The revolution will be emojified: striving for truly representative emoji

January 15, 2019

The first Emojicon took place in San Francisco, in November 2016. Emojicon is Emojination’s flagship gathering, a community that hopes, and I quote, “to democratize emoji approval.” Apt words, these — especially when paired with the “Emoji By The People, For The People” manifesto that appears on their website, beneath an exasperatingly pixelated logo.

At first glance, you might wonder if this isn’t a bit over the top, if fun icons on one’s smartphone is really what people need to have democratized (and, perhaps, if that was really the best logo they could dredge up). But, then again, maybe not.

In a turn of events that few could have predicted ten or twenty years ago, people are, for better or for worse, extremely passionate about their emoji. Proposals for new emoji have attracted both widespread controversy and near-unanimous praise, covering everything under the sun, from dumplings, to guns, to interracial couples, to anatomically inaccurate ants. Chances are, whatever you’re thinking of, there’s an emojo for it — or at least a lobbyist ready to do battle in its name. (Plz accept my nonce Italianate singular ðŸ§.)

Emoji through the ages

While emoticons seem like a hallmark of the digital age, they have actually been around, in one form or another, for a very long time. As is the case with most discussions about historical firsts, there are a number of contenders for the title of OG emoji. Some argue that cave paintings and hieroglyphs are early forms of emoji, while some credit Abraham Lincoln for a “winky face” in his 1862 speech, though it’s more likely a typo than a quirky or flirtatious remark from the then President of the United States.

The earliest uncontested example dates back to 1881, when the tongue-in-cheek magazine Puck published four emoticons from the “Studies in Passions and Emotions” — joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment. At the time they were called typographical art, but soon they would come to be known for something else entirely.

In 1982, the computer scientist Scott Fahlman proposed that : – ) and : – ( were used to distinguish between serious messages and jokes at the Carnegie Mellon bulletin board. He was on to something.

Spoken conversation is a lot more than a simple exchange of words. A raise of the eyebrow, a cock of the head, folded arms, a wry smile, a tender intonation — they all act as meta-data, giving you extra pointers to the speaker’s intention. When typing a message, there is a lot more room for ambiguity and misunderstanding. The emoticon to the rescue. As digital embodiments of our non-verbal language, they offer a little bit of context.

Emoticons have stuck with us precisely because they are immensely expressive. Even when reduced to their simplest form, they pack a punch. And of course, the advent of computer technology catapulted this visual communication form before a global audience.

After the groundswell of emoticons, the notion was taken one step further — the emoji. Invented in the 1990s, by Shigetaka Kurita, a designer at Japan’s main mobile carrier, NTT DoCoMo, the emoji owes its name to the combination of e (çµµ, as “picture”) and moji (文字, as “written character”), which literally translates as pictograph.

The carrier introduced a simple heart button at the bottom of its pagers, a feature that was extremely well received, and soon followed with 176 more emoji — which was recently acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection. As the popularity of emoji grew, rival companies and creative types quickly began designing their own emoji, and the repertoire expanded rapidly, and somewhat uncontrollably, with icons catering to subcultures of every stripe.

The Unicode debacle

At first, emoji were mere seedlings of chaos. Sending one to someone using a different device meant that they were unable to see it, since rival devices couldn’t translate the divergent code representing them.

This was all about to change, as, in 2000, the engineer Graham Asher suggested that the Unicode Consortium — a non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to develop and maintain the Unicode Standard — expand the scope of symbols to include emoji. The Unicode Standard uses a character coding system that assigns numbers to letters and characters, essentially allowing you to understand characters on your computer, no matter what platform, device, or language you’re using.

Not long after, in 2006, software text processing specialist — as well as Unicode co-founder and President — Mark Davis and his colleagues at Google started working on converting Japanese emoji to Unicode, leading to, as it reads in Unicode’s own report, the development of internal mapping tables for supporting emoji via Unicode characters.

Naturally, technical committees and subsequent subcommitees were formed, and in 2009, 722 emoji had been assigned numerical identifiers. In 2010, an additional 608. The first umbrella with rain drops, the first hot pepper, the first frisky eggplant. But as emoji’s popularity and demand surged, so did the criticism.

The Unicode Consortium is subsidized solely by donations and a variety of different memberships. Unsurprisingly, massive tech companies such as Google, Apple, Adobe, Facebook are among the few to pay the annual $18,000 fee for a full membership. Perhaps more surprisingly, the Sultanate of Oman’s Ministry of Endowments & Religious Affairs does, too. As you might expect, they don’t sign up for this level of membership out of the kindness of their hearts, but because they have a vested interest in standardizing digital communication. A full membership comes with the right to vote on changes to the Standard, and consequently, on which emoji end up making it into the lexicon. And that’s the source of Emojination’s beef. It’s not in our hands, the hands of the People. It’s in the hands of the privileged few.

Beyond yellow

When emoji first came on the scene, all of the skin tones for hand gestures and faces were a default Simpson yellow. But since different cultures were being represented by flags, foods, symbols, and objects, why shouldn’t emojis’ skin tones reflect different ethnicities as well?

In 2015, skin tone markers were added to some emoji by the Unicode Consortium, using the Fitzpack six-level skin color scale. Concerns quickly arose about possible racist use of the darker skin tone emoji — in fact, there have been instances of white people using the darker toned ones, in a phenomenon dubbed “Emoji Blackface.” However, a study carried out at the University of Edinburgh showed that, on balance, the new tones actually created a positive and diverse online atmosphere.

The movement to diversify emoji had political origins, and it suddenly became very clear, and very loud. If different ethnicities were being represented, why weren’t different genders, sexualities, cultures? Why were all professionals — construction workers, doctors, police officers — male? Why were there several icons of sushi, but not a single one for Indian food? Why was there an Israeli flag, but not a Palestinian one? As bewilderment turned into animosity, all eyes turned to the Unicode Consortium for answers.

The consortium, however, doesn’t have many. Most of their technical work is done by honest-to-god volunteers, some specialized in text processing or character encodings, others in linguistics, but all of which unequipped, and frankly, not required, to deal with the sudden media attention and complex socio-political issues.

In an interview to The New York Times, Ken Whistler, a technical director at the Unicode Consortium with a PhD in linguistics, explained:

“We can spend hours arguing for an emoji for chopsticks, and then have nobody in the room pay any attention to details for what’s required for Nepal, which the people in Nepal use to write their language. That’s my main concern: emoji eats the attention span both in the committee and for key people with other responsibilities.”

Every year, more than 100 new emojis are proposed to the consortium, but their approval is a time consuming process that can take as long as two years, in which they automatically rule out, for example, brands, specific deities, or ideas that can already be represented by existing emoji. Each proposal needs to follow meticulous Unicode guidelines before being scrutinized by the subcommittee, voted on by its members, and finally, published.

A new lingua franca

In the last few years, emoji have gained (near) world-wide acceptance, especially in the younger demographics, so naturally, linguists, and a number of others quickly predicted a new linguistic armageddon.

Will emoji evolve into a new global language? Will they ever have sufficient capacity to communicate all our ideas and emotions? And, to the horror of language purists, who still view them as immature products of morally corrupt minds: Will they ever replace written word?

When futurology is involved, a little perspective can never hurt. At the moment, emoji go hand in hand with typed words, in much the same way that humans gesticulate or use a specific intonation when they speak — to emphasize their point. Right now, they merely play a supporting role. Even when we type a line of emoji to tell a story, the clusters of emoji used tend to have fixed meanings, much like an idiom or cliche in spoken language.

Even considering 92 percent of all people online use emoji, emoji have no grammar, a key component of all natural languages.

When we use more complex strings of emoji that exhibit some version of syntax, it may seem like evidence of an evolving grammar system. But even then, emoji don’t quite qualify as a language, the psycholinguist Susan Goldin-Meadow and her colleagues explain. Other non-linguistic forms of expression, such as comic strips, exhibit similar properties, but few worry that these will one day replace conventional forms of language.

For the People, by the People

Ever since emoji were released on DoCoMo, in the late 90s, they have consistently permeated our communication and pop culture. In 2015, Oxford Dictionary selected for the first time a pictogram as their Word of the Year: the crying with laughter emoji. In 2016, Emojination held the first all-things-emoji event, gathering over 1000 artists, programmers, and aficionados from all across the world.

As Emojination’s founders Jeanne Brooks, Jennifer 8. Lee, and Yiying Lu challenge the status quo of the emoji lexicon, we realize why their quest to democratize emoji is an important one. They’re more than just cute icons on our phones. They force us to confront the complexity of our language and our deep-rooted prejudices. They’re being used by the White House. They’ve even brought us translations of highly regarded literary classics, in a fun initiative that’s been nevertheless described as “astoundingly useless.” They express low- and highbrow concerns alike, covering the distance from what you’re going to eat for dinner to the political issues you want to fight for.

They’re delightfully simple. They’re surprisingly complex. And they’re for everyone.

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