In June 2015, the Unicode Consortium blessed us with a handful of new emoji including a burrito 🌯 and a cheese wedge 🧀. Perhaps the most think-piecey new addition to Unicode 8.0 was the inclusion of various skin-tone options for the hand-gesture and people emoji, which sparked many interesting conversations about who opts to use the various skin tones and why. Andrew McGill wrote a fascinating piece in The Atlantic earlier this year that explores the question of why white people don't use the white emoji.
With all this going on, it's easy to see why I, and many people, overlooked the upside-down smiley face emoji at the time. I only realized 🙃 existed months after it became a part of my emoji options when a younger coworker IMed me what I interpreted to be the emoji equivalent of the expression "Oh, well." I googled 🙃 and I was hooked.
A Smug Shrug or An Awkward Sadness
To some people, 🙃 can carry a very specific meaning. A Mic article hailed 🙃 as the new smug shrug ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, calling it the perfect new emoji to help express "awkward sadness." I was surprised to see this, because in all of the examples of the upside-down smiley I had seen so far, it was used as a tone marker for either sarcasm or silliness. However, a quick search of Twitter showed me a plethora of the "awkward sadness" usage.
An Emotional Catch-all
Of course, this is only one of the many uses of the upside-down smiley. It can be placed alongside words to mark tone, from sarcasm to silliness to irony to frustration, or it can stand alone to convey a feeling or facial expression.
There are some great examples of 🙃 's emotional range in this Buzzfeed article. I especially like this text conversation between a mom and her grown child.
Mom: Hi honey, did you have a good night? I hope you didn't drink too much
This example really gets at the silliness potential of the upside-down smiley. I like that this one emoji can swing from existential dread to goofiness depending on the context. This is an emoji that doesn't take itself too seriously, even in its heaviest of senses.
An Inherent Ambivalence
I recently described the upside-down smiley face as "like the winky face emoji, but not flirty." Or maybe it's more like when a performer breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience. It's also been likened to the this is fine dog.
While I like the this is fine comparison, I think that it only covers a small piece of the meaning. To me, this is fine evokes more extreme emotions than the upside-down smiley. There's fire and panic and numbness. This is fine has a specificity that can't be applied willy-nilly. 🙃 on the other hand seems to be relevant in a lot more contexts.
There's an inherent ambivalence to the upside-down smiley, which is maybe why it has become so useful in the past year. Buzzfeed writer Mat Whitehead sums it up: "Look at how perfect it is. Why is it upside-down? Is it mad at me?? Is it upset??? Is it glad to be here??????? We have so many questions." The upside-down smiley can effortlessly oscillate between these seemly disparate emotions in one compact symbol.
🙃 somehow reflects our own feelings back at us. This emoji, in all its vagueness, means what we want it to mean. The upside-down smiley has proven itself to be an extremely productive part of our written communication in the last year, and I expect to be seeing a lot more of it in the future.