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The final word: Is the thumbs-up emoji dead?


So you may have heard the thumbs-up emoji is dead, as in not cool - don't do it. But hold up. We may be victims of clickbait intended to stir up dissension between young and old, left and right, after someone dug up an old Reddit thread and presented it as gospel last week. Elder millennial Jonas Downey read one of the articles and decided to see if his 13-year-old daughter's interpretation of certain emojis differed from his.

JONAS DOWNEY: We sort of take it for granted thumbs-up means thumbs-up. And for me, like, the grimacing face just means, like, urgh, something bad is happening. It's very, like, straight, the way that I interpret it. And my daughter does not. There's, like - there's an additional layer of kind of, like, sarcasm.

RASCOE: His daughter hates the thumbs-up, and she thinks the crying laughing emoji is weak.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: I don't know. It doesn't feel as expressive as other things you can use. Like, the skull face and the actually, like, sobbing emoji I feel just have more personality than just, like, haha.

SUSAN HERRING: So it's been bleached of its impact. So now they need something that has a stronger impact, that's more outrageous or more over-the-top. So, yeah, laughing to death, right? That's a great example.

RASCOE: That's Susan Herring. She's a linguistics professor at Indiana University who specializes in digital communication.

HERRING: I think the battle here is really about the connotations of the emoji, the pragmatic meanings. And those are fluid.

RASCOE: Emojis are a part of modern language, and they can mean many things to many people all at once.

HERRING: It's characteristic of what young people do with language. They're always generating new expressions and new words and new ways of speaking to distinguish themselves in opposition to other groups that are perceived as being out of it or square, as we used to say back in the day.

RASCOE: Now, a lot of young people online say they aren't that bothered by the thumbs-up emoji. They've honestly got bigger concerns. But the conversations sparked by those clickbait articles - like how people understand each other - were real. I mean, we spent some quality time here at WEEKEND EDITION working through this. Does my thumbs-up bother you? What about the check mark? Why can't people just use their words? Do you think I'm being passive-aggressive when I just say OK? Not when you say OK, but when you say k, that's aggressive. It's not even passive. It was a can of worms for a hot minute. So bottom line, is the thumbs-up emoji really dead? Professor Herring says...

HERRING: That's a question for future linguists.

RASCOE: For now at least, judging by our Slack messages today, we're keeping it alive - sincerely, though sometimes sarcastically, which is just the way we like it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe
Ayesha Rascoe is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and the Saturday episodes of Up First. As host of the morning news magazine, she interviews news makers, entertainers, politicians and more about the stories that everyone is talking about or that everyone should be talking about.