The Rhetorical Power of Emojis

Sophie Morgan

Presented at the 2019 OutLines Undergraduate Symposium


📝 the Rhetorical🔋of Emojis 🔛 〰️ – An Analysis of the Rhetorical Power of Emojis Online



A wise woman once said, “My persuasion can build a nation / Endless power / Our love can devour / You’ll do anything for me / Who run the world? Girls” (Beyoncé 2011). I’m sure most of us here are at least somewhat familiar with Beyoncé’s 2011 hit single “Run the World (Girls).” I know that her Beyhive, Beyoncé’s fandom, certainly is. Although we see the idea of a beehive present in Bey’s community, when you think about it, all communities of all sizes are their own little beehives. Look at us all here today: we are all like little worker bees toiling away at our craft, buzzing around in the Writing Department to create and share knowledge, and the rewards, I would argue, are sweeter than honey. This kind of community structure can be seen everywhere – among our friends and family, here at the University, and across online spaces.

But what can we learn from Bey in particular? How has she used persuasion to build her nation? I think we need to look no further than one little thing: 🐝. This is an emoji. The word emoji means “picture words” in Japanese, and they have become a fairly common, standard way of communicating online. Emojis can pretty much include anything from “grinning face” (😀), “cat face with tears of joy” (😹), or, if you’re feeling a little cheeky, “peach” (🍑).

Now let’s get into what an emoji does. First, emojis can be used to create a “visual metaphor” or a mental picture of a concept. They can also change the tone of a message and express emotions that are typically difficult to share via text-based communication (Ge & Gretzel 4).

Let’s now connect this to a theory to get the most that we can out of the emoji. I have found that theorist Kenneth Burke’s Qualitative Progressive Form is a great tool to use when looking at how emojis work in online groups. His theories can get real abstract real fast, so let’s focus on the key points. The most important thing to know is that Qualitative Progressions are based on emotional connections. So, when an audience sees a specific image, they’re introduced to a particular frame of mind that is often associated with that image.

Because the Qualitative Progressive Form is linked to emotions based on common experiences, we can connect this theory to identification and the enthymeme (Winstanley). I admit that “enthymeme” is a tricky word to say and spell (thank you, spell check!), but it’s just a fancy term for an idea that can be followed without being explicitly stated. This happens because the audience intuitively understands the idea as a result of it being so common. Just like images, emojis carry emotional associations as “visual metaphors.” These associations can go beyond visual cues and include prosodic indicators, like tone, and gestural rhetoric, such as body language, that would otherwise be absent in written communication. Because of the various levels of meanings embedded in each emoji that are widely understood in online groups, users can understand and identify with its connotations as if it were a complete written thought.

I would now like to present to you a dialogue between three speakers: Artem, Corporis, and Civitas. Using Burke’s Qualitative Progressive Form as their base, they explore how the bee emoji (🐝) in Beyoncé’s Beyhive acts a visual metaphor and logo and how the combination of the frog and tea emojis (🐸☕️) acts as an adverbial modifier. I encourage you to remember that although an emoji seems to be just a little picture, it is a tremendous tool that can unite communities like the wonderful writing community that is before me today. Ok, cue the curtain!


Artem, Corporis, and Civitas are sitting together on the TTC subway. The subway, which had been moving at a brisk pace between stations, had come to an abrupt halt in the dark tunnel. The three individuals exchange a glance during this familiar situation.

Artem: It looks like the subway’s stopped in the middle of the tunnel again 🙃. Now let’s get back to our discussion about emojis.

Corporis: Emojis? You mean those little pictures online? 🤨

Artem: Well, I wouldn’t call them pictures exactly because they translate to “picture words,” meaning that they’re a bit more complex.

Corporis: A picture’s just a picture isn’t it? They help make messages look prettier.

Artem: Have you ever thought about an emoji as a visual metaphor? (nudges Civitas) Hey, what’s so interesting? 🤔

Civitas: Oh, sorry about that. I was just looking through an old screenshot on Bey’s Instagram page. She and Blue Ivy are so cute! 😍🥰 

Artem: Perfect – Beyoncé! Let’s use her fanbase’s emoji: the bee (🐝). They often use it to show support, but more often to show anger toward someone who offended their Queen.

