Eggplant Penises and Newsfeeds:
A Semiotic Reading of Internet Culture Visuals and Terminology


The widespread use of emoji[1] in contemporary society has created a powerful new language, one that crosses borders and bridges gaps, as only L. L. Zamenhof could hope to achieve. In employing virtual hieroglyphs, one can express emotions that words can’t seem to capture, as well as facial responses and body language. Additionally, one can evoke a sexual response with the click and send of an illustrated eggplant. Yes, there are interesting side effects to the use of emoji as a means of communication. Many an article has been written about this strange, phallic phenomenon, exploring issues such as the difference between Japanese and American eggplants[2][3], as well as the unexpected implications of sending an eggplant emoji to a medical student,[4][5] though one route has yet to be taken - could there be some sort of ideology behind the eggplant phallus, driving the alternate use? Most likely it’s a fruitful[6] product of a veiny design, but perhaps there is something more.

While it is doubtful that the eggplant lobby commissioned a covert campaign of engorging the public infatuation with the purple produce in an attempt to emulate the likes of kale and the cronut, there is the possibility that this is no mere coincidence and maybe it is a subversive approach to virtual elements of censorship. Perhaps, not unlike movie directors during the Hays Code, more risqué images are inserted into daily life, under the guise of naïve food appreciation.[7]Another alternative notion is that the designers and board members in the chain of command behind emoji are attempting to establishing a sort of dependence upon their symbols in virtual communication – giving an outlet in those instances when it’s too awkward to write certain things explicitly. In a socio-semiotic study published in Advances in Language and Literary Studies, Hamza Alshenqeeti writes that “emojis have emerged as a means of indicating euphemisms, sarcasm, hints and affection which were previously difficult to convey within a text.”[8]The difficulties in expression can be in the limitations of language, but also in societal norms. Visual representation such as the eggplant emoji has become a type of slang that allows for more subtle ways of sexual expression. Once the norm of communication is to use a visual representation and explicit writing becomes taboo, a reliance upon the installable keyboard is generated, and since creating product dependency is at the top of corporate wishlists, second only to Christmas bonuses,[9]it is conceivable that there is a motivation behind covertly dirty emoji.

The age of the internet has spawned a new, global language, which allows for codes of conduct such as the above to hit the masses as swiftly as an iMessage,[10]creating widespread international use and a place in the cultural canon.[11]As John Berger wrote in his book Ways of Seeing, “Capitalism survives by forcing the majority, whom it exploits, to define their own interests as narrowly as possible.”[12]In creating a conformity in web behavior, companies, as well as governments, are able to shift the public into templates which benefit conglomerates. While Capitalism seems to have changed surprisingly little in the decades since Berger’s writing, the “majority” Berger writes about has become much more massive and speedily influenced. Out of all the platforms and Social Networking Services,[13]Facebooks is the one seems to have taken the most advantage of the situation.

Semioticians of web can approach this popular social network in endless ways, and yet most of the mythologies created by Facebook will most likely remain off their radar. The extent and diversity of the data collected (and sold) by Facebook is not fully known, and it is more than likely that the details the company does share are skewed,[14]and in that the symbols which perpetuate data collection might remain hidden. At this point, one might ask “how are symbols connected with information gathering?” The follow-up to which, of course, would be “what are they?” The data Facebook collects is based on crowdsourced information, meaning the user generates the content for the company, which in turn analyzes it and creates meaning from it. Every time a user shares their location or tags a friend in a photo, Facebook stores that data and cross-references it with previous information; therefore it is in the social network’s best interest to motivate the user to keep on posting. New traditions have been founded by Facebook that are leading the masses to distribute their own private information.[15]The concept of “pics or it didn’t happen” is the perfect tool to inspire users to provide intelligence. In an uploaded photo, Facebook can use geo-tagging to pinpoint location, as well as collect time, date, and theme, for statistics on status sharing. Additionally, tagging a friend in a photo provides the company with a base for facial-recognition software, as well as a cross-referencing of all the above with the friend tagged.[16]

This may all seem very conspiracy theory, but when probed, Facebook does share some of the data they’ve collected, which speaks directly to these claims. In 2010, an Austrian student named Max Schrems requested Facebook send him all the information they have on him. In return he received a PDF file of 1,222 pages, detailing messages, locations, and further details. While much of the figures seemed to be gathered from obvious sources, such as geo-tagged uploads, Schrems “found personal information he says he never supplied, including email addresses that have been culled from his friends’ address books.”[17]Quite obviously, the more information trusted in the hands of Facebook, the more data they can store and use.

While Schrems was curious enough to question SNS information gathering, the cultural embedding of Facebook in society creates a haze of unquestionable reality. One of the ways it accomplishes this reality is in positive (and negative) social feedback. The “like” button, a pinnacle of Facebook, much mirrored in other SNS, is the epicenter of crowdsourced data. By making the user crave positive responses from peers, Facebook is creating a dependence upon the site, while at the same time inspiring the user to share information. Receiving likes is comparable with drug use. Every like received creates a certain high, and slowly leaves the user (so to speak) craving more and more. As the need for likes grows, the user continues to generate content; every one of those posts carrying a trail of data for Facebook to consume.

The persistence of the “like” button in the canon of contemporary pop culture is not merely for the enforcement of posting, but is also used for commercial reasons. All over the internet, external to Facebook, sites from e-commerce to news to pornography have an embedded “like” button meant for user interaction. Creating the plug-in for external sites was said to be part of a plan to create better connections across the web and generate a curated experience for those who navigate it. When someone clicks the button on an article or photo outside of Facebook, “the relationship between the user and the object will then be stored by Facebook,”[18]which in turn sends information to the host website, that can then create a more unique experience for the user. While both the host site and the user reap certain benefits, Facebook has a double gain: firstly, it continues the spreading of their most significant signifier, and secondly, it continues to collect data. When a website allows this Facebook presence, it complies with sending a stream of data over to the SNS, and “from that moment on, the button is tracing the visitor’s browsing behaviour and is automatically generating data for Facebook by connecting it to individual Facebook profiles.”[19]This tracing is not only limited to Facebook users, but also to visitors without accounts. Even so, because of the widespread use and visibility of the “like” button, no red flags would ever be raised.

Because the “like” button connotes positivity – the thumbs up signal has been considered a happy hand gesture, the action itself is friendly – the data collection that it carries is rarely considered, even when the information begins to be used and/or abused. In 2007, Dr. Michal Kosinski set up the MyPersonality app on Facebook, which had users answer personality questions and supplied them with a character analysis. Every user that interacted with the app gave consent to share information with Kosinski, including their “likes.” Using this, Kosinski was able to create analysis tools that estimate factors about people’s lives, per their “likes”. Kosinski then held in his hands the capability to “evaluate a person better than the average work colleague, merely on the basis of ten Facebook ‘likes.’ Seventy ‘likes’ were enough to outdo what a person's friends knew, 150 what their parents knew, and 300 ‘likes’ what their partner knew. More ‘likes’ could even surpass what a person thought they knew about themselves.”[20]This was all possible due to the positive aspect of “liking” something, as well as the internet-age obsession with polls and personality tests.[21]

Though Kosinski has claimed to use his analysis in the name of science, other companies are using it for commercial and/or political reasons. Last year, Trump’s campaign used “sponsored news-feed-style ads in Facebook timelines that can only be seen by users with specific profiles—[including] videos aimed at African-Americans in which Hillary Clinton refers to black men as predators.”[22]These targeted ads are specifically tailored according to “like”-based personality traits, rooted in Kosinski’s research. The ads seen on Facebook are in themselves a web symbol, living and thriving unquestioned as chameleons within content. Over a billion people use Facebook every day, pushing the SNS to become “the largest and most influential entity in the news business, commanding an audience greater than that of any American or European television news network, any newspaper or magazine in the Western world and any online news outlet.”[23]As the user scrolls their newsfeed, which carries the name connoting factual information, and sees a sea of sources, he or she takes in commercial ads and news-esque posts without thinking twice. Articles, photos, quizzes, and friends’ status updates all merge into one screen, packaged for curated consumption.

Which leads me to me final project – a curated story told by screens. Twenty screenshots are printed on thin silk, hung out without chronology, each one detailing a moment in the short-lived relationship of a neo-digital woman and man. One can try and decipher their story and timeline through reading text exchanges, following google searches, and making connections. One can also follow the root of my planted Easter eggs, as each screen contains elements pertaining to internet symbols and mythologies. The viewer can question the reason three dots typing in iMessage create anxiety, or examine the relationship between a political push notification and that of a text message, or maybe, just maybe, think a little more about the eggplant emoji.

[1] Hereinafter plural of emoji to be referred to as “emoji.” Reader should be informed that the terminology is disputed, with backings to both “emoji” and “emojis.” Your humbled author prefers the aesthetic of the former.
[2] Apparently the Japanese ones are slimmer and more… penile.
[3] Amanda Hess, “Move Over, Banana,” Slate, April 3, 2015, accessed April 27, 2017,
[4] Eggplant Deformity” is a term used to describe a penis fracture.
[5] Mark Hay, “We’re Going to Ruin the Eggplant Emoji for You Now,” Tonic (Vice), April 25, 2017, accessed April 27, 2017,
[6] Both for this pun to be appreciated and for one to be an acceptable member of society, it is important for the reader to know that an eggplant, in fact, is a fruit.
[7] Wait. You thought this was what?? No, no, I just really dig eggplants.
[8] Hamza Alshenqeeti, “Are Emojis Creating a New or Old Visual Language for New Generations? A Socio-semiotic Study,” Advances in Language and Literary Studies Vol. 7 (2016): 58-59.
[9] And, arguably, world domination.
[10] Given strong cellular reception or wireless connection.
[11] Due to the infinite boundaries of semiotics of web, in my essay I chose to not touch upon memes. Even so, in this context it is immensely important to briefly touch upon the topic. Memes are an incredible tool in perpetuating internet culture norms, codes, and traditions, whether it be actual, classic memes, or the memification of topics. Turning the eggplant emoji, versus any old eggplant, into the most prominent phallic symbol, and using it in humorous contexts throughout multiple virtual platforms, creates a topical meme. This memification infects the world with the idea that the eggplant emoji is the most acceptable representation of a penis, thus perpetuating the cultural symbolism and enhancing the power of emoji.
[12] John Berger, Ways of Seeing (Penguin, 1972), 154.
[13] Hereinafter SNS.
[14] Facebook has seen many scandals since its founding, particularly in the realm of data collection and sharing, and the company’s lack of transparency. One example is their participation in Adam D. I. Kramer’s study on the spread of emotion via Facebook, which lead to an apology by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg in 2014. Further information can be found in Samuel Gibbs’ article “Facebook Apologises for Psychological Expirements on Users” (The Guardian, July 2, 2014,
[15] Not to mention their unknowing peers.
[16] Meaning, if the uploader is at location X, so is the friend tagged in the photo.
[17] Olivia Solon, How Much Data Did Facebook Have on One Man? 1,200 Pages of Data in 57 Categories,” Wired, December 28, 2012, Accessed May 4, 2017,
[18] Miguel Helft, “Facebook Spreads Itself Across the Web,” Bits (The New York Times), April 21, 2010, Accessed May 5, 2017,
[19] Carolin Gerlitz and Anne Helmond, “The Like Economy: Social Buttons and the Data-Intensive Web,” New Media and Society 15 (2013), 1353.
[20] Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down,” Motherboard (Vice), January 28, 2017, Accessed May 5, 2017,
[21] See: Buzzfeed’s entire business model.
[22] Hannes Grassegger and Mikael Krogerus, “The Data That Turned the World Upside Down.”
[23] Farhad Manjoo, “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” The New York Times Magazine, April 25, 2017, Accessed May 4, 2017,