A eulogy for the classic Hangouts neutral face emoji

First published

With the release of Nougat back in August, Android systematically reworked its default emoji palette for consistency in perspective, shape, and size, abandoning the iconic blobby style of the smilies that originated in Google Hangouts. Some changes were long overdue — for instance, the confused face now looks, you know, confused, instead of displeased and skeptical. But this redesign also took as collateral damage what might be my favorite emoji glyph ever: the original Noto Emoji neutral face.

The subtle differences from a more straightforward representation of the same face elevate it above the ordinary, minimally-specified expression of nonplussed emotionlessness. In fact, I would argue that it’s no less than a perfect distillation of postmodern alienation.

Not convinced? Look at the tilt of the head, depicted through the skewed axis of the eyes and mouth, and the slight fold of the skin on the opposite side. The emoji isn’t simply looking straight at its interlocutor, but at a seemingly arbitrary point in space. Think of Jim Halpert from The Office, turning to the camera in the midst of an awkward conversation. The original neutral face acknowledges the fourth wall and asks is anyone else seeing this? without using any words at all. Consider how it shades this bemused reaction:

  1. Alex: I met a Randian software developer
  2. Alex: you know what his favorite programming language was?
  3. Blair: I dunno, Haskell?
  4. Alex: Objectivist-C
  5. Blair: 😐

This distance also implies the kind of objectivity that manifests as a desire to understand the big picture instead of getting lost in small details. Here, witness neutral face as a meditative, perhaps even transcendent, contemplation on the capriciousness of the world we live in:

  1. Alex: anyway, monitoring says the edge router’s dropping packets again
  2. Alex: started 15 minutes ago
  3. Blair: 😐

And here, it’s a way to take on the role of an uninvolved observer, rather than an active participant, in situations too complex for one to grasp:

  1. Alex: are you on call for this?
  2. Blair: 😐
  3. Alex: guess not, I’ll send out a page

Neutral face can even be used as a mea culpa, the emoji’s angled perspective now suggesting an unfocused stare into space, as if it’s caught up in a mounting realization of the magnitude of one’s errors. This particular connotation can be accentuated with a well-placed sweat drop:

  1. Alex: we found the culprit
  2. Alex: someone installed a pun_blacklist firewall rule
  3. Blair: 😓

Contrast this with Nougat’s straight-on version of neutral face:1

Staring directly out of the screen at the viewer, it is stripped of all of the above shades of meaning and reduced to a standoffish, expressionless stare. It reverts to being merely an adequate default, a disappointingly literal take on the concept of neutrality:

  1. Alex: so it was you…
  2. Alex: do you really hate puns that much?
  3. Blair: 😐
  4. Alex: come on, don’t clam up on me now

The new, more standard neutral face is like a brick wall in emoji form, content to display no human feeling at all — and, really, is there any greater failure for an icon expressly intended to show emotion? I think not.

  1. In the interest of full disclosure, the SVG shown here is actually a trace of the PNG version, as an original SVG was not available at press time. ↩︎