Civitas: Oh yeah, I remember that time Kid Rock said he was “flabbergasted by the attention [Beyoncé] receives” (Helles). (shows Artem and Corporis phone) He also made negative comments about her physical appearance. How rude! 😡 But almost immediately, Kid Rock’s Instagram page was literally swarmed with bee emojis and angry fans. 😂


Corporis: Swarmed with bee emojis? What does that even mean?

Artem: Beyoncé’s fans were expressing anger and retaliation. Because they’re online, the bee emoji needs to be there to communicate their threatening and angry body language and tone. If they only said, “This is our page now,” without any emoji, the message and its intentions would be lost.

Civitas: I’m surprised Beyoncé doesn’t have more Beyhive merch. The bee is basically like a logo for her!

Artem: Funny you say that, Civ. There have been many articles, such one written by Neil Cohn and his associates, that state that both logos and emojis are “single unit pictograms with fairly entrenched lexicalized associations” (4).

Civitas: Uh, what does that even mean?

Artem: Sorry, sometimes academics just can’t help it. “Lexicalized associations” just means “meaning.” Yeah, that’s it . . . we’re thinking the same thing, aren’t we?

Civitas: Yup.

Corporis: This whole idea about the logo sounds like tremendous marketing potential to me. 😈 But that still doesn’t explain why her fans get so upset and use emojis to express their emotions.

Artem: Think about it this way: you know how a customer has specific emotional associations with a logo, right? Same kinda thing here. The bee emoji itself stands in for the Beyhive and represents the idea that the Queen is being attacked by another online user and needs protection.

Civitas: Not to mention that we, or the Beyhive 😉, decided on that meaning, or “semanticized it” (Dürscheid and Margaret, 8) ourselves.

Corporis: So, you’re saying that this is a commonly recognized feature of the Beyhive?

Civitas: Yep! As an official member of the Beyhive, I can tell you that the bee emoji represents the Beyhive’s identity, a sort of battle cry, and an alarm bell for support from others within the fanbase, who are likely to respond with the same emoji.

Artem: Exactly! By acting as a visual metaphor for “We need help! We are defending our Queen!,” the bee emoji sustains a community because people attach it to their own identity. People start to feel that it’s their duty to respond with the bee once they hear the “alarm bell.” It’s basically a form of self-identification triggered by the emotions present in the bee emoji. All this has made the Beyhive one of the most feared online fandoms in history. And not to get too technical here –

Civitas: Oh boy, here it comes. 🙄

Artem: Oh please, I’m just going to get a bit technical! This whole emoji theory lines up very nicely with Kenneth Burke’s Qualitative Progressive Form. Qualitative Progressions are based on associative or emotional connections. Here, the bee emoji activates a specific emotional association in the Beyhive that initiates action.

Corporis: Yeah, but that’s just one online group. You can’t tell me that other celebrities, like Kim Kardashian, know what they’re doing with emojis.

Civitas: Oh, I bet she knows exactly what she’s doing! Not too long ago, she snapped back at Tyson Beckford, an American model and actor. He left rude comments on her Instagram page posted on “The Shade Room,” saying that “She is not real, doctor fucked up on her right hip,” followed by a “nauseated face” emoji (🤢). Then he said, “Sorry, don’t care for it!”

Artem: Oh boy, I can’t imagine that went well for Beckford. 😬

Civitas: Nope, not at all! Let me show you the screenshot. (pulls up image on phone)  

Kardashian then promptly replied to his comment stating, “Sis we all know why you don’t care for it,” followed by a “tea” (☕️), “frog” (🐸), and “nail polish” emoji (💅).

Kim Kardashian Tweet.png

Corporis: I’m sorry… a tea and a frog emoji? What on earth does that mean? 🤔

Civitas: The combination of the tea and frog emojis (🐸☕️ or ☕️🐸) is commonly used in online drama communities or by people who benefit from drama online. It basically insinuates that the person has inside information or gossip about someone else.

Corporis: So how is this related to Beckford not caring for Kardashian’s hips? 🧐

Civitas: Here she is suggesting that Beckford is homosexual, which is why he doesn’t care for her hips. The nail polish emoji adds a bit of arrogance to her claim. It’s quite nasty isn’t it? 😬

Artem: Yeah, it definitely isn’t the nicest thing to do, and she could be severely misusing these emojis if she truly does not have any evidence to support this claim.

