Emoji are more than a millennial messaging fad. Think of them more like a primitive language. The tiny, emotive characters—from ? to ? to ?—represent the first language born of the digital world, designed to add emotional nuance to otherwise flat text. Emoji have been popular since they first appeared on Japanese mobile phones in the late ’90s, and in the past few years they have become a hallmark of the way people communicate. They show up in press releases and corporate emails. The White House once issued an economic report illustrated with emoji. In 2015, ? became Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word” of the Year. Emoji aren’t just for people who say things like “lmao smh tbh fam.” Emoji are for everyone.
That puts a lot of pressure on the designs and standards for emoji. If emoji are a language for everyone in the digital world, then the emoji lexicon needs to constantly evolve across cultures ? , across screens? , across time ? . Today there are thousands of emoji depicting people in all their diversity, and thousands more to represent the things we interact with in our world: money ?, prayer beads ?, Apple Watches⌚. In the future, as the world becomes increasingly digital and increasingly globalized, emoji will become important tools for translation and communication—a lingua franca for the digital age.
The First Emoji
In the beginning, there were emoticons. For the most part, these came of age as the 🙂 and 🙁 and 8-D of chatroom conversations in the 1990s. These primitive gestures represented an important part of early netspeak: You could convey sarcasm by tacking on 😉 at the end of your message, or share your ambivalence with the ¯_(ツ)_/¯ face.
The first emoji were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita. Kurita worked on the development team for “i-mode,” an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO. Kurita wanted to design an attractive interface to convey information in a simple, succinct way: for example, an icon to show the weather forecast rather than spelling out “cloudy.” So Kurita sketched a set of 12- by 12-pixel images that could be selected from a keyboard-like grid within the i-mode interface, then sent on mobiles and pages as their own individual characters. Kurita’s original 176 emoji—now part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—privileged symbols over faces, because DOCOMO’s goal was to find new ways to express information. There were characters to show the weather (sun, clouds, umbrella, snowman), traffic (car, tram, airplane, ship), technology (landline, cell phone, TV, GameBoy), and all the phases of the moon. But those characters weren’t purely informational: For the first time, emoji offered a way to add emotional subtext to a message. “I understand” might sound cold or passive on its own, but add ❤️ and the message offered a sense of warmth and sympathy. It was the beginning of a new visual language.
(c) NTT DOCOMO, INC.
Emoji quickly became popular in Japan, as rival mobile companies copied DOCOMO’s idea. And as mobile computing continued to explode throughout the mid-2000s, companies outside Japan, like Apple, saw an opportunity to incorporate emoji on other platforms. In 2007, a software internationalization team at Google decided to lead the charge, petitioning to get emoji recognized by the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group that works sort of like the United Nations to maintain text standards across computers.
Since computers fundamentally work with numbers, every letter or character you type on a computer is “encoded” or represented with a numerical code. Before Unicode, there were hundreds of different encoding systems, which meant different computers and servers didn’t always represent text the same way. Unicode focused on standardizing these codes for language, so that the letters you typed in English, Chinese, Arabic, or Hebrew showed up accurately across platforms and across devices. The Google team—Kat Momoi, Mark Davis, and Markus Scherer—noticed emoji’s ascent in Japan and argued that emoji should fall under the same standard. In 2009, a pair of Apple engineers, Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, joined in and submitted an official proposal to adopt 625 new emoji characters into the Unicode Standard.
Unicode accepted that proposal in 2010, in a move that would soon make emoji accessible everywhere. Unicode ultimately decided to index emoji “because of their use as characters for text-messaging in a number of Japanese manufacturers’ corporate standards.” In other words: Emoji had become too popular to ignore. Unicode’s blessing wasn’t just a way to maintain standards for the evolving lexicon of emoji—it was the beginning of legitimizing emoji as a form of communication. Now emoji were officially on their way to becoming a language.
