The Surprising Pleasures of Instagram’s Emoji Recommendation Bug

A new feature (or bug) briefly sparked unexpected joy among the application’s users

Emoji stickers
A number of emoji, in sticker form
Wicker Paradise

Emoji are everywhere. The last twelve months have brought with them an acclaimed documentary about their origin and evolution, as well as ongoing controversies around the depictions and usage of certain emoji. For some, they’re an essential way to communicate; for others, they’re a nice way to accentuate certain points made in a conversation. They can be sincere or sarcastic, exaggerated or understated.

Emoji and absurdist humor, however, have been relatively separate — until recently, that is. 

Last weekend, an update to Instagram began offering users something they hadn’t seen before: recommendations of different emoji that they should use. For writer Madison Malone Kircher, that turned out to be the knotted scarf emoji, which Instagram recommended regardless of a post’s contents. 

Kircher wrote that “when it suddenly started recommending I use an emoji I’d never used and, frankly, never seen before, I felt almost lost. Conditioned to believe an algorithm knows me better — me here being my emoji preferences — than I know myself.”

In an article explaining the phenomenon, Kircher notes that she wasn’t the only person experiencing this concentrated dose of technological randomness, and that several of her colleagues were getting equally bizarre suggestions, including a memorable appearance by the potato emoji.

Sadly, this was not the result of an absurdist prank by some programmer on Instagram’s staff, or perhaps an attempt to evoke the surreal works created by the literary society known as OULIPO. Instead, it was a bug, and one that was subsequently resolved within a few days: Kircher no longer gets suggestions that she use the scarf emoji.

Her conclusion, however, strikes at a telling way in which technology and automated suggestions fill our lives. She wrote about the realization “that I’d been ignoring what is, at its core, kind of the point of emoji: to have a wide range or ways to say what’s on your mind without having to type it out or formulate a sentence.” She also compares the Instagram bug with Gmail’s text suggestion feature, and finds that the latter comes off as wanting.

The question of how emoji are shaping our communications is an ongoing one, and one that’s sure to be debated for years to come. But Kircher’s article points to something else that’s crucially important: the joy of discovering a new way of expressing oneself, a feeling that can come from the most unexpected of places.

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