The Meaning of Life, Emoji Edition

Over the past few years, definitions have fallen out of favor, replaced by Humpty-Dumptyisms that serve their purpose in twitter-level discussion. But the vagaries that make total sense in the context of the echo chamber have yet to be accepted in court. As Eric Goldman discusses, there is a definitional void that needs fillin’.

This is an interesting opinion from the Texas Supreme Court on citing Wikipedia as a dictionary. The underlying case involves an article in D Magazine titled “The Park Cities Welfare Queen.” The article purports to show that the plaintiff, Rosenthal, “has figured out how to get food stamps while living in the lap of luxury.” After publication, evidence emerged that the plaintiff has not committed welfare fraud. She sued the magazine for defamation.

So what is a “Welfare Queen”? Much as it has become a common slur, roundly understood as such, is there an “official” definition? If so, who gets to decide what it is?

The appeals court denied the magazine’s anti-SLAPP motion in part because it held the term “Welfare Queen,” as informed by the Wikipedia entry, could be defamatory. The Texas Supreme Court affirms the anti-SLAPP denial, but it also criticizes the appeals court for not sufficiently examining the entire article’s gist. Along the way, the court opines on the credibility and validity of Wikipedia as a dictionary. TL;DR = the Supreme Court says don’t treat Wikipedia like a dictionary.

In the early days of the internet, the notion of crowdsourcing information was beloved. How could sixty million Frenchmen be wrong? Would we not get better, truer, information if it reflected the mass of human information, unfiltered through the lens of the keepers of information? Heady times, until people realized how easily it was gamed to distort information to promote an agenda, sometimes well-intended but other times malevolent.

As the concurring opinion of Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman explained, it wasn’t all good.

Legal commentators may debate whether and to what extent courts could properly rely on online sources like Wikipedia, but the most damning indictment of Wikipedia’s authoritative force comes directly from Wikipedia:

• “Please be advised that nothing found here has necessarily been reviewed by people with the expertise required to provide you with complete, accurate or reliable information.”
• “Wikipedia cannot guarantee the validity of the information found here.”
• “Wikipedia is not uniformly peer reviewed.”
• “[A]ll information read here is without any implied warranty of fitness for any purpose or use whatsoever.”
• “Even articles that have been vetted by informal peer review or featured article processes may later have been edited inappropriately, just before you view them.”

And because she could, her concurrence crushed the point at the outset:

Eric adds his “thoughts” to the mix:

It makes sense not to treat Wikipedia as the authoritative citation source. However, I would make the same declaration about many sources, crowd-sourced or not. Often, a range of sources is required to establish a “fact.” We especially see the trickiness of treating a single dictionary as an authoritative source, because there are often subtle but crucial differences in dictionaries’ definitions of the same term. In contrast, sometimes Wikipedia is an OK citation for the zeitgeist about an issue, where the citation is for the ranges of issues rather than for the truth of any issue.

There’s his point about Wikipedia, that it may adequately serve to fill in the context or background, the “zeitgeist about an issue” as he calls it, it cannot serve as an authoritative source. But he also raises the question of whether any single source is authoritative, whether there is a source that everyone in law can agree provides the conclusive definition of a word. Is it Bryan Garner’s Black’s Legal Dictionary? Is it your Funk & Wagnalls? When cases rise or fall on a definition, who gets to authoritatively provide a source upon which we can universally agree the court can rely?

And then Eric introduces even more confusion into the mix:

I was a little surprised that the court didn’t discuss the Urban Dictionary as an alternative to Wikipedia as a dictionary (it comes up only in a reference in a footnote in Guzman’s opinion). What I like about Urban Dictionary is that it doesn’t purport to offer a single definition of any term. Instead, it lists a range of opinions with crowd-sourced voting. In my experience, the Urban Dictionary often fills in the gaps in my “street lingo” much better than any other source, so long as I use it advisedly.

I often turn to the Urban Dictionary to figure out what the kids are talking about. My finger is not exactly on the pulse of pop culture, and words (and particularly acronyms) that find their way onto my screen are often unfamiliar. Where else can a guy look?

The problem, however, is that while Urban Dictionary offers as many definitions as people are willing to offer, few are particularly clear and comprehensible. It’s not the fault of the authors, as they aren’t paid well enough to work hard on it, and they often offer examples to flesh out their definitions, but they still don’t provide the level of clarity necessary for law or the determination of rights, duties and damages.

And then Eric brings his own scholarly interests into the mix:

I’m paying closer attention to courts’ citations to online dictionaries based on my research for my Emojis and the Law paper. As bad as things are between Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary as online dictionaries, things are much worse with emojis because no credible dictionary is trying to provide definitive definitions of emojis. Eventually, as I’ll argue in my paper, we’ll need the equivalent of an Urban Dictionary for emojis to capture their disparate meanings across online subcommunities.