Civitas: It’s interesting that here the emojis are placed at the end of the text.

Artem: So, then I would say that those emojis are being used to modify the preceding text. The function of modification is explained by that article by Cohn I mentioned earlier that states that “sentence-final images may trigger a reanalysis of the sentence relative to that image” by users who seek “to form connections between the emoji or logo with the prior meaning in the sentence, rather than integrating it into the grammatical context” (6). Essentially, these emojis supply non-verbal cues and prosodic indicators that would otherwise fly under the radar.

Civitas: Oh, that makes sense! These emojis really convey a tone of mischief and the idea of knowing something that no one else does. Even I use these emojis from time to time when I’m feeling a bit mischievous. 😉 You want to know what’s really scary about this emoji combination? 😏

Corporis: No. 😣

Civitas: Because this emoji combination is based on the foundation of controversy, people will always want to know more about the initial message. This natural reaction to want to know more about a secret can prompt all sorts of responses. Someone can respond with the same emojis, which can lead to a gossip sesh. Others can approve or disapprove. Not to mention that are a bunch of other groups, such as supporters, researchers, bystanders, and meme-creators.

Artem: It’s amazing to see how communities will quite literally begin to construct themselves because of two little emojis. At the end of the day, I see this emoji working as an adverbial modifier that expresses the body language and emotion present during a gossip session. But I do need to bring Burke back for this one too – here, people are compelled to act based on the shared emotional cue for gossip in online groups. These emojis are essentially a metaphor for scandal.

Corporis: I’m now realizing that I have probably severely misunderstood numerous online conversations… 😅🙈

Artem: Don’t take this too seriously, Corp. “Emoji-speak” is still a developing language, and, although it’s widely understood in some online communities, it’s far from being universal. Its powers to exclude and include certain individuals and communities is also a whole other avenue of exploration. Don’t fret – this is just the beginning!

Civitas: And honestly, don’t even worry about it! It happens to all of us. If you’re ever in doubt, you can look up an emoji online using the Emoji Dictionary.

Corporis: There’s an Emoji Dictionary!? 😱

Civitas: Oh yeah, you can find basically anything online!

Corporis: Oh, it finally looks like the subway is moving again! We should be off in a few minutes. So much for being the Best Public Transit Agency in North America. ☕️🐸

The three characters gather their belongings and head toward the subway exit.

Works Cited

Amatulli, Jenna. “Kim Kardashian Calls Out Tyson Beckford On Instagram After He Body-

Shames Her.” HuffPost, 7 July. 2018, Accessed 27 November 2018.

Beyhive comments on Kid Rock’s Instagram page. Digital Image. MissCM. 27 Feb 2015,

Beyoncé. “Run the World (Girls).” 4, Sony Music Entertainment, 2011. Spotify,

Cohn, Neil, et al. “Are emoji a poor substitute for words? Sentence processing with emoji

substitutions.” Tilburg University, Tilburg Center for Cognition and Communication. Google Scholar. Accessed 21 November 2018.

Dürscheid, Christa, and Siever, Christina Margaret. “Beyond the Alphabet – Communication

with Emojis.” March 29, 2017, ResearchGate. Accessed 21 November 2018.

Ge, Jing, and Gretzel, Ulrike. “Emoji rhetoric: a social media influencer perspective.” Journal of

Marketing Management, 2018. ProQuest, doi: 10.1080/0267257X.2018.1483960. Accessed 18 November 2018.

Heller, Corinne. “Kid Rock Throws Shade at Beyoncé and the Beyhive Stings Back!” ENews, 28

Feb. 2015, Accessed 27 November 2018.

Kim Kardashian replies to Tyson Beckford on Instagram. Digital Image. HuffPost. 7 July 2015,

Winstanley, Sharon. “Contemporary Rhetoric, the 20th Century” Presentation 8, 8 November

2018, York University. Lecture.

About the Writer

Sophie Morgan is a second-year Professional Writing and French Studies
double major. Aside from baking and being a full-time cat-sitter, she is an
avid writer and has held positions as a blogger and a Communications
Assistant. Sophie also has strong interests in modern languages, translation,
and rhetoric.

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