Using the wrong emoji can cost you — literally

A recent case in the Israeli courts saw a defendant pay $3000 because of a few texts and emojis. While this all might seem a little silly, it signals a not-so-silly shift in the way communication is changing.

A recent case in the Israeli courts saw a defendant pay $3000 over a few texts and emojis

While this all might seem a little silly, it signals a not-so-silly shift in the way communication is changing.

Imagine if an emoji — one casually fired off in a text-message conversation — ended up costing the sender thousands of dollars. Or $3,000, to be exact.

That's what happened in Israel recently, after a judge determined that a message containing a string of emojis conveyed clear intent. 

The case was a dispute over rent. A landlord placed an ad for his apartment online, and a prospective renter sent the landlord a series of texts, including one that read, "Good morning — <smiley face> — we want the house — <flamenco dancer>, <dancing girls>, <peace sign>, <comet>, <squirrel>, <champagne bottle> —  just need to go over the details…When suits you?"

Based on this and a few other texts, the landlord removed the listing, presuming the renter's intent to take the apartment.

But the renter didn't follow up and never signed any documents. In fact, she disappeared after a few days of communication, which eventually led to this lawsuit.

According to the judge's ruling, the text messages — and the emojis, in particular — signalled clear interest on the part of the renter:

"The…text message sent by defendant…included a smiley, a bottle of champagne, dancing figures and more,"  he wrote. "These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the plaintiff's great reliance on the defendants' desire to rent his apartment…These symbols, which convey to the other side that everything is in order, were misleading."

The decision also made note of the consistency of the emoji use:

"The festive icons at the beginning of the negotiations...and those smileys at the end of the negotiations...misled the plaintiff to think the defendants were still interested in his apartment. [They] support the conclusion that the defendants acted in bad faith in the negotiations."

The judge ordered the defendant to pay the equivalent of just over $3,000 Canadian dollars.

Shifting communication

While this all might seem a little silly, it signals a not-so-silly shift in the way communication is changing. Short messages can deliver major consequences. Images, emojis and 140-character messages carry weight like never before.

The president of the United States, for example, can send markets tumbling or put foreign leaders on alert with just a short burst on Twitter, his platform of choice. And every few months, a scandal hits the headlines in which someone has resigned from his or her job based on a tweet —presumably, one issued with hardly a second thought. 

But this ruling on emojis has set a totally new precedent and raised all sorts of new questions. Top of mind is this: who decides what a particular emoji means? While some are very clear — it's easy to make the argument that a champagne bottle says, "Let's pop open the bubbly to celebrate our new home!" —  many others are open to vast interpretation.

For instance, what was the meaning of the squirrel emoji in the renter's text? Or what if someone sends someone else a water gun emoji — could that constitute a threat? And doesn't the commonly used grimacing face look an awful lot like a happy smile?

The answer, of course, is that there is no objective answer — not yet. Which means we need to be ever more vigilant in taking that extra second before we hit "enter" to decide if that tweet, or text, or emoji is the one we really want to send. As we know, the consequences can sometimes be <dollar bills> emoji.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ramona Pringle

Technology Columnist

Ramona Pringle is an associate professor in Faculty of Communication and Design and director of the Creative Innovation Studio at Ryerson University. She is a CBC contributor who writes and reports on the relationship between people and technology.


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