (cf. ibid. 6-7; Dresner/Herring 2010, 251-253).

Despite this issue, emoji are still regularly used in an iconic way to show the attitude of the speaker in order to comment or evaluate the written text. If a friend of mine comments a message with an emoji that I can identify as very sad because of its resemblance with a known sad mimic emotion, I can anticipate that his/her reaction to my comment might also be in a sad way. Of course, this does not have to be the case, as also the context plays a huge role, but the iconic relation to the object itself could be an indication for how to read the emoji and therefore his/her attitude to the written. Besides this, maybe a more clear use of emoji as iconic signs would be if whole words of a comment were replaced by the same word in emoji, for example writing a sun-emoji instead of writing the word ‘sun’.

The sun emoji

In the last few years, scholars have argued that it might not be enough to think of emoji simply as iconic signs. Especially the symbolic use of emoji is discussed in many research papers and found to have increased in the last years (cf. Albert 2015). As symbols, emoji receive a conventional dimension. For example in the previous mentioned replacement usage of emoji, one could use a four-leaf clover () to represent the word ‘luck’. The relationship between luck and the leaf is purely symbolic and no longer has to do with its iconic relationship. There are also quite a few emoji that are purely symbolic, like the peace sign () that have no similarity with the object they represent (cf. Siever 2020, 134).

Four-leaf clover or luck
The peace sign

The conventional usage of symbolic signs is highly culture-dependent and can easily lead to massive misunderstandings (not only between different cultures). As an example Christina M. Siever mentions the eggplant emoji (), which in America is not only used as a sign for the vegetable but simultaneously as a phallic symbol (2020, 134). It could be that people not knowing the American ‘second’ meaning of the emoji, would not understand e.g. jokes or hints with it. Siever concludes that “pictorial characters that initially appear purely iconic […] can, at any given time, be employed as a symbol by particular groups” (ibid.). So, the symbolic use of emoji in all forms (even some facial emoji) is not necessarily only cultural-dependent, but can also be developed as a personal symbol between for example a group of friends or even two individuals.

The eggplant emoji

While most scholars agree on the iconic and symbolic character of emoji, there is not a lot of research concerning a possible indexical sign dimension. In my readings, most scholars did not even mention the third dimension of Peirce’s theory when talking about emoji. However, when consulting the list of emoji on several platforms, one can find some emoji that can as well be described and used in Peirce’s indexical way. This might be more the case for non-facial, abstract emoji. For example, quite a few arrow-shaped emoji can naturally guide the attention to a specific physical direction. Moreover, some hand-shaped emoji can also be used to guide the attention of the viewer, for example to emphasize another emoji or word.

Arrow-shaped emojis
Hand-shaped emoji


The findings in this article contributed to the assumption that an iconic depiction of emoji in the sense of Peirce’s taxonomy is not enough. Emoji should not be seen only as iconic media signs following their resemblance with the object they represent, but should also been seen as symbolic and indexical media signs.

While the characterization as symbols connected with their conventional usages and meanings is widespread around computer-mediated communication and is constantly increasing, the characterization of emoji as indexes might apply only for some emoji that are used to guide the attention of the viewer in a specific physical direction. Comprehensive research with empirical data concerning the depiction of emoji as icon, symbol and index still appears to be lacking. Current research often points towards to the iconic and symbolic characters of emoji, but rarely its (possible) indexical character.

In summary, the findings of this article show the value of seeing media phenomenon, such as emoji, as media signs. Peirce does not intend to offer a master-concept for media analysis with his semiotics, but, rather, theoretical ideas which can be taken into account when analyzing signs. With a semiotic perspective and approach, media phenomenon can be viewed from multiple sides and directions as one sign can lead to many interpretants. These theories then help to reveal the way in which signs communicate beliefs, ideas and attitudes to us. Furthermore, in the context of media studies, semiotic approaches can explain the way in which images are used to represent and relay information to the audience. Especially media communication practices that are so deeply embedded in our contemporary everyday life and society, like emoji, should be looked at closely.

Cara Wallenhorst studies Media Science and Language and Communication in the globalized Media Society at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn in Germany. In her studies she connects media phenomena with communication theories. In the future she wants to connect her studies with her previous work experience in tourism to empower intercultural relations. When returning from her exchange semester at the University of Helsinki she will finish her Bachelor’s degree and start with her Master’s in Media and Communication studies.


All emoji were taken from Facebook Messenger Service.

Albert, Georg (2015): “Semiotik und Syntax von Emoticons.“ In: Zeitschrift für angewandte Linguistik. Vol. 62, Is. 1. 3-22.

Dresner, Eli/ Herring, Susan C. (2010): “Functions of the Nonverbal in CMC: Emoticons and Illocutionary Force.” In: Communication Theory. Vol. 20 (2010). 249-268.

Peirce, Charles S. 1931-1935: Collected Papers. Vol. 1-6, ed. by Charles Hartshorne and Paul Weiss. Harvard University Press [CP]

Peirce, Charles S. 1992-1998: The Essential Peirce. Selected philosophical writings. Vol. 1-2, ed. by Nathan Houser, Christian J. W. Kloesel and The Peirce Edition Project. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. [EP]

Short, T. L. (2007): Peirce’s Theory of Signs. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Siever, Christina Margrit (2020): “’Iconographetic Communication’ in Digital Media: Emoji in WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook— From a Linguistic Perspective.” In: Emoticons, Kaomoji, and Emoji – The Transformation of Communication in the Digital Age. Ed. by Elena Giannoulis and Lukas R.A. Wilde. New York/London: Routledge. 127-147.