The politics of creating new emojis
We have a smiling pile of poop. What about one that’s sad?
There’s a loaf of bread and a croissant. But where’s the sliced bagel?
And how can our emotional vocabulary be complete without a teddy bear, a lobster, a petri dish or a tooth?
These are the kind of questions that trigger heated debates and verbal bomb tossing — or at least memos with bursts of capital letters. And the members of the group burdened with deciding what new emojis make it onto our phones and computer screens each year are often at the receiving end.
The Unicode Consortium is tasked with setting the global standard for the icons. It’s a heady responsibility and it can take years from inspiration to a new symbol being added to our phones.
Anyone can propose an emoji. But for it to make it to phones and computers, it has to be approved by Unicode. The nonprofit group — mostly made up of people from large tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook — translates emoji into one standard code, so that a person in France, for example, can send an emoji or a text message to a person in the United States and it will look the same, no matter what brand of phone or operating system they use.
From the proposals to the design, a bevy of rules govern emojis. To submit a proposal to Unicode, you must follow a strict format that includes your emoji’s expected usage level and whether it can be used as an archetype or metaphor (a pig face, for example, can go beyond representing an animal to represent human gluttony).
There are many reasons for exclusion, too.
Emojis can’t be logos or brands, people (living or dead), or deities — or overly specific. A swastika wouldn’t be approved either.
Each year, a new version of the Unicode Standard is released. In 2017, the consortium released Unicode 10.0, which added 8,518 characters — of which 56 were emoji. Also added were the bitcoin symbol, a set of 285 Hentaigana characters used in Japan, and support for languages such as Masaram Gondi, used to write Gondi in Central and Southeast India. Unicode now totals 136,690 characters.
THE BIRTH OF THE EMOJI
These tiny pictographs became a part of our online language with the ascent of cellphones, getting their start in Japan in 1999. “Emoji” combines the Japanese words for picture — “e” (pronounced eh) — and letters — “moji” (moh-jee). At first, there were just 176: simplistic, highly pixelated icons such as a heart, a soccer ball and a rocking horse. Today there are more than a thousand. And as none are taken away, their number keeps growing.
“Long after you and I are dust in the wind there will be a red-wine emoji,” said Mark Davis, the co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium who also works at Google.
DUMPLINGS AND DIVERSITY
Back in August 2015, journalist and author Jennifer 8. Lee was texting with her friend Yiying Lu, the graphic designer behind the iconic “fail whale” illustration that used to pop up when Twitter’s network was down. It dawned on Lee that there was no dumpling emoji.
“There are so many weird Japanese food emoji,” she said, but she didn’t understand how there could be no dumpling. After all, dumplings are almost universal — think ravioli, empanadas, pierogi, pot stickers.
The process took almost two years, including research, many meetings and a written, illustrated proposal that reads a bit like an academic paper, complete
With research on dumpling history and popularity.
But thanks largely to her efforts, the dumpling emoji was added to the Unicode Standard last year. And as part of her dumpling emoji lobbying, Lee decided to join the Unicode Consortium.
It was an eye-opener.
When she showed up at her first quarterly meeting of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, she expected a big auditorium. Instead, it was just a conference room. Most people there, she said, were “older, white male engineers,” from the big tech companies.
Many of the emoji decision-makers are engineers or have linguistic backgrounds, she said, but very few are designers, which can mean limitations on how they think about the images.
As part of their efforts to diversify emojis, Lee and Lu founded Emojination, a group promoting “emoji by the people, for the people.” While it all started with a dumpling, the group also helped launch other food, clothing, science and animal emoji, including the sandwich and the fortune cookie.
But when Emojination proposed the frowning poop, they met with some resistance. “Will we have a CRYING PILE OF POO next? PILE OF POO WITH TONGUE STICKING OUT? PILE OF POO WITH QUESTION MARKS FOR EYES? PILE OF POO WITH KARAOKE MIC? Will we have to encode a neutral FACELESS PILE OF POO? As an ordinary user, don’t want this kind of crap on my phone,” wrote Michael Everson, a linguist and typographer, in a memo to the Unicode Technical Committee.
Another member, typographer Andrew West, wasn’t happy with a proposal for a sliced bagel emoji.
“Why are we prioritizing bagel over other bread products?” he wrote. Clearly he is not a New Yorker.
SIGN OF A HEALTHY LANGUAGE
Not since the printing press has something changed written language as much as emojis have, says Lauren Collister, a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Pittsburgh.
“Emoji is one way language is growing,” she says. “When it stops growing and adapting, that’s when a language dies.”
Growing and adapting doesn’t seem like an issue for emojis. The additions for 2017 included gender-neutral characters, a breast-feeding woman and a woman in a hijab.
For better or worse, the expanding vocabulary has given us an emoji movie, emoji short-story contests and books written in emoji — someone translated Moby Dick into Emoji Dick.
In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries declared the “face with tears of joy” emoji its word of the year.
And New York’s Museum of Modern Art has added the original emoji set to its permanent collection.
DIVERSITY’S AN ISSUE
Amy Butcher — whose 2015 essay prompted Google to propose emojis to represent women as professionals and not just brides and polished nails — thinks there’s more work to do. The Ohio Wesleyan University professor would like to see interracial couples and a human in a wheelchair to represent a disabled person, rather than the wheelchair icon one might see on a bathroom door.
“These tiny, insignificant images begin to create an everyday narrative, and it’s deeply problematic that one might consistently find their identity or demographic lacking, or pigeonholed, or altogether absent,” she said.
Got an idea for an emoji and are willing to fight for it? It’s not too late to submit one for the class of 2019. As for 2018, stay tuned. We’ll know in a few months which ones made the cut. And while there’s a desire to be funny and quirky, the diversity of emojis remains a real issue.
The Unicode Consortium is tasked with setting the global standard for the icons. At left is a smiling poop emoji.