The pol­i­tics of cre­at­ing new emo­jis

Wisconsin Gazette - - Front Page - By Bar­bara Or­tu­tay AP tech­nol­ogy writer

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.

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