Poop Emojis: Law and Confusion

As the Who 💩 in the Park guy, I have opinions on the “smiling poop” emoji.

Any emoji aficionado would know that there are a lot of ways to interpret 💩 and that it’s frequently seen in text messages. When it was first added to Unicode 6.0 in 2010 as U+1F4A9 (a.k.a. :poop:), the image was much less friendly, containing just a pile of poop with flies buzzing around it. People didn’t like it very much in that form, but after it lost the flies and gained a smiling face, it became what Samantha Selinger-Morris of ABC News called “one of the most popular emojis in existence.”

The poop emoji takes different forms on different platforms, and it’s always changing appearance.

Personally, I like Apple’s take on it. The flat solid color of Google’s version doesn’t quite communicate what it is, and the heavy shadows on Facebook’s are just too much. But I digress.

When I came across an article on The Verge providing the “legal history” of the poop emoji, it caught my attention. The article explores the appearance of poop emojis in court cases, starting with Twitter v. Elon Musk. Despite the serious topic, it includes some wonderful quotes:

The poop emoji in Emerson v. Dart is only the tip of a brown iceberg.

—Sarah Jeong

The extension of an alphabet problem

As a writer, I’ve experienced firsthand the frustration of moving documents to different electronic storage platforms and having the text change. Diacritical marks (accents on letters) change or disappear when moved from program to program. I had an employee whose last name is Muñoz. Copying that name into different programs often changed it to Munoz, sometimes to Mu•oz, and once even Muoz. He told me that on government paperwork, it was easier just to change the ñ to n and live with people mispronouncing his name.

Dropping diacritics like that is an easy way to make words semi-understandable: Just turn “ç, ñ, å, é, î, ò, ü” into “c, n, a, e, i, o, u.” The words willl be pronounced wrong—like résumé (RE-zoo-may) turning into resume (re-ZOOM)—but you can puzzle out what they mean. What about letters that don’t exist in English at all, like the German ß, Icelandic ð, or Norwegian ø? If you turn them into the most similar-looking letter, you get nonsensical results. Ð may look like a capital D, but it’s pronounced like th (and the letter is called “eth”). ß looks like a capital B, but is more correctly transliterated as a double-s.

This is a struggle in software engineering. For example, it’s trivial in many programming languages to alphabetize a list—if it consists only of the basic 26 Latin letters in upper- and lowercase. There’s usually a built-in function that handles it. If you have to alphabetize a list containing “extended” letters, it becomes more complex.The problem is what “alphabetize” means for different languages. Do a string sort using Python, and it will use ANSI order, so É will come after Z.

Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t. In Swedish, for example, Ä usually does come after Z, but in German Ä would sort as AE.

To make it even worse, you have languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet at all. Adding Greek, Kanji, Cyrillic, and Arabic makes the programming a mess.

And, to bring us back around to where we started, you have emojis (and emoticons, and math symbols, and…). Because many of these characters require more storage space (2 or more bytes), trying to sort or manipulate a text string like “Dealing with some 💩. 🏠 soon. 😘” can produce gibberish if the programmer didn’t plan for it.

Confusing the courts

Even younger folks who grew up with emojis and emoticons can get confused by this. Imagine a technophobic judge that doesn’t even know how to read a tweet out loud if it has emojis in it, much understand what it means. Jeong’s article leads with this tweet as an example:

What does that mean? Is it “oh, crap”? Is it “what you just said is BS”? Or perhaps, as Jeong postulates, “Twitter is crap”? A law professor named Eric Goldman is teaching seminars for judges on how to interpret emojis, but that’s far from adequate to solve the problem.

What about a court document archive system that drops characters it doesn’t know? Going back to my former employee, if the archive simply removed the ñ from his name, changing Muñoz to Muoz, would his attorney later be able to point at a transcript and say, “that’s not my client”? Or with Jeong’s example of the Musk tweet, you’d be left with no content at all!

Just having fun

In Gretchen McCulloch’s excellent book, Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language, she discusses the rise of emoticons and emojis alongside other “textspeak” and abbreviations. One of the issues she addresses is the generational inconsistency. It’s easy for a baby boomer to write a calm, reasoned text that a millennial will interpret as aggressive, or vice-versa.

The right emoji used with your peer group can add nuance, mood, and clarity to a text message or social media post. That same emoji used outside your peer group can cause confusion and misunderstandings.

But for the most part, the poop emoji is immune from all of that. Despite the arguments in the Twitter v. Musk lawsuit, it’s usually pretty clear what you mean when you use a poop emoji. And don’t try to read anything into my plush poop emoji zipper clip on my book signing bag. It just feels… appropriate!

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