Discussion Assignment: Emoji and Audience Awareness

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emoji on iPod touch by choo chin nian, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 licenseWhat is the most important thing for the success of online discussions? Students need something engaging to talk about. I have spent the last month talking about my Goal to Improve Online Discussions. I have talked about providing more preparation, increasing low-stakes discussions, and getting more involved in the discussions myself. None of those strategies will work, however, if I don’t have strong discussion prompts and assignments. So, this week, I’m going to think through an assignment.


Purpose of the Assignment
The goal for this discussion is to talk about audience analysis and the impact of the choices writers make when they compose messages. I am designing the activity for students in technical and business writing courses, but it can easily be adapted for any course, which I will address at the end of this post.


Underlying Theory for the Approach
Students are language experts who have great skills at communicating. CCCC’s resolution on Students’ Right to Their Own Language (1974, reaffirmed in 2003) outlines the expertise that students bring to the classroom, including the details on the dialects and language variation that make their communication unique. In this activity, students explain their understanding and use of language and then work to align that understanding with communication in new settings and uses.


Specifically, smartphone-toting students love emoji, sometimes sending entire messages consisting of the images. They are experts in this visual language. In this activity, students talk about how they use emoji and then consider how the visual language works in other settings.


Background Readings for Students
Prior to the discussion, students will read about audience analysis, purpose, and emoji. For technical and business writing students, the chapter in the course textbook on audience and purpose is the obvious choice. Online resources are also available, such as the Purdue OWL Audience Analysis Overview.


Additionally, students read some resources about the use of emoji in professional settings, such as the following:


Discussion Prompts
For this activity, students will begin with a very specific use of emoji in the workplace. After this discussion, they will react to one another’s opinions and then create some guidelines for using (or not using) emoji in professional communication. Students will begin with this prompt:


Share an audience analysis of an emoji. Choose an emoji that no one else in your group has written about, and explain what the emoji means and how it is used. Consider the ideas about emoji in the workplace from this week’s readings as you make your selection. If you have trouble, think about how you use the emoji and how someone older might use it. Have some fun with this, but keep the explanations polite.


  • Go to the Slack channel for your group.
  • Choose an emoji that shows up in Slack (See emoji help in Slack).
  • Write a post that includes the emoji and explains how different audiences might interpret it. Provide some examples.
  • Discuss whether you would use the emoji in the workplace, explaining what audiences and situations it would be appropriate for as well as when it would be inappropriate.
  • Once you post your analysis, read through the posts by others in your group and add responses to at least three. You can write replies and/or use emoji


As I am by no means an emoji expert, I should easily be able to enter the discussion (in line with my goal to get more involved myself) by asking for clarification on the explanations that I don’t understand. To prepare for my interaction in the conversation, I have brainstormed some potential questions and responses that I can use. Here are some examples, which use “[insert emoji]” to indicate where I would add the emoji that the student was discussing:


  • I wouldn’t have guessed [insert emoji] had that definition. How do you think that meaning evolved?
  • Are there any nuances to using [insert emoji]? Is it always okay [or wrong]?
  • Would there be circumstances when you would use [insert emoji] differently?
  • What would you do if you used [insert emoji] in the wrong context or the reader didn’t understand?
  • It looks as if [insert emoji] and [insert another emoji] mean the same thing. What’s the difference?


I would also have some general questions ready to share, such as these:


  • How often do you string together emoji to express an idea? Are there any rules to using more than one? When are they used?
  • What can you do to make sure that everyone on your team understands the emoji you want to use in a message?
  • How does connotation work into what an emoji means?
  • What ethical considerations must you consider before using emoji in your communication?
  • How do global and intercultural issues influence decisions about using emoji?


Once the first round of discussion is over, I’ll ask students to collaborate on group guidelines for emoji use. At this point, the discussion will become turn to analysis of the conversation, synthesis of the ideas, and logistical considerations of the writing task.


Create guidelines for the use of emoji in professional discussions. As a group, write a single document that outlines the following information:

  • when to use emoji (and when not to)
  • what emoji to use
  • what emoji not to use and why
  • how emoji work in special contexts, such as with clients and customers or with international audiences
  • what to do if emoji use goes wrong
  • any additional tips or advice

The document that your group composes will guide your use of emoji in this course, so consider the students in this course as your audience for the guidelines. For examples of what your document can look like, see these resources from “the government’s internal design agency, 18F, about how they use emoji in Slack, including one on how they use emoji to document shared knowledge” (From the Profhacker post, Getting More Done with Emoji).


As students work on their documents in groups, I will take the role of coach in the writing groups, by providing encouragement, responding to questions, and suggesting ways to improve the document. This part of the discussion activity is parallel to the conversations what would happen in the classroom as students collaborate on a document. The discussion activities will conclude when students share their documents with the other groups in the course.


Customizing the Activity for Other Courses
To use this activity for other courses, just change the focus on business and technical writing to an area appropriate for your course. The simplest solution is to change the references to workplace writing to academic writing, asking students to think specifically about the use of emoji in the course throughout the discussion. Other options will depend upon the course. For instance, in a course on managing social media, students can focus the discussion on emoji that are appropriate for public social status updates.

Assessment and Final Thoughts
As students work in these discussions, I will rely primarily on public comments that praise good ideas. These remarks should become models for others in the course. To help students who need to work on their ideas more, I will use the same kinds of comments that I would in face-to-face discussions, asking questions such as “Can you add some examples here?” and adding requests such as “Tell me more about this idea.” If I notice any students who are struggling or need extra help, I will send private messages.


I hope that by building on a topic students already know about, this activity will give them much to talk about. Furthermore, the activity allows everyone to build some a shared understanding of what is appropriate in our online discussions. If I’m lucky, I hope I will learn a bit more about emoji myself from the discussion. I would love to hear what you think about this topic. Please share your comments or advice below. I’d love to hear from you.


Credit: emoji on iPod touch by choo chin nian, on Flickr, used under a CC-BY-SA 2.0 license

About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.