Do You Smile with Your Nose? Stylistic Variation in Twitter Emoticons

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On the surface, emoticons seem to convey emotional stances, so we expect smiles and frowns to be used differently from one another. But there are other systematic patterns of variation in emoticons that are not easily described by terms like “friendly” or “sad”. This paper analyzes the 28 most frequent emoticons in use in American English tweets. People vary in their use of eyes, mouth shape, face direction, and whether or not they represent a nose in the face. And we see these in groups other than smiles—in variants of frowns and winks, for example. This paper focuses on nose and non-nose users, demonstrating that the variants correspond to different types of users, tweeting with different vocabularies. Emoticons are not simply representations of internal emotional states. They are more interactive in nature, positioning authors and audiences around propositions. The meaning of a given emoticon goes beyond its affective stance. For example, emoticons have variants that have greater or lesser affinities to standard language. Researchers who are interested in style, stance, affect, computer mediated communication, variation, context, and sentiment analysis will find ample grist for their mills.

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