Perceptual resemblance and the communication of emotion in digital contexts: A case of emoji and reaction GIFs

Ryoko Sasamoto


Online communication has created new ways to express emotions, including emoji and reaction GIFs. Emoji are often discussed as signs for meaning-making, adding emotional tone to communication. Reaction GIFs express emotions and attitudes in a playful manner. This study shows that through the lens of cognitive pragmatics, these phenomena are not distinct. Both are cases of non-verbal communication pointing to the communicator’s emotional state. Drawing on relevance-theoretic notions of the showing-meaning continuum and perceptual resemblance, along with relevance-theoretic analyses of metaphor and irony, I argue that emoji and reaction GIFs provide clues to ostension and communicate emotions by virtue of perceptual resemblance between what they represent and the communicator’s emotional state. I will also argue that both emoji and GIFs can involve echoic use of language, enabling the communicator to convey their attitude.

Publication history
Table of contents

The emergence and rapid spread of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in the last few decades has enabled new ways of expressing emotions, including the use of traditional keyboard-based symbols such as emoticons (e.g. :D for a smile), the use of asterisks (e.g. *joy*), acronyms (e.g. LOL), and typographical emphasis, such as the use of uppercase and bold. Others ways of expressing emotions include a visual presentation through digital pictograms or graphic images, such as emoji, stickers or GIFs. In this study, I will focus on emoji and reaction GIFs.

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