3D Rendering set of emojis isolated on white.

“Wait, does that mean they’re crying or laughing?” “Why did he send me an alligator?” “What does the eggplant mean?”

I’m referring to emojis, of course. You love to hate them, but you know you use them too.

We mostly think of emojis as harmless fun or a shortcut for all that dang typing on a smartphone screen. But it’s also important to remember that an emoji’s meaning is in the eye of the receiver. And while the Unicode Consortium maintains the master list of emojis and their meanings, these emojis may look different on an Apple iPhone compared to a Samsung Galaxy. These misinterpretations are starting to cause confusion in courtrooms across the U.S.

No One Knows What They Are Looking At

According to Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman, who tracks these things, the number of cases across the United States that rely on emojis as evidence is steadily increasing.

The most common cases that see emoji evidence popping up are criminal defense and employment law cases. Did someone send the gun emoji to a person to signify they were going to do them harm? What if they also included a smiley face? Did a boss have ulterior motives when they sent a heart emoji to an employee?

There are currently no guidelines for courts to handle emojis as evidence, and some judges who are not as tech-savvy as millennials and Gen Zers aren’t quite sure about what to do. Some judges describe the emoji to jurors without showing them. Some actually display the emoji to jurors. And some omit the emoji from evidence

For now, courtroom results may largely depend on the judge and lawyers involved.

Is This Really Something We Need to Worry About?

Unfortunately, the answer seems to be yes. As we Americans (and not just teens) are relying less and less on the written and spoken word and more and more on a series of pictogram-like puzzles for our communication, emojis are sure to pop up in more and more court cases.

So the next time you’re thinking about sending an emoji to a coworker – or anyone other than family or close friends – maybe think about giving actual words a shot instead.

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