The Glitch That Shows How Technology Rules Us

The "alien in a box" emoji is a sign of outdated software, but it has some people convinced they're being left behind by the cool kids, and the reason why shows the power of social media

(Illustration: Robert A. Di Ieso/Vocativ)
Aug 14, 2015 at 5:42 PM ET

During a recent happy hour at a San Francisco tech startup, the topic of the Apple operating system update that included a more racially diverse group of emoji came up. Those in the conversation were praising the update when Marissa, a twenty-something whose older generation iPhone doesn’t support the update, chimed in.

“I know! I want the new emoji,” she said. “I especially need the alien one. I feel like I can’t communicate with people.”

Her coworkers wondered what she meant—the alien face emoji isn’t new. Someone took out a piece of paper and drew an extraterrestrial with a pointy chin and almond-shaped eyes. “No, not that one,” she said. Then an alien in a box was drawn. “Yes, that one! I want that one!”

They didn’t know how to break it to her: It wasn’t a real emoji. It was merely the error icon that shows up in the place of newer emojis that older operating systems don’t recognize—a glitch. She was running the outdated iOS 8.2 on her iPhone. “I thought it was the hotness,” she said of the boxed-in Martian.

She isn’t alone. When Apple updated iOS 8.3 in April with racially diverse emojis, people with older operating systems started seeing a simple black and white icon of an alien face inside a box. Any time they viewed a message containing one of the new emoji, the extraterrestrial in a square showed up. Tech sites were quick to offer explainers: “The real reason why you might be seeing random alien emoji” and “Why you’re seeing weird alien emojis everywhere.”

But lots of people missed the memo and were left scratching their chins about what this haunting “emoji” meant. Some, like Marissa, came to believe that the alien suddenly invading text messages, tweets and Instagram comments represented a new trend—and that they were being left behind. Experts say this phenomenon is a case study in how we create meaning and search for belonging in the digital age.

A search for “alien in a box emoji” on Twitter turns up hundreds of results. Some people embraced it: “This new alien-in-a-box emoji is awesome!” Others engaged in trend forecasting about it: “This ‘alien in a box’ emoji seems to be getting more and more popular.” Judgment soon followed: “my trust starts wavering around ppl who use the alien in a box emoji too often.” There was even backlash, as there is with all trends—even, apparently, imagined ones: “The overuse of the alien in a box emoji is so real.” But many people simply wanted to know how to join in. For example: “How do I find the alien in a box emoji?” and “Why don’t I have the Alien in a box emoji?!”

Psychologist Larry Rosen says this hunger to use a seemingly meaningless emoji actually makes sense, because in our ever-shifting technological landscape, we’re deeply concerned about being left behind.

“If something new comes up about communication and you are a heavy user, what I would argue is that you feel somewhat anxious that you’re not involved yet, so you must get involved,” he says. “Only getting involved will reduce your anxiety.” This applies to commenting on a friend’s latest Instagram post as much as it does picking up on a new Internet meme. His research has shown that college students check their phones about 60 to 80 times a day, for around three minutes a pop. “They’re checking in quickly, making some comments, moving off,” he says. “Mostly, they are checking in due to anxiety”—or, as the kids these days call it, FOMO, fear of missing out.

Meagan, 34, is used to feeling behind the curve of Internet culture. “Although I spend a lot of time on social media and online, I tend to not always be up-to-date on pop culture, so for the first week or so I just thought, ‘Wow that weird new emoji is really popular with all the cool kids,’” she says. “I kind of conceptualized it in the ‘inside joke’ box when I first saw it.” Then she realized that it seemed too many people were using it for it to be an inside joke. The more she paid attention, the more she realized that it seemed to be used in totally non-sensical ways—so she Googled it. “I couldn’t stop laughing at myself once I realized the reality,” she says.

Jay, 39, is a long-time information technology professional and well aware of the issues that can arise between different operating systems, but he recently took to Twitter to beg, “Someone please tell me which word or action the alien head in a box emoji is supposed to represent.” Now in on the glitch, he says, “I guess it was partially my own fear of getting left behind that caused me to react the way I did instead of taking the rational approach and researching it like I usually do.”

Vyv Evans, a professor of linguistics at the UK’s Bangor University, says this reading of the alien as something used by “cool kids” makes perfect sense. Just look at how we use slang, which “is essentially a type of code to identify yourself with a particular subgroup or subculture,” he says. Emoji may not be a fully fledged language, but they can be employed as slang. He points to the eggplant: When you use that bulbous vegetable to express an X-rated thought, as opposed to communicating literally about food, you subtly align yourself with those who are irreverently co-opting these shared cutesy characters. This is what Evans refers to as “an act of identity.”

It’s a natural human impulse to try to fill in the meaning of an unknown expression, whether it’s a word or an emoji, says Evans. That’s because language is at its most fundamental level a cooperative act.

“Those principles are at play here,” he says. “Someone is seeing an alien in a box, assuming that the interlocutor that they’re communicating with is being cooperative … and that this is some conventional symbol which they are simply missing, it’s not in their vocabulary.”

Lauren Collister, a sociolinguist specializing in digital communication, says that emoji act like discourse particles, the little bits of speech that help to suggest a tone or attitude— “like,” “well” and “huh,” for example.

“We don’t have that same set of tools with text-only language, so we have created ways to communicate that too,” she says. “So, when we see someone use a new emoji and it appears in the same context as other emoji…we interpret it as a discourse particle and try to make sense of it.”

Contributing to this sense-making impulse is the fact that emoji use tends to have a logical language-like structure. He gives the example of a Brooklyn teenager arrested after allegedly posting to Instagram an emoji of a police officer followed by three handgun emojis. “You’ve got two things being placed next to each other—so you’ve got an iconic syntax system—and one is being used to modify the other,” Evans says. “The pistol is modifying the police officer emoji and there’s a meaning that’s being constructed or interpreted based on the precise juxtaposition of the two, which is very much how language works.”

The misreading of the alien also results from how fast-moving conversations are in the digital age. “We have so many more platforms to communicate on that our ability to apportion our time to interpret communications is pretty limited, which is why we use shortcuts, it’s why we use emojis, it’s why we use shortening words, leaving off letters, abbreviating, not bothering to capitalize letters, things like that,” says Rosen. “All of that conspires to, when there’s something unusual, we have to make guesses as to what it means.”

This is how John, 18, came to believe that the alien in a box had meaning. He was having a text-message conversation with a friend who said she had stayed home instead of going to watch 4th of July fireworks and she sent a string of emojis, which appeared to him as a pair of clapping hands followed by the alien-in-a-box icon followed by a crying face. “I felt like the alien in the box could represent her being stuck inside the house,” he said. Soon after, he tweeted a photo of the alien in a box and said, “This is my favorite emoji but can’t find it anywhere! ;( Oh little alien trapped in a black box I know how ya feel ;0.”