We can’t figure out what words mean, but let’s define emojis? Much as I appreciate Eric’s focus on a pervasive indulgence that is replacing squiggly lines of dubious definition with small images favored by tweens and woke police officers, can there ever be a “credible dictionary” of emojis?

We’re already stuck trying to ascribe adequate meaning to words that reflect vaguely accepted concepts, there being no authoritative source. Try telling a tween that they’ve used an emoji wrong, “that’s not what it means!!!” Try telling a judge that the plaintiff should receive compensation because of it, or that societal rights should be allocated because, well, you know.

32 thoughts on “The Meaning of Life, Emoji Edition

  1. B. McLeod

    As I recall the black letter law of defamation, if an expression has *possible* defamatory and non-defamatory interpretations, it is non-defamatory (i.e., there is a presumption in favor of the non-defamatory intent).

    In recent years, the trend in the media seems to be the opposite, interpreting everything as a “slight” whether or not it was so intended. I would say we need to get back to the black letter law and away from “microagression” theory.

    1. SHG Post author

      You’re losing focus. This isn’t about microaggressions. Not everything is about microaggressions.

      1. Dan

        Saying “not everything is about microaggressions” is surely a microaggression in itself, no?

          1. Patrick Maupin

            “Surely” if words are defined using other words, emojis should be defined using other emojis. On a cave wall. With pestle-ground pigments.

  2. Morgan O.

    I can only imagine what the campaign ads would look like if a legislature funded a state “Glossary of Emojis”.

  3. Jim Tyre

    I often turn to the Urban Dictionary to figure out what the kids are talking about.

    I guess I’m old school. Whenever possible, I rely on The Devil’s Dictionary.

    JUSTICE, n.
    A commodity which is a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service.

      1. Iris Wong

        OK, I’ll take you at your word: you are unfamiliar with Ambrose Bierce’s “The Devil’s Dictionary.” Well, you’re in for a treat. I bet it suits your tastes perfectly. Don’t settle for the very common condensed version; the whole thing is free online at Project Gutenberg. Thanks for all the great writing- cheers!

  4. Richard Kopf

    SHG, the question of what authority is, or should be, authoritative for lawyers and judges is a fascinating and intellectually challenging issue. As a primer, I recommend Frederick Schauer’s essay, Authority and Authorities, 94 University of Virginia Law Review 1931(2008).

    All the best.


          1. Richard Kopf


            Please look to the plain meaning as understood by the Founders. Indeed, using that rule, I do not need to “interpret” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. It plainly means and has always meant a shrug face.

            All the best.


  5. Charles

    So when an Apple user sends a green water-pistol emoji to a Samsung user, who will receive a firearm emoji instead, what does it mean? If the sender knows the potential ambiguity and uses it anyway, what then?

  6. davep

    “Welfare queen” is a Reagan-era phrase.

    Is there any use of it that isn’t derogatory?

    Oxford dictionaries (is that better than wikipedia?) says “A woman perceived to be living in luxury on benefits obtained by exploiting or defrauding the welfare system.”

    From the 1970’s.

    Maybe, they don’t know that other dictionaries exist.

      1. Jim Tyre

        Perhaps we need a dictionary to define “Reagan-era”. ‘-)

        He won the 1980 election, but only after he lost his bid to get the nom in 1976. During the 1976 campaign, he made the phrase notorious, though he didn’t coin it.

        1. SHG Post author

          If I was Chevy Chase, you would be my Garrett Morris.

          The Chicago Trib dubbed Linda Taylor the “Welfare Queen,” and she was convicted of fraud in 1977. Reagan use her story during his 76 campaign to vilify people on welfare (read blacks) as frauds and cheats. He didn’t get the nomination. All of this may be fascinating, but his nothing to do with this post, just as the fact that Welfare Queen is a derogatory term has nothing to do with the court’s inquiry as to whether it was a phrase that imparted an allegation of hard fact versus opinion. Interesting? Perhaps. Relevant. No. Necessary for you to be the Orthogonal Factoid Queen at SJ? I don’t think so.

          If you feel the desperate need to note an orthogonal factoid that takes my posts down the rabbit hole, let it out. Just not here.

  7. JimEd

    I don’t know exactly how to describe how unsettling this post is. The fact that a wikipedia cite was ever in any legal briefing as fact? How in the fuck did anyone think that was a good idea? That it was argued on appeal, and then sent to what I assume is Texas’s highest court? What in the hell? I know you keep saying stuff is broken in the system but this is some new and disturbing stuff.

    Or perhaps this opinion will be cited as some sorta call to reason by other courts if anyone tries to phone in an argument like this? I want to be optimistic.

    Also, I will take a somewhat slightly out of context quote from your source material and bless it as true:

    “things are much worse with emojis “

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