The upside-down face emoji is headed for trouble. Approved as part of Unicode 8.0, it rolled out to iOS 9.1 and Android Marshmallow earlier this year, and in the past three months, the meaning has become remarkably consistent. Dropped at the end of a sentence, the face typically suggests the previous statement should be taken in jest, like so:
Picked the best time in the world to have the flu— Platypus (@RenderLukes) January 6, 2016
how to make tonight's 13.5 hour shift better? Whack another hour on there— shana ✞ (@sb_oxox) January 6, 2016
If that function sounds familiar, it should. In pre-emoji times, abbreviations like "jk" or "/s" served roughly the same purpose. In the pre-internet era, you could use phrases like "I’m just kidding" and "that was a joke," although you had to speak the words out loud.
All these methods failed for the same reason. They seemed useful at first, but over time they started to seem tiresome or just uncool. As it turns out, it’s embarrassing to have to spell out that you’re kidding. If the joke works, people just know. If they don’t know, it probably isn’t a very good joke. Either way, a situation where you feel compelled to drop in "jk" is a situation that has gone poorly for you.
It’s a basic human anxiety — am I being understood?
No matter how many iterations we run through, we can’t quite let go of the idea of hanging a lantern on our sarcasm. It’s a basic human anxiety — am I being understood? — and we want to believe that new technology can relieve it. Humans have always had this problem, but then we’ve never had emoji before. Perhaps this upside-down face can save us. Maybe this is the generation that finally stamps out linguistic ambiguity. But of course we won’t. Nothing can! Language is imperfect, we can never know anything, yadda yadda.
We’re currently in the honeymoon period for the upside-down face, but there’s no reason to believe it will play out any differently than previous versions. It can subsist for a while on novelty, but once the meaning is pinned down, "jk" fatigue is going to set in pretty quickly and the upside-down smiley face will become what all of these sarcasm shorthands become: passive-aggressive digs. This sort of shorthand is so cool — jk!
Beyond the existential torment, the misapplication of the upside-down face is downright wasteful. The upside-down face was a perfectly good emoji, well-primed to join classics like "eggplant" and "dancing woman" in the top tier. In its elemental form, it seems to convey a kind of gleeful absurdism. You could also imagine it being used to convey severe angst akin to an upside-down flag.
There’s still hope. I’ve seen a few teens using the face to signify exasperation and distress, which I think is great. (In fairness, teens seem to use every face emoji that way, so it’s hard to be sure.) But the threat of the "sarcasm emoji" is real, so I’m going to ask you to avoid the trap if you can. Together, we can save the upside-down face.