Evolution of Emoji
Emoji are born! The original set includes icons for the weather, traffic, technology, and time.
Unicode officially adopts emoji, adding hundreds more—like cat faces emoting happiness, anger, and tears.
Emoji get a diversity update with five new skin tones and a set of same-sex couples. ?
Updates give rise to the single dad, pride flag, and weightlifting woman emoji.
New emoji proposals suggest characters to convey information across language and culture, like a mosquito to represent illnesses like malaria and Zika.
Emoji have been available outside of Japan since the mid-2000s through separate apps, which let users copy and paste the icons into text messages and emails. In 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS; Android followed suit two years later. This allowed people to access emoji directly from a keyboard on their phones—the same way you’d switch to a Korean or Japanese keyboard to access those language-specific characters—and popularized emoji with an entirely new audience. The New York Times suggested the move could give emoji a shot at “mainstream success,” noting that young people were already adjusting their texting habits to include the small icons: “I love you” became ❤️. “LOL” became ?.
As emoji became more popular, they also became more plentiful. The Unicode Consortium added new emoji to its approved list each year, gathered from users around the world: the first emoji bride, dozens of plants and animals, types of food, and depictions of all kinds of activities. Unicode requires a lengthy submission and approval process for every new batch hoping for christening, and it can take up to two years for an emoji to travel from first draft to your phone. First, new emoji are suggested through a formal proposal to the Unicode Consortium. These detailed proposals include an explanation of why the emoji should be adopted and ideas for how it might look. (The design aspect is more complex than you might think: If there’s going to be an emoji to represent “beans,” should they be black beans? Refried beans? Lima beans? Green beans? Should they be in a can? In a bowl? Growing out of the ground?) Proposals are examined by the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, which meets twice a week to discuss and decide on all emoji-related matters. When the subcomittee comes to a consensus, a new emoji can be born.
As the emoji vocabulary began to grow, some people wondered why certain images were privileged over others. Why were there half a dozen icons to describe sushi, but zero tacos, burritos, or enchiladas? There were a growing number of emoji professionals—doctors, chefs, policemen—but why did they all appear to be men? And why, among the many different emoji representing humans, were all of them white people?
By 2014, the Great Emoji Politicization had begun. It happened with emoji representing food (there were none depicting traditional African cuisine, like injera or fufu), flags (the Israeli flag existed, but not the Palestinian one), families (debates about family units depicting same-sex parents or single parents), and more. It wasn’t just a matter of having the right icon to describe what you ate for lunch—it was having a digital acknowledgement of your culture. Emoji had emerged as an important language of the digital age, but it was a language that had no words for “women with jobs” or “people of color.”
Can’t find the emoji you want? Go rogue with one of these emoji-inspired apps.
In 2015, Unicode took its first big step toward diversifying emoji by introducing the option to change the skin tone on people emoji, along with additions to include more types of people doing more types of things. Since then, every update has included incremental steps toward diversifying the types of people and cultures represented on the emoji keyboard: female surfers and cyclists, women with hard hats and stethoscopes, people wearing turbans and hijabs. Most recently, Unicode has taken steps toward creating gender-neutral emoji, and other symbols to represent the full spectrum of emoji users.
The Future of Emoji
The Unicode Consortium considers new emoji every year, which means the cultural lexicon of emoji continues to evolve with every update to iOS and Android. Recent additions, which appeared on iOS and Android in 2017, included mythical creatures (mermaids, genies, elves, and vampires), food (pie, sandwich, broccoli, takeout), animals (dinosaur, hedgehog, giraffe, zebra), and faces (starstruck, mindblown, shhhing, and expletive-spouting angry face). Perhaps more importantly, the update also added half a dozen new ways to represent humans: There’s a woman cradling a baby, a woman wearing a hijab, and three new gender-neutral options to represent people at all ages. The set of emoji proposals approved earlier this year also added the options to give emoji gray or red hair, as well as new cultural symbols like a mooncake and a nazar amulet. Those feel like the most fundamental improvements to emoji’s vocabulary, and the best indication of where emoji are headed. As underrepresented communities continue show up as thoughtfully designed icons, we can understand something about cultural priorities and the types of people who are included in forming this growing digital language.
The next batch of emoji will depend on what people design and submit for consideration to Unicode. Anyone can submit a proposal to add a new emoji: Unicode requires a prototype of the emoji, an explanation of how and why people would use it, and what its addition would mean for the greater emoji language. In 2017, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposed an emoji mosquito as a way to better describe mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and Zika. (Unicode approved the mosquito, along with 156 other icons, in early 2018.) Not everyone can understand English, not everyone can wrap their mind around the medical consequences of Zika, and not everyone is literate. But an icon of a mosquito? Everyone can understand that. That offers a good indication of the future of emoji: a way to transcend language as we know it, toward a global culture and form of communication. We don’t all speak any one language—except emoji.
Meanwhile, emoji are beginning to take new shapes—like Apple’s Animoji, which uses the iPhone X’s Face Tracking technology to animate an emoji using a person’s facial gestures. For now, the feature only works with a handful of animal emoji—the cat, dog, monkey, panda, pig, rabbit, chicken, fox, alien, robot, unicorn, and, for some reason, pile of poop—but it could one day include everything with a face in the emoji library. As computing moves beyond the small screens of our cell phones, emoji could follow too, taking on new forms on new platforms.
As they do, there will need to be ways to ensure that emoji look the same no matter the platform. Emoji have slowly converged into consistent designs across platforms: You can see it with the major redesigns in Apple’s emoji in 2016 (RIP, Pink Shirt Girl ?) and with Android’s emoji in 2017 (so long, blob). Both of these changes helped to streamline emoji across platforms, so that the characters you send on an Android show up looking more or less the same on an iPhone. Emoji created for use in Animoji—or whatever the next app will be—should follow consistent design standards, too, ensuring that cross-platform emoji conversations register the same on all platforms and devices. Because emoji aren’t just a silly way to decorate messages. They’re a complex, robust form of digital language—one that continues to evolve.
The Emoji Is the Birth of a New Type of Language
Fully 92 percent of all people online use emoji. On Instagram, nearly half of the posts contain emoji. Emoji are so popular they’re killing off netspeak: The more we use ?, the less we use LOL and OMG. What does the rise of emoji as a digital language mean for the future of words?
The Newest Emoji Say as Much About Us as Actual WordsTaken as a collective, each new batch of emoji look like a jumble of digital plants and animals and household items. But behind each proposal, there are clues about how our digital communication is becoming more nuanced, more colorful, and more important.
The Emoji Diversity Problem Goes Way Beyond Race
Diversity within the emoji lexicon isn’t just about finding a little icon that looks like you. The presence or absence of emoji contributes to cultural visibility and erasure: Who gets to be represented in the digital language of the future? And how do those representations take into account delicate geopolitical issues, like nationhood, ethnicity, religion, and war?
Designing Genderless Emoji? It Takes More Than Just Losing the Lipstick
Emoji meant to represent women and girls have been, for years, overly gendered: doe-eyed, lipsticked, and hairstyled to the point of reading as feminine caricatures. The “neutral” faces scan as male. And for people who don’t believe gender is either-or, or don’t identify as a particular gender, there weren’t great options. Now that’s slowly starting to change.
The Delicate Art of Creating New Emoji
How does the emoji sausage get made? We peek inside the Unicode Consortium, where new emoji proposals are discussed, debated, and decided. The consortium has had to choose the hues available for the complexions of smileys. It has had to OK and reject religious symbols. And one day it may have to decide whether to endorse an emoji family with two gender-fluid parents, or, as is allowed in Oman, a family with one husband and four wives.
This guide was last updated on July 18, 2018.
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