Emoji, part 6b: steps in the right direction

The emoji enlightenment dawned in August 2015. As we saw last time, that was the month in which the Unicode Consortium published “Emoji 1.0”, a document that listed all available emoji characters and, crucially, described how to create new emoji by combining existing symbols.1 It was a big change to the status quo, and it was done with one overriding aim in mind: to allow emoji to become more representative of the people who used it. So what did Unicode do with that newfound freedom? We’ll find out over the next two parts as we follow emoji’s journey from Emoji 1.0 right up to the present day.


With Emoji 1.0, the Unicode Consortium introduced two ways to create new emoji. First, they gave an existing Unicode character called the ZERO WIDTH JOINER the power to fuse emoji together to make new symbols (👩 + ZWJ + ❤️ + ZWJ + 👩 = 👩‍❤️‍👩 ). Second, they created five new “Fitzpatrick modifier” symbols, each one representing a different skin tone (‘🏻’, ‘🏼’, ‘🏽’, ‘🏾’, and ‘🏿’), each of which modified an immediately preceding emoji to change its skin colour (👶 + 🏾 = 👶🏾).2 It was the latter of these that made the first, biggest splash.

Several months before Emoji 1.0 had been formally published, in the spring of 2015, the Atlantic, the Washington Post, the Guardian and a number of other news outlets reported excitedly that Apple was planning to introduce skin tone support to the emoji available on its devices.3,4,5 It could easily have been a non-story: an Apple news website called 9to5Mac had discovered some new emoji in the beta version of a minor update to Apple’s desktop operating system, OS X, and said as much in a perfunctory news story about the release.6 In an world in which emoji were not alienated from a large proportion of their users, that would have been the end of the matter. But dissatisfaction with emoji had only grown more pronounced in the wake of Apple’s admission in March 2014 that yes, emoji were not representative of many of the people who used them.7 Though the final version of Apple’s software would not be made available until April 2015, and though the official publication of Emoji 1.0 was still months away, Apple was eager to show itself to be a company in tune with the times — and in turn, the media was happy to jump on the story.8,9,2 The headlines said it all: “Finally, Emoji People of Color” (Robinson Meyer, the Atlantic3); “Finally, Apple emojis reflect America” (Dean Obeidallah, CNN10); “Diverse thumbs up! Emojis with different skin tones finally here” (BBC Newsbeat11).

Apple had adopted wholesale Emoji 1.0’s draft recommendations for the handling of skin tone. Chiefly, this meant adding support for the five skin tone modifiers, but it also meant changing the default apperance of the emoji to which they could be applied. In drafting Emoji 1.0, Peter Edberg and Mark Davis had suggested that “When [realistic emoji] are shown in color, they should preferably use a non-realistic skin tone (such as yellow-orange)”12 — that is, the absence of a realistic skin tone should be as obvious as its presence. As such, Apple modified its previously white-skinned human-form emoji — GIRL (👧), BOY (👦), WOMAN (👩), MAN (👨) and so on — to use the same bright yellow skin that had long been used for more stylised “smileys”. In doing so, they exchanged one problem for a brace of new issues.

White people in Twitter's 2014 emoji
White people in Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

First, and perhaps most obvious, was the clumsy choice of yellow as a “neutral” skin colour. As Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post explained in an article entitled “Are Apple’s new ‘yellow face’ emoji racist?”:

The problem arises, of course, when [yellow skin] is applied to a more humanoid face — particularly as part of a big “multicultural” rebranding. Now Apple is asking us to see emoji not as icons, only, but as actual representative stand-ins for real human people. And as many a Twitter pundit has pointed out, when real human people are called “yellow-faced,” it’s … explicitly racist.4

White people in Twitter's 2016 emoji
White people in Twitter’s 2016 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 2.0.0.)

And there was another problem. When applying Emoji 1.0’s skin tone modifiers to each of their newly–yellow-skinned emoji, Apple simply reused the underlying artwork so that, for example, “👩” became “👩🏻”, “👩🏼”, “👩🏽”, “👩🏾” and 👩🏿”. Unfortunately, this is not how ethnicity works: a black person is not just a white person with darker skin, and a white person is not just a black person with lighter skin. Apple had not created diverse emoji so much as a graphic warning of the dangers of the tanning salon. Paige Tutt of the Washington Post pithily summed up the problem: “These new figures aren’t emoji of color; they’re just white emoji wearing masks.”13 To be fair, Apple had merely implemented the Unicode Consortium’s own guidelines — guidelines that recognised skin tone but not race — but in doing so they had made themselves a lightning rod for criticism.

By 2016 the novelty of emoji skin tones had worn off but the controversy had not. Writing for the Atlantic, Andrew McGill found that in the USA, the first five of emoji’s six skin tones were used on Twitter in roughly the same proportions, despite Twitter’s user base being far more white than black. (The very darkest skin tone, EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE-6, or “🏿”, was used considerably less often than each of the others.) In interviewing Twitter users for his article, McGill found that some white users felt so uncomfortable using a mechanism that had been designed for non-white people that they considered an emoji with a light skin tone to be tantamount to a “white power” gesture. But in falling back to the default yellow emoji, McGill suggested, those same white users were essentially claiming that supposedly neutral skin tone for themselves — and scoring an own goal in the process.14

Complaints of racial insensitivity enabled by Apple’s new emoji were not confined to the opinion pages. Mere days after the new emoji had been launched, Clorox, a brand of cleaning supplies, tweeted a collage of new emoji in the shape of a bottle of their bleach. The picture was captioned:

“New emojis are alright but where’s the bleach.”15

The intent, so Clorox hastily explained, had been to lightheartedly call out the absence of a “bleach” emoji, but the implication of metaphorical whitewashing did not sit well with many of Twitter’s users.16,15 Also on Twitter, the Grey’s Anatomy actor Ellen Pompeo and fashion model Kendall Jenner, both of them white, were criticised in 2016 and 2017 respectively for using non-white skin tones in tweets.17,18

In light of all the problems surrounding skin-tone emoji, it is tempting to wonder: what if Unicode had simply recommended a different “neutral” skin colour? Could a patently inhuman colour without yellow’s negative connotations — cyan, say, or bright green — have obviated the need for realistic skin tones entirely? We’ll never know, of course, because Unicode did not do that. Moreover, for all the ensuing missteps — Unicode’s creation of a mechanism for emoji diversity that made it possible to be even more racist online; Apple’s over-hasty rush to implement it; and our own use (and misuse) of the resulting emoji — the Unicode Consortium held firmly to its chosen course. Google and Facebook, both voting members, added skin tone support in 2016 and 2017 respectively; Twitter, an associate member, in 2016.19,20 Like them or not, the ethnically-diverse icons of Emoji 1.0 are here to stay.


The next tectonic shift in the emoji landscape came late in 2016 as part of Emoji 4.0. (For the most part, Emoji 2.0 and Emoji 3.0 had been concerned with codifying which emoji supported skin tone variations, but more on these two emoji updates will follow in a subsequent post.) This time round, the changes were motivated by a paper entitled “Expanding Emoji Professions: Reducing Gender Inequality” that had been submitted to the Unicode Consortium in May 2016. In it, Rachel Been, Nichole Bleuel, Agustin Fonts and Mark Davis made a two-pronged case for expanding the range of professions represented in emoji and for letting users choose from male and female versions of each one.21 The four (all Googlers, though Davis also moonlighted as Unicode’s president) opened their proposal with a quote from an NYT op-ed entitled “Emoji Feminism”, published in March 2016. Amy Butcher, its author, pulled no punches:

Where, I wanted to know, was the fierce professor working her way to tenure? Where was the lawyer? The accountant? The surgeon? How was there space for both a bento box and a single fried coconut shrimp, and yet women were restricted to a smattering of tired, beauty-centric roles? […] Men were serving on the police force, working construction and being Santa. Meanwhile, on our phones, it was Saturday at the Mall of America — women shopping while men wrote the checks.22

Ouch.

To get round the sclerotic dual-track processes of the Unicode Technical Committee and the ISO/IEC, Been et al turned to the ZERO WIDTH JOINER as the means to implement their new emoji. By gluing together existing characters, rather than proposing new, standalone symbols, the Google quartet gained access to a fast-track standardisation process aimed at helping emoji become more diverse, more quickly.23 As an example, WOMAN plus ZWJ plus WRENCH might produce a female mechanic: “👩 + ZWJ + 🔧 = ‍👩‍🔧”. “Expanding Emoji Professions” suggested thirteen such formulations, each of which provided for both male and female versions:

Business
👩 + ZWJ + 💼 = ‍👩‍💼
👨 + ZWJ + 💼 = 👨‍💼
Healthcare
👩 + ZWJ + ⚕ = ‍👩‍⚕️
👨 + ZWJ + ⚕ = 👨‍⚕️
Science
👩 + ZWJ + 🔬 = ‍👩‍🔬
👨 + ZWJ + 🔬 = 👨‍🔬
Education
👩 + ZWJ + 🎓 = ‍👩‍🎓
👨 + ZWJ + 🎓 = 👨‍🎓
Technology
👩 + ZWJ + 💻 = ‍👩‍💻
👨 + ZWJ + 💻 = 👨‍💻
Industry (e.g. factory worker)
👩 + ZWJ + 🏭 = ‍👩‍🏭
👨 + ZWJ + 🏭 = 👨‍🏭
Industry (e.g. mechanic)
👩 + ZWJ + 🔧 = ‍👩‍🔧
👨 + ZWJ + 🔧 = 👨‍🔧
Farming
👩 + ZWJ + 🚜 (proposed); 👩 + ZWJ + 🌾 = ‍👩‍🌾 (ratified)
👨 + ZWJ + 🚜 (proposed); 👨 + ZWJ + 🌾 = ‍👨‍🌾 (ratified)
Food service
👩 + ZWJ + 🍳 = ‍👩‍🍳
👨 + ZWJ + 🍳 = 👨‍🍳
Education
👩 + ZWJ + 🏫 = ‍👩‍🏫
👨 + ZWJ + 🏫 = 👨‍🏫
Music
👩 + ZWJ + 🤘 (proposed); 👩 + ZWJ + 🎤 = ‍👩‍🎤 (ratified)
👨 + ZWJ + 🤘 (proposed); 👨 + ZWJ + 🎤 = 👨‍🎤 (ratified)

Eagle-eyed readers will count only eleven professions here. Been and her co-authors suggested separate “doctor” and “nurse” healthcare emoji, but only a single, generalised version was ultimately approved. A proposed “high-tech industry” profession, formed by 👩 + ZWJ + ⚡️, was also rejected.21 Worst of all, the joyless technocrats of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee rejected “👩 + ZWJ + 🤘” as the sequence for “singer”, or “rock star”, in favour of the crushingly literal “👩 + ZWJ + 🎤”.

But if Been, Bleuel, Fonts and Davis lost those minor battles, they won the war convincingly. When Emoji 4.0 was released in November 2016, it took the premise from “Expanding Emoji Professions” and ran with it, adding not thirteen new professions but sixteen,* all available in male and female versions. More significantly, it used the same ZWJ-based mechanism to make essentially all human emoji available in gendered variants. HAPPY PERSON RAISING ONE HAND, for example, which was nominally genderless but usually rendered as female, could now be combined with “♀️”️ or “♂️️” to create explicitly female (🙋‍♀️) and male (🙋‍♂️) versions respectively. Emoji’s 4.0’s sweeping changes to gender rocked emoji just as surely as the skin-tone variations of Emoji 1.0 — and, speaking of which, Emoji 4.0 also codified skin-tone support for its new professions and newly-gendered emoji.24,25

All this led to a combinatorial explosion of emoji. Depending on how you count (and, for a variety of technical reasons, counting emoji is not at all easy26), Emoji 4.0 introduced somewhere north of 750 new glyphs, leading to a cumulative total of more than 2,300 emoji from which users could choose.27 Emoji platform vendors — Google, Apple, Facebook, WhatsApp and the like — scrambled to add emoji search boxes and other mechanisms to make it easier to apply skin tones, gender changes or both.28,29,30

There was another, subtler side-effect. To render the male version of HAPPY PERSON RAISING ONE HAND with EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE-5, for instance, a typical denizen of Emoji 4.0, requires five separate Unicode characters: “🙋 + 🏾 + ZWJ + ♂ + VARIATION SELECTOR-16 = ‍🙋🏾‍♂️”. There’s a lot going on here, so let’s examine each character in turn:

  1. 🙋 — our base emoji. Though it is normally rendered as a woman, it has no specific gender.
  2. 🏾 — a skin-tone emoji that modifies the emoji preceding it to create “🙋🏾”.
  3. ZWJ — the “glue” character that combines the preceding “🙋🏾” with the male symbol that follows.
  4. ♂ — joined to the “🙋🏾” that precedes it by the intervening ZWJ so that it displays as the male variant of the emoji.
  5. VARIATION SELECTOR-16 — another invisible character, like the ZWJ, that modifies the visible characters around it. VARIATION SELECTOR-16 converts certain characters normally drawn in a plain, typographic style into their emoji counterparts. In this case, it is applied to “♂”, to convert it into its emoji-fied variant, “♂️”, so that it correctly modifies the “🙋🏾” emoji that precedes it.

That’s five Unicode characters, totalling 17 bytes of storage, to render a single emoji. (Just as it is hard to count emoji, working out the number of bytes occupied by a string of Unicode characters is not always intuitive. Blame UTF-8, Unicode’s clever but convoluted scheme for turning “code points”, or individual characters, into the smallest possible number of bytes.31) By way of comparison, most characters that can be typed on a standard QWERTY keyboard require only a single byte of storage,32 but even so, in a world of 4K screens, 4G connections and unlimited streaming budgets, 17 bytes per emoji is not unreasonable. On the face of it, at least.

For some platforms, however, 17 bytes per character is entirely unreasonable. The ubiquitous but ancient SMS text messaging service, for example, designed in 1985 to secrete its messages in an under-used part of the mobile phone network protocol, managed to carve out space for a mere 160 seven-bit characters per message.33 Use an esoteric character such as ‘é’ or ‘ø’ and this drops to 140 eight-bit (i.e. one byte) characters per message; use a multi-byte character from the depths of Unicode, such as an emoji, and the budget drops to just 70 characters. Composite emoji, therefore, such as the five-character “🙋🏾‍♂️”, are positive space hogs.34

Twitter, too, imposes a character limit on each post, although unlike SMS its 280-character cutoff is an artificial limit imposed to keep messages short and to the point. In common with SMS, however, emoji on Twitter had always been more costly than normal characters, and composite emoji costlier still. In 2018, then, to avoid penalising users for adding skin tone or gender to their emoji, Twitter modified its character counting logic so that all emoji were considered to occupy two of those 280 characters, whatever their actual length in bytes.36,37 It was a small step towards a more equitable emoji world, but a notable one: no longer would the minutiae of character encoding schemes be permitted to influence how one might express ethnicity or gender. All emoji were now equal in Twitter’s eyes.


All this aside, Emoji 4.0 and its gendered professional emoji received a far more relaxed reponse than had Emoji 1.0 and its support for skin tones. Headlines were either neutral or tended towards the positive: “New Female Career Emojis Are Coming!”;38 “Finally: Female Emojis Will Have Actual Occupations Other Than ‘Dancing Lady’”;39 “Unicode’s next emoji update focuses on gender and jobs”.40

Unicode’s drive to diversify emoji was finally having the desired effect. Next time round, we’ll take a look at just how far emoji have come since then — and how far they still have left to go.

1.
Jeremy Burge, “Emoji Version 1.0”, Emojipedia
2.
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Unicode Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji (version 1.0)”, Unicode.Org, 2015. 
3.
Robinson Meyer, “Finally, Emoji People of Color”, The Atlantic, February–2015. 
4.
Caitlin Dewey, “Are Apple’s New ‘yellow face’ Emoji Racist?”, Washington Post, February–2015. 
5.
Jess Zimmerman, “Racially Diverse Emoji Are a Nice Idea. But Will Anyone Use Them?”, The Guardian, April–2015. 
6.
Zac Hall, “More Diverse Emoji Characters Likely Coming With OS X 10.10.3”, 9to5Mac, February–2015. 
7.
Joey Parker, “What Does Apple Think About The Lack Of Diversity In Emojis? We Have Their Response.”, MTV Act, March–2014. 
8.
“OS X Yosemite 10.10.3 Update”, Apple Support, 2015. 
9.
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Proposed Draft Unicode Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji (version 1.0)”, Unicode.Org, 2014. 
10.
Dean Obeidallah, “Finally, Apple Emojis Reflect America”, CNN, April–2015. 
11.
“Diverse Thumbs Up! Emojis With Different Skin Tones Finally Here”, BBC Newsbeat, April–2015. 
12.
Peter Edberg and Mark Davis, “L2/14-172R: Proposed Enhancements for Emoji Characters: Background”, 2014. 
13.
Paige Tutt, “Apple’s New Diverse Emoji Are Even More Problematic Than before”, Washington Post, April–2015. 
14.
Andrew McGill, “Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji”, The Atlantic, 2016. 
15.
David Goldman, “Clorox Apologizes, Deletes Tweet After Racial Uproar”, CNN Money, April–2015. 
16.
Clorox, “Wish We Could Bleach Away Our Last Tweet. Didn’t Mean to Offend - It Was Meant to Be about All the [toilet] [bathtub] [wine Glass] Emojis That Could Use a Clean Up.”, Twitter, April–2015. 
17.
Laura Beck, “Ellen Pompeo Criticized for Using Black Emoji, Responds by Getting Super Defensive”, Cosmopolitan, December–2016. 
18.
Ikran Dahir, “People Are Calling Out Kendall Jenner For The Emoji She Used In A Tweet”, BuzzFeed, August–2017. 
19.
Jeremy Burge, “Twemoji 2.0 Emoji Changelog”, Emojipedia, December–2015. 
20.
Unknown entry 
21.
Rachel Been et al., “Expanding Emoji Professions: Reducing Gender Inequality”, 2016. 
22.
Amy Butcher, “Emoji Feminism”, New York Times, March–2016. 
23.
“Submitting Emoji Proposals”, Unicode.Org, 2019. 
24.
“113 New Unicode Emoji (plus Skin Tones)”, The Unicode Blog, November–2016. 
25.
Jeremy Burge, “What’s Planned for Emoji 4.0”, Emojipedia, August–2016. 
26.
“Unicode Emoji Chart Format”, Unicode.Org, 2019. 
27.
“Emoji Versions, v12.0”, Unicode.Org, 2019. 
28.
“Use Emoji on Your IPhone, IPad, and IPod Touch”, Apple Support, 2018. 
29.
“Using Emoji”, WhatsApp FAQ, 2019. 
30.
Cameron Summerson, “How to Search for Emoji and GIFs in Android’s Gboard Keyboard”, How-To Geek, December–2016. 
31.
Francois Yergeau, “RFC 3629: UTF-8, a Transformation Format of ISO 10646”, ed. Network Working Group, November–2003 November–2003. 
32.
Mathias Bynens, “UTF-8 String Length & Byte Counter”, mothereff.In
33.
Mark Millan, “Why Text Messages Are Limited to 160 Characters”, Los Angeles Times, May–2009. 
34.
“Character Sets and Coding”, in 3GPP TS 23.038 V15.0.0 (2018-06), 2018, 19-24. 
35.
Casey Newton, “Twitter Just Doubled the Character Limit for Tweets to 280”, The Verge, September–2017. 
36.
Andy Piper, “New Update to the Twitter-Text Library: Emoji Character Count”, Twitter Developers, 2018. 
37.
Jon Porter, “Twitter Now Counts All Emoji Equally, Regardless of Gender or Race”, The Verge, December–2018. 
38.
Katie Rosseinsky, “New Female Career Emojis Are Coming!”, Grazia, July–2016. 
39.
Megan Friedman, “Finally: Female Emojis Will Have Actual Occupations Other Than ‘Dancing Lady’”, Marie Claire, July–2016. 
40.
Jessica Conditt, “Unicode’s Next Emoji Update Focuses on Gender and Jobs”, Engadget, August–2016. 
*
In addition to the eleven mentioned above, Emoji 4.0 added the following five new professions at Apple’s request:

Artist
👩 + ZWJ + 🎨 = ‍️👩‍🎨
👨 + ZWJ + 🎨 = 👨‍🎨
Astronaut
👩 + ZWJ + 🚀 = ‍👩‍🚀
👨 + ZWJ + 🚀 = 👨‍🚀
Firefighter
👩 + ZWJ + 🚒 = ‍👩‍🚒
👨 + ZWJ + 🚒 = 👨‍🚒
Judge
👩 + ZWJ + ⚖️ = ‍👩‍⚖️
👨 + ZWJ + ⚖️ = 👨‍⚖️
Pilot
👩 + ZWJ + ✈️ = ‍👩‍✈️
👨 + ZWJ + ✈️ = 👨‍✈️

 

Depending on your browser, this may or may not actually work. 
Twitter increased its character limit from 140 to 280 as recently as 2017. The original limit had been chosen to allow users to interact with Twitter via SMS.35 

The Book (書的大歷史) is now available in Chinese!

Cover of the Chinese (complex character) edition of The Book
The cover of the Chinese (complex characters) edition of The Book, as published by Rye Field Publications.

I’m happy to announce that The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time is now available in Chinese (complex characters), courtesy of Taiwan’s Rye Field Publications. It’s available now and is priced at NT$550. If you happen to buy a copy, please leave a comment below or drop me a line via the contact form to let me know what you think!

Emoji, part 6a: the trouble with emoji

The emoji season of 2019 is upon us. Every year or so for the past half-decade, successive batches of new emoji have issued forth from the hallowed conference rooms of the Unicode Consortium. This year, the emoji gods sent down their new creations — focused on improving representation of people with disabilities — on the 5th of February.1

This yearly tradition is much younger than emoji itself. Emoji has always had an ambiguous relationship with culture, ethnicity and gender — which was forgivable, perhaps, in 1999, when emoji were monochromatic 12 × 12 icons unable to communicate anything much more nuanced than “this is a person’s face”. Fifteen years later, when they had morphed into full-colour, professionally-drawn icons promoted by a bevy of global tech giants, emoji’s ongoing gender bias and cultural insensitivity was starting to look less naïve than it was wilfully ignorant.

Yellow-skinned smileys in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Consider the state of emoji in June 2014, just after their first major update since standardisation in 2010.2,3 And take, for example, the cartoonish yellow colour sported by smileys across the emoji spectrum (including those available on Twitter, as shown above4). It was a deliberately unrealistic skin colour, a hand-me-down from the days of Harvey Ball’s original 1963 smileys that happened to be so conspicuously artificial as to head off any perception of racial discrimination.5,6 Or at least, so the theory went. Unfortunately, it did just the opposite.

Most obviously, emoji’s yellow smileys sailed perilously close to invoking the old-fashioned stereotype of the “yellow-skinned” Asian — an issue that went unremarked (or, worse, unnoticed) for an uncomfortably long time. Moreover, many commentators drew parallels between emoji’s smiling yellow faces and the bright yellow cartoon characters depicted in The Simpsons,5,7,8 a popular animated series, but, despite their stylised skin colour, Bart, Homer, Lisa, Maggie and Marge were plainly meant to be white. Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons, claimed to have chosen the colour yellow solely because it might catch the eye of a channel-hopping viewer, but that raised the question of why the show’s non-white characters were given brown skin of various hues.9,10 Whether one saw a crude yellow-face stereotype or a white person masquerading as some impossible, aracial ideal, emoji’s yellow-skinned smileys have never been without baggage.

White people in Twitter's 2014 emoji
White people in Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Misguided or not, the typical yellow-faced smiley at least aspired to the idea that emoji could transcend race. When Twitter, Apple and others applied themselves to emoji’s more realistic characters, such as GIRL (👧), BOY (👦), WOMAN (👩) or MAN (👨), there was no escaping the fact that they were, to an emoji, white.11* It was not a good look.

Gender roles in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Gender roles in Twitter’s 2014 smileys. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Skin colour was not the only problem with emoji in 2014. Most emoji with an identifiable gender were arranged along what might be charitably called traditional lines: only men could be police officers or construction workers; only women danced, got their hair cut or went for a massage; and only heterosexual couples could kiss or raise children.3 Perhaps this should not be surprising: the pocket bell pagers that gave rise to emoji did not embody the most progressive attitudes to gender. One model came in a girls’ version, pre-loaded with messages such as “I’m happy” and “I won’t forgive you”, and a boys’ version with missives such as “I’m sorry”.12

Culturally-specific symbols in Twitter's 2014 emoji
Culturally-specific symbols in Twitter’s 2014 emoji. (CC-BY 4.0 images taken from Twemoji version 1.4.0.)

Finally, 2014’s emoji were culturally lopsided. Having spawned emoji in the first place, Japan figured heavily in the contemporary emoji lexicon: Japan claimed the only national map and flag icons in the set (🗾, 🎌); a disproportionate number of emoji food items were Japanese, including sushi (🍣), a bento box (🍱) and a rice cracker (🍘); the country’s famed bullet train received its own emoji (🚅), as distinct from the more generic HIGH-SPEED TRAIN in use in other countries (🚄); not to mention a host of Japanese cultural peculiarities such as love hotels (🏩), carp-shaped streamers (🎏), wind chimes (🎐), and the yearly “moon viewing ceremony” (🎑). Elsewhere, there were thinly-veiled ethnic stereotypes of Western, Chinese and Indian people.13

Emoji’s diverse collection of users surveyed this problematic set of symbols, at once sprawling and patchy, and began to ask themselves: why don’t they speak for me?


The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so they say, but Unicode was reluctant to take that step.

Back in 2008, the Unicode Consortium launched a consultation about what it called “emoji”, an idiosyncratic set of Japanese symbols it proposed to add to the standard. One notable response came from Ed Trager, the owner of a website about Unicode fonts, who was forthright about emoji’s limitations:

There is a symbol for “BLOND PERSON” — but in Japanese this is a 西洋人 or 白人 — in other words, a Westerner or Caucasian. And “MAN WITH LONG MOUSTACHE” is really a 中国人 — a “Chinese Man”. And “MAN WITH TURBAN” is really a インド人 — a Hindu. […] Wouldn’t it really be much more tactful if we had some symbols for people of other ethnic backgrounds as well?

How about FLAGS? The selection is ridiculously limited and arbitrary. Better encode flags of all of the nations of the world, if that is even possible without large dispute. Nice can of worms there too. […] There are also EAR OF RICE and CORN and CHESTNUT and PINEAPPLE. Fine, but where is ACORN and SHAFT OF WHEAT and RAMBUTAN and MANGO and MEDJOOL DATE? […] Interestingly, there is a CHAPEL but I don’t see a BUDDHIST TEMPLE or SHINTO SHRINE (even though this is a set of Japanese origin?). Weird.14

Cultural, ethnic and geographic biases galore, and all this before emoji had even been ratified in the standard. But the Unicode Consortium was not ready to grasp the nettle. Emoji debuted in 2010, as part of Unicode 6.0, and Trager’s concerns were not addressed.

Three years later, a recently laid-off NASA programme manager named Katrina Parrott took matters into her own hands — and this time Unicode took notice. Published to the Apple App Store on the 11th of October, 2013, Parrott’s self-funded “iDiversicons” app gave users hundreds of emoji-like icons depicting female construction workers, male nurses, people of colour, multi-ethnic families, same-sex couples, and more.15 Parrott wrote:

Introducing iDiversicons: The amazing new set of emoticons that show the world how you really feel. Representing an entire world of faces, iDiversicons offers everything from African-American and Asian, to Latino/Hispanic, Indian, Caucasian and Biracial.

iDiversicons attracted a respectable amount of media attention, featuring in the Houston Chronicle, Bustle, The Daily Dot and other outlets,15,16,17 but Parrott did not stop there. Within months of her app’s launch, she had submitted a series of proposals to Unicode18,19 asking them to incorporate iDiversicons into the standard and joined the consortium as an individual member to agitate for change from within.20

In March 2014, soon after iDiversicons’ debut, a contributing writer for MTV named Joey Parker took it upon himself — apropos of very little, it seems — to email Apple’s CEO Tim Cook to ask him why there were so few non-white emoji available on the company’s devices. Katie Cotton, VP of worldwide communications at Apple, responded on Cook’s behalf:

Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.21

Cotton’s message was the closest thing to an official admission that emoji had some growing-up to do. Unfortunately, it came too late to make much of a difference: published in June 2014, Unicode version 7.0 added more than two hundred new emoji (most of them refugees from Microsoft’s Wingdings typeface22) but it was clear that little had been done to fix emoji’s lack of diversity.23 Smileys were still yellow; families were still headed by mum and dad; and police officers were still men.

But Apple’s mea culpa signalled that emoji’s honeymoon period was over. If the media in 2010 had been too starstruck by emoji’s debut to critically evaluate its contents, four years later the lustre had worn off. Reporting on Unicode’s 2014 update, an article written by Eric Brown of the International Business Times was titled “Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity”.24 Writing in The Guardian, Alex Hern cited a petition to raise awareness of the near-unbroken whiteness of Apple’s emoji.25 And over at New York magazine’s website for women, The Cut, Allison Davis set out a semi-satirical list of emoji missing from Unicode 7.0 that included “Afro (Black-person emoji, please.)”, “Jewfro (Curly hair transcends color.)”, “Two Women With Child (Equality!)”, “Two Men With Child (Equality!)”, “Two Women With Biracial Child (Equality! Diversity!)”, and so on.26 Emoji was in the news again, and for all the wrong reasons.


Now, finally, Unicode got it. And having got it, they moved remarkably quickly to tackle the problem.

In August 2014, just months after the disappointment of Unicode 7.0, the consortium’s technical director and president co-wrote a memo that envisioned a more inclusive character set. “L2/14-172R — Proposed enhancements for emoji characters: background” might not have won points for nominal creativity, but in it Peter Edberg and Mark Davis were candid about emoji’s problems. “It is clear that the Unicode Consortium needs to address more quickly some of the issues that have come up”, they wrote, calling attention to emoji’s lack of ethnic and cultural diversity.27 It was the starting gun for some long-overdue introspection on Unicode’s part, and it signalled a sea change in emoji as a whole.

The first visible result of Edberg and Davis’s memo came in June 2015 in the form of Unicode 8.0, yet another version of the standard — and one that arrived rather ahead of schedule. Unicode 6.0, the first edition to contain emoji, had been published in 2010; version 7.0 came in 2014; and now Unicode 8.0 had appeared less than a year after that.2,3,28 Squint, and it almost looked like Unicode were starting to take emoji seriously.

Many of Unicode 8.0’s new emoji characters, such as such as ROBOT FACE (🤖), TURKEY (🦃), and BOTTLE WITH POPPING CORK (🍾), were relatively pedestrian. Arriving with them, however, was a group of five disembodied patches of skin — ‘🏻’, