The first creation of the Emoji Mashup Bot that I came across was called “worried + slight-smile.” It was a hybrid emoji that bore the gentle parenthesis mouth and large oval eyes of the slightly smiling face combined with the eyebrows from the worried face—raised in the middle and tilted diagonally downward, implying lines across a forehead. For a little yellow avatar, it was shockingly evocative, resembling someone who is trying to put on a brave face but who cannot disguise her true feelings. I felt sympathy for this emoji! It reminded me of the way that my mother, when I was in high school, would hover in the doorframe, watching me leave the house. “You don’t want me to drive you?” she would say, trying to sound casual.
The Emoji Mashup Bot was programmed by an eighteen-year-old university student named Louan Bengmah, who lives in Nantes, France. Once an hour, it randomly selects two or three emojis, pulls elements from them to produce a new one, and then tweets out the result along with the names of the emojis that were used to make the mashup: “tired + woozy,” “thinking + pleading,” or “relieved + pensive.” Since July, when the account was created, more than two hundred and forty-nine thousand people have followed it. New creations often garner hundreds, sometimes thousands, of retweets and comments, many of which are people trying to identify the very particular experience or sensation that could give rise to the expression. Some of the most popular emojis have been converted into a sticker pack for iMessage, WhatsApp, and other chatting platforms.
Emojis are most effective as emotional shorthand, helping to signal tone in digital communications, where tone is so easily misread. As emojis have proliferated, the attitudes that they portray have become more precise. To express happiness, you can choose from faces that show joy, excitement, laughter, contentment, and relief. For sadness, there’s disappointment, anguish, frustration, grief. But, unlike the official emojis, which convey ever more detailed gradations of emotion, the Emoji Mashup Bot’s hybrid expressions capture thornier feelings—ones that don’t have names. Their distinctiveness is a product of their contradictions, their layers.
Sometimes, the flicker of emotion in a mashed-up emoji can be so subtle that, as with the “worried + slight-smile” face, the image captures not a mood but a micro-expression, one that betrays a person to those who know them best. “I’m not worried,” my mom would say, from the doorway. “This is just my face!” The “raised-eyebrow + grinning-sweat” emoji, for instance, was described by Twitter users as “Heh, that was a close one!” and “When you tell a joke that fell flat.” Other times, the self-contradictions in a mashed-up emoji seem to imply a narrative. One of the account’s most popular tweets is an emoji blowing on a party horn, in a cloud of confetti, with tears streaming down its face and pooling on the floor—“partying + in-tears.” Is this the sight of someone hitting rock bottom after a bender? Or perhaps an honest depiction of the bittersweetness of celebrating a birthday? Meanwhile, the “surprised + smiling” emoji, which has raised eyebrows, two bright-pink circles of blush, and an “O”-shaped mouth, was summarized as “When your crush actually likes you back.” But “angry + smiling-three-hearts,” with its knitted brows and cunning grin, surrounded by floating red hearts, seems to show the crueller side of love—how it can bleed into possessiveness or spite.
Bengmah told Time that he created the Emoji Mashup Bot with the intention of improving his coding skills—to see if his program could accurately break down existing emojis into their parts and then reassemble them—not with any psychological ambitions in mind. So it’s an unexpected delight to see the indifferent intelligence of an algorithm capture the nuances of human emotion. The Emoji Mashup Bot has stumbled upon our ambivalence, the way that we can want and not want something at once, or feel love that is tinged with anger and resentment. It’s impressive, poignant, and silly; it’s enough to make you feel heart eyes plus head exploding.