What Words Can’t Say: Emoji and other non-verbal elements of technologically-mediated communication

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Purpose: This paper aims to survey the moral psychology of emoji, time-restricted messaging and other non-verbal elements of nominally textual computer-mediated communication (CMC). These features are increasingly common in interpersonal communication. Effects on both individual well-being and quality of intimate relationships are assessed. Results of this assessment are used to support ethical conclusions about these elements of digital communication. Design/methodology/approach: Assessment of these non-verbal elements of CMC is framed in light of relevant literature from a variety of fields, including neuroscience, behavioral economics and social psychology. The resulting ethical analysis is informed by both Aristotelian and Buddhist virtue ethics. Findings: This paper finds that emoji and other nonverbal elements of CMC have positive potential for individual well-being and interpersonal communication. They can be used to focus and direct attention, express and acknowledge difficult emotions and increase altruistic tendencies. Research limitations/implications: This paper is conceptual, extrapolating from existing literature to investigate possibilities rather than reporting on novel experiments. It is not intended to substitute for empirical research on use patterns and their effects. But by identifying positive potential, it can help both users and designers to support individual and relational well-being. Practical implications: The positive effects identified here can be incorporated into both design and use strategies for CMC. Social implications: Situating ethical analysis of these trending technologies within literature from the social sciences on the effects of stylized faces, disappearing messages and directed attention can help us both understand their appeal to users and best practices for using them to enrich our social lives. Originality/value: The paper uses empirically informed moral psychology to understand a deceptively trivial-looking phenomenon with wide-ranging impacts on human psychology and relationships.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2-15
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


  • Communication technologies
  • Computer-mediated communication
  • Moral psychology
  • Socio-technical systems
  • Users


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