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Do emoji have a place in serious πŸ”¬ ✍️?

They're fun, so why not? Well, maybe because they're often inscrutable.

  • A new paper looks at the πŸ‘οΈ and πŸ‘ŽοΈ of using emojis in biomedical documentation.
  • It's the return of pictographs, millennia later.
  • Do your thumbs even know how to avoid them?

Did you know that the Oxford Dictionary selected the "face with tears of joy" emoji as Word of the Year for 2015? You know, this one: πŸ˜‚. Putting aside for the moment that the symbol's official meaning is a phrase, not a word, we might also remember that its everyday meaning is actually a bit different: "laughing so hard I'm crying." Such ambiguity aside, it's indisputable that emoji β€” which have only been universally implemented since 2010 β€” have become important tools for shorthanding communication, especially for thumb-typists.

Vikas O'Reilly and colleagues at Emory University have therefore raised a question about leveraging the communicative power of emoji in a more serious context: "Is it time to start using the emoji in biomedical literature?" Their thoughts are published in The BMJ, and they're thought-provoking.😬

O'Reilly's team lays out the πŸ‘οΈ and πŸ‘ŽοΈ.

πŸ‘οΈ : Spin power, plus more fun and real-estate savings

Emoji are undeniably fun as a means of imparting intended subtext. O'Reilly furnishes a handful of examples to make his case, including:

  • "In this issue Dr. Superstar and colleagues report miniaturising themselves and repairing. oncogenic DNA mutations by hand πŸ˜±πŸ™."
  • "It is with great interest that we read the article by Dr. Doe and colleagues πŸ™„ πŸ‘€."

Emoji's side-commentary powers have found a welcome place in today's snarky culture. It could be argued that the habits of the next generation of future medical researchers and writers may simply require accepting their use in a professional context since almost everyone under 30 uses emoji all the time.

Might emoji, asks O'Reilly, make medical documents more visually meaningful and fun? They could replace dry ranking symbols, such as asterisks and such, with pictographs. For example:

  • * This is a three-level list
  • ** Here's the second level, with two asterisks
  • *** Here's the third, with three

But it could be:

  • πŸ‘ This three-level list starts with Good: thumbs-up
  • πŸ’ͺ Here's the second level, moving onto Better, with strong approval
  • πŸ† Here's the third level: The Best

πŸ‘ŽοΈΒ : On the other hand, what’s an emoji really mean?

Well, depends who you ask, as in the case of the "face with tears of joy" character. An emoji's message may be dependent on one's culture and what an image, object, or expression means in that particular place and at that particular time. O'Reilly mentions as an example the "call me hand" (πŸ€™), which "is likely to be interpreted very differently by Hawaiians, Southern Californians, and coastal Brazilians (ie, shaka brah πŸ„)." Likewise the peace sign (✌️) in America, which, turned around in the UK, is "f#%k you."

What's tempting, though, about emoji is the way in which they can often seem to convey a complex meaning in a single character. O'Reilly offers an example of how much space could be saved if:

A young child admitted by ambulance to an emergency department, in whom a rare disease is uncovered after unrevealing diagnostic studies and failed attempts at conventional treatment. She undergoes a surgical procedure, is discharged home, and makes a full recovery

Became:

πŸ‘§πŸ€’πŸš‘πŸš¨πŸ₯πŸ‘©βš•οΈπŸ€’πŸ“‹πŸ’‰πŸ‘©πŸ”¬πŸ€”πŸ’ŠπŸ€’πŸ€”β—πŸ¦“πŸ˜·βœ‚οΈπŸ›Œβ³πŸ˜ƒπŸ‘πŸ€Ύ

Obvious, right? No?

This is a problem. Medical documentation has an obvious need for an exemplary level of clarity, since misreadings could be devastating for researchers, doctors, customers, and/or patients. It seems obvious that the introduction of emoji would make biomedical writing less clear, not more.

"Ask your doctor," for example, becomes the iffy "πŸ™ your πŸ’Š."

It's nearly impossible to construct complex emoji passages that can be reliably translated. Consider this: If you search for emoji translators on the web, nearly every one you find, and there are lots of them, translates your language into emoji, not the other way around. This suggests creating an emoji story is a lot easier than interpreting one.

To illustrate a point, here are four of the web's big science/medicine headlines of 2018 in emoji form, translated by one of those online emoji translators. Easy-peasy, or no thanks? (Answers are at the bottom of the article.)

1. Can half πŸ…°οΈ πŸŽ“ πŸ“‘ πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡Έ?

2. πŸ” πŸ”Ÿ things βž‘οΈπŸ‘€ didn't πŸ’‘ about your πŸ†

3. ❓️ βž‘οΈπŸ‘€ πŸ’†β™€οΈ 😫 all the ⏱️

4. πŸ‘¨πŸ’Ό Giants πŸ‘€ To Become πŸ“πŸ˜ Players In πŸ‘¨βš•οΈ

πŸ‘ŽοΈΒ : To sum this ⬆️ 

Even if using emoji in biomedical documentation made sense, there would still be technical issues. First, there's the lack of standardization. O'Reilly notes as an example just how many versions of Santa and Mrs. Claus there are, not that they come up in much in the life sciences.

In addition, some medical publication platforms don't yet even support the emoji character set.

It seems the whole idea of using emoji for critical communication is a bit 😜 as things currently stand β€” or at least way ahead of its time β€” in biomedical documentation. This would be true, in fact of any writing that's a matter of 🧬 or πŸ’€.


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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" β€” or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (Β°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest β€” and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast β€” plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative β€” even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response β€” and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers β€” whether they watch CNN or Fox News β€” is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com β€” the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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