Many emojis approved last fall came into widespread usage this year, with the new faces proving especially popular. The smiling, holding-back-tears face conveyed our most sentimental selves, while the melting face spoke to a feeling of disintegration in the face of overwhelming reality. The hand-over-mouth and peeking-through-fingers faces were perfect for moments of shock and horror.
But, in the end, no emoji was better suited for the ups and downs 2022 than the saluting face. Everyone from an ex-pro Call of Duty gamer to a Berkeley City Council member to musician Zephani Jong found themselves obsessed with the stalwart little expression. More than one fan has claimed that the emoji changed their lives, helping them persevere through trial and tribulation.
Recently, the saluting face became a symbol of solidarity among Twitter employees fired by incoming CEO and owner Elon Musk, as well as those who quit in protest of his frenetic management style. It became such a common shorthand for leaving the company that it appeared hundreds of times in internal Slack channels as remaining staff members opted for a three-month severance rather than continue working nonstop to achieve Musk’s ever-shifting objectives.
In that moment, an emoji often deployed with a dose of irony turned curiously sincere. As laid-off designer Audrey Davis observed, she never thought the saluting face would make her “sob.” It had the air of going down with the ship, of defying a capricious billionaire — though most of all, it said: “It has been an honor to serve with you.” The salute as farewell, and a final bid of respect.
It was as if all the previous jokes about the emoji keeping us centered, tough, or unflappable had not been jokes at all. When we digitally salute each other with this character, we are indeed communicating a kind of reassurance. Yes, the stern look makes us laugh — Apple‘s vertically halved iOS version is even funnier in its rigidity — but behind the amusing surface is an honest pledge of loyalty. We attribute significance to the saluting emoji because we recognize a duty to our loved ones, and to humanity at large. We use it because we are still here, in the fight.
Even if that fight is with a boss you’re trying to irritate. Despite its militaristic flair, the salute is surprisingly resistant to authority, offering a mockingly self-serious compliance that undermines the order at hand. “Whatever you say, dumbass,” it seems to say. As none other than Mike Hadreas, a.k.a. Perfume Genius, has noted, it’s sort of impossible for the face to be completely earnest. It is always edged with humor.
We may see the novelty of this face wear off in the year to come (which will also bring a blurry “shaking” face emoji that’s sure to get some traction). But personally, I doubt the salute will fade away anytime soon. After all, it signals the kind of staying power that makes for a lasting touchstone. It’s too valuable, too encompassing, and too flat-out hilarious, whether you’re messaging co-workers, friends or even a crush. It brightens every conversation with the knowledge that we are part of a larger whole — a community that sustains itself from within.
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So we salute you, saluting emoji. Hard to say how we ever got along without you.