Understanding the meaning of emoji in mobile social payments: Exploring the use of mobile payments as hedonic versus utilitarian through skin tone modified emoji usage

Big Data and Society 7 (2) (2020)
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Abstract

Despite research establishing emojis as sites of critical racial discourse, there is a paucity of literature examining their importance in the increasingly popular context of mobile payments. This is particularly important as new forms of social payment platforms such as Venmo bridge the seamlessness of mobile payments with the vibrant communicative practices of social networks. As such, they provide a unique medium to examine how emojis are used within the context of digital consumption, and by extension, self-representation. This study analyzes approximately 325 million public transactions on the U.S. payment platform Venmo to understand whether emoji usage in mobile payments is more hedonic or utilitarian. We then explore how race is represented across emoji usage on Venmo via tone-modified emojis, a subset of emojis whereby users can choose a skin tone. We found that while emojis in general are used for more hedonic purposes than utilitarian ones, darker tone-modified emojis indicate a proportionately higher use in hedonic consumption as compared to lighter tone-modified emojis, and also show a higher representation of utilitarian categories in transactions. Thematic analysis revealed that subsets with darker tone-modified emojis have a greater lexical variety and engage in more playful uses of emoji in mobile payments.

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Xiao Wei
University of Southern California

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