Emoji Skin Tone Modifiers: Analyzing Variation in Usage on Social Media

Alexander Robertson, Walid Magdy, Sharon Goldwater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Emoji are widely used in computer-mediated communication to express concepts and emotions. Skin tone modifiers were added in 2015 with the hope of better representing user diversity, and indeed recent work has shown that these modifiers are especially popular amongst darker-skinned users, who are a minority on Twitter. Previous work also showed that the vast majority of tone-modified emoji have a tone similar to the user’s own skin tone, suggesting that self representation is a major factor in tone use. In this paper, we first show that the basic finding (users mainly choose a tone that is similar to their own skin tone) generalizes to different sub-populations of users, including users from majority-Black regions. We then extend the analysis of tone use to quantify and examine cases where users modulate their tones: that is, for a particular emoji, they choose either to use a different tone than their usual one, or no tone at all (after having previously used one). We show that even though these uses constitute only a small proportion of emoji usage, many instances are readily classifiable as ways of representing other people. The evidence we present is therefore crucial in
working towards a broader understanding of the connection between emoji and identity expression online.We also offer explanations for why the darkest emoji skin tones are not used, by examining aspects of their design which make them less suited to self-representational usage. This highlights the need for careful consideration of both design and human diversity when creating emoji. Moreover, despite early fears in the media, we find little evidence of negative usage even when tones are used in a non-self-representational manner. In sum, our findings lend even more support to the highly positive role that emoji and skin tone modifiers play in identity and expression in computer-mediated communication.
Original languageEnglish
Article number11
Number of pages25
JournalACM Transactions on Social Computing
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 19 Apr 2020

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Applied computing
  • Law, social and behavioral sciences
  • Human-centered computing
  • Human computer interaction (HCI)
  • emoji
  • skin tone
  • social media
  • identity
  • self-representation
  • representation


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