Many non-standard elements of ‘netspeak’ writing can be viewed as efforts to replicate the linguistic role played by nonverbal modalities in speech, conveying contextual information such as affect and interpersonal stance. Recently, a new non-standard communicative tool has emerged in online writing: emojis. These unicode characters contain a standardized set of pictographs, some of which are visually similar to well-known emoticons. Do emojis play the same linguistic role as emoticons and other ASCII-based writing innovations? If so, might the introduction of emojis eventually displace the earlier, user-created forms of contextual expression?
Using a matching approach to causal statistical inference, we show that as social media users adopt emojis, they dramatically reduce their use of emoticons, suggesting that these linguistic resources compete for the same communicative function. Furthermore, we demonstrate that the adoption of emojis leads to a corresponding increase in the use of standard spellings, suggesting that all forms of non-standard writing are losing out in a competition with emojis. Finally, we identify specific textual features that make some emoticons especially likely to be replaced by emojis.