Learn the secret language of Twitch's rogue emojis

Twitch, Amazon's site to broadcast and watch footage of people playing video games, has chat rooms packed with the craziest emoji -- called emotes -- you've ever seen. These glyphs mean more than meets the eye.

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Joan E. Solsman
6 min read

During exciting moments in a video game stream, Twitch chat rooms can become flooded with emotes. Twitch

If you've ever been perplexed by a string of inscrutable emoji in a text message, the adjacent image may make your eyes cross.

Welcome to the world of Twitch emotes.

Twitch is an Internet video channel for broadcasting and watching video game play. E-commerce giant Amazon brought it to the attention of outsiders in August when it bought Twitch for $970 million. Though the concept seems odd to the uninitiated, Twitch is immensely popular: More than 100 million viewers visit every month, and they spend an average 106 minutes watching its game streams each day. (To compare, subscription video site Netflix has almost 65 million members averaging roughly the same amount of time daily.)

Essential to a Twitch live broadcast is the chatroom running alongside. There, viewers interact with one another and the star of the show in real time. It is also the breeding ground for Twitch's emoji on sterioids: emotes.

Emotes, like emoji, are small pictorial glyphs that fans pepper into text. Like their more mainstream cousins, emotes are a tool to flavor monotone written word with more expression, emotion and -- likely their most appealing facet -- silly fun. Emotes, however, take emoji to the next level. They outnumber emoji by the thousands, and they're more than just play: They define identity, build community and act as a sort of viral advertising. They're one of the key reasons Twitch boasts such loyal viewers.

"It goes all the way back to the origins of the company," said Jacob Woodsey, Twitch's vice president of product design. Though viewers use emotes most, broadcasters were the ones who fueled their proliferation, Woodsey said. "They wanted people to share in their personality, they wanted to be part of that culture of...being silly, they wanted to be a more in-depth part of the community."

A tool for flashier text

No emote is better than "Kappa" at illustrating the explosion of these Twitch glyphs and how they make chats more expressive.

Kappa, a black-and-white face that indicates the speaker is being sarcastic, is the most common emote on Twitch -- you can track how often Kappas are typed into Twitch chats in real time on a site that acts as an emote leaderboard. Like all emotes, viewers can append it to their chat message by either clicking on it from a pop-up menu in their messaging window or simply typing its code -- "Kappa" -- and hitting send. As a result, the word "Kappa" itself has become slang on the wider Internet. Search Twitter and find a string of #kappa hashtags.

The Kappa emote, based on the face of a former Twitch employee, was one of the earliest glyphs available to chatters and is the site's most popular. Twitch
Why so popular? For one, it was one of the first emotes created when the site operated under its earlier incarnation of Justin.tv. It also belongs to the set of free emotes available to anybody. Perhaps the most meaningful reason for its popularity is how it's used: it can invert a message to its opposite.

Emotes, like emoji, are an instrument to replace the lost nuance of gesture and tone of voice that pure text lacks, according to Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who writes about Internet language. Kappa is how Twitch viewers simulate rolling their eyes, good-natured ribbing or mischievous giggling.

It's also become the emote associated with trolling, the irrepressible Internet pastime of inflammatory speech. Some viewers use Kappa as communication get-out-of-jail-free card: Say something horrible and stick a Kappa on the end to pretend it was just a joke. From there, an association arose between Kappa and trolls.

Other recurrent emotes express common conversational needs. HeyGuys, a smiling woman waving hello, is a standard salutation when speaking up in chat for the first time. BibleThump, the crying face of the main character of The Binding of Isaac video game, indicates something sad. PJSalt, a black-and-white salt shaker, represents being upset or angry.

Still others, often miniaturized faces of broadcasters, convey typical gaming emotions. The FailFish emote, for example, shows broadcaster Tim Mines -- better known as Spamfish -- with his hand covering his face in a clear expression of disappointment.

"I am the face of failure on Twitch," Mines said. Some people even scoff that he self-destructs during his gaming to heighten the association. "People accuse me of failing on purpose, it's bizarre to even talk about it."

Identity and community

Emotes do more than just communicate.

Twitch has more than 30,000 emotes, compared with fewer than 2,000 emoji sanctioned by their official governing body, Unicode. The vast majority of Twitch emotes are what's known as subscription emotes. Fans of a particular broadcaster can unlock a bespoke set with a monthly subscription, typically $4.99. And broadcasters earn the ability to have a greater number of their own emotes by racking up more subscribers.

BibleThump, another early emote available on Twitch, became a common way to punctuate a sad comment because the pictograph's tears are so easy to see when shrunk down to a tiny emoji. Twitch

Linguist McCulloch pointed out that broadcasters tend to make their own emotes for popular words or common emotions. "Hype is clearly a video game emotion, fail is clearly a video game emotion," she said. "They're not filling a communicative need at a basic level, because there are already a dozen other ways to express that. This is a second-order need of social bonding and social cohesiveness."

Tessa Brooks, known by her Twitch moniker Tessachka, makes community-building a primary goal of her channel, "to have it feel like we're sitting in a living room together," she said. She created the emote tessHUG -- a pictograph of her cat with arms outstretched -- to virtually embrace her fans.

"It's very community-building," she said. "I have a tessWIN emote. When I beat a boss in Bloodborne and my heart rate is 155 [beats per minute], the entire chat will be filled with tessWIN. And new people who come into the stream, they want to be a part of it."

Often, subscription emotes created by broadcasters for fans have their own faces represented, giving emotes a unique personification element, according to Professor Vyv Evans at Bangor University.

"Emojis are slightly different, they don't have this avatar function associated with them," he said.

Viral advertising

Emotes are also a business tool for broadcasters, thanks to their link to subscriptions and their ability to act as advertising for a channel.

Mines, the Twitch streamer Spamfish, said his iconic FailFish emote is "like an accreditation" of his stream. Its global status imparts cache, and having his face spring up in thousands of other chat rooms draws people in to his own channel.

Even broadcasters without a global emote benefit from emotes' marketing pull. Subscription emotes are unlocked for viewers by paying for a particular channel, but those emotes can be used in any chat room on Twitch. People who subscribe to Brooks' Tessachka channel and have access to her specific emotes can unleash them in other channels too.

"People will pick the favorite emote, remember code for it and use it everywhere," she said. "A lot of people will see those people using them and want to use them too."

Some broadcasters, like DansGaming, update their emotes frequently so viewers have an incentive to keep subscribing. Others have developed emotes that string together to create a bigger picture: WarwitchTV, for example, has a three-piece emote depicting a hooded figure casting out red flames. His fans use it to "defend if we get raided and to attack people who raid us," he said, adding that he has set up a command so a single code in the chat will automatically target someone and blast those three emotes. "It's pretty popular."

It underscores the ultimate reason emotes have thrived on Twitch, as emoji have widely: They're fun.

Tyler Schnoebelen, a linguist whose Stanford dissertation examined emoticons, noted they are a "way to identify and show allegiances and be playful."

"Twitch is about play, essentially," he said. "Even if it is very serious play."