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Facebook's new emojis: A universal language?

Facebook said the countries selected to test the new emojis represented a range of cultures and languages to ensure that the new 'Reactions' would be understood universally.

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Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, demonstrates the new emoji-like stickers customers will be able to press in addition to the 'Like' button.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Facebook’s “Like” feature isn’t going away, but it’s getting company: new "Reactions" that allow the company’s billion-plus users to express a broader range of emotions.

When you hold down the "like" button on a mobile device, or hovering over the icon on a desktop computer, you'll see an expanded menu of six different animated emoji "Reactions": Like, Love, Haha, Wow, Sad, or Angry, the company announced.

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“We heard from people that they wanted more ways to express themselves on Facebook,” said Facebook product manager Sammi Krug, according to Forbes. “When people come to Facebook, they share all kinds of different things, things that make them sad, things that make them happy, that are thought-provoking, things that make them angry. We kept hearing from people that they didn’t have a way to express empathy.”

Users reported that they didn't always want "Like" to be their reaction to a post.

"People would say 'it doesn't feel quite right to "Like" this.' It would be much more natural to be able to express sympathy or sadness. So we took that feedback and determined this was something people were looking for for awhile," Krug said according to CBS News.

"It is also good for happy moments. I mean if someone gets engaged or there is a happy moment, now we are giving people the option to love something and laugh at something. This represents how people are using Facebook."

The additional "Reactions" also reflect how emoji use has risen over the years and has taken the world by storm, augmented by the the increase in the use of smartphones. As Newsweek reported, “some 41.5 billion text messages are sent globally every day, using around 6 billion emojis – figures that are mindboggling.”

So are emojis transcending language barriers to become the world's first truly global form of communication?

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English is often called the global language, but emojis now surpass the reach of English. As the Newcastle Herald reported, “English is no longer the universal messaging language." In New South Wales, the Herald reports, more than half of NSW residents (59 percent) say they believe "emoji has now become the universal language for messages.”

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The explanation lies in the fact that “nearly 70 percent of meaning derived from spoken language comes from nonverbal cues like body language and facial expression," says Vyvyan Evans, a professor of linguistics at Bangor University who studies the use of emoji in communication, according to Wired.

How then did Facebook decide which emojis will be understood universally?

The company conducted global research, testing alternatives to the "Like" feature through focus groups and surveys in about half a dozen countries, including Ireland, Spain, Japan, and Colombia. Facebook ultimately chose these six reactions for their universal appeal – symbols that could be understood around the world.

"The reactions we have here are very applicable across cultures. 'Reactions' is really a step in the direction of being able to feel like not only do you know I can keep in touch with you, but you can actually imagine how I’m reacting when you post on Facebook,” Krug said.