Skin-tone modified emoji and first-person indexicality

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Beginning in 2015, people have been able to transform many emoji–typically 18 byte, 12 × 12-pixel images inserted into digital text–with “skin-tone modifiers.” Racialized aspects of self-presentation have a long history of being marked in various ways in semiotic practice. However, this article argues that, parallel to other systems of social indexicals like honorifics and gendered speech, skin-tone modified emoji represent a robust example of the complex ways language and culture are bound together dialectically. Based on the views of 451 anglophone American respondents to a survey, I demonstrate that the selection of emoji–even yellow emoji–can appear as a social and political choice for certain speech communities. For these individuals, the addition of skin-tone modifiers in the emoji set may remove the possibility of remaining outside this system of author identification when using signs that have the potential to bear such modifiers.




Halverson, C. M. E. (2021). Skin-tone modified emoji and first-person indexicality. Social Semiotics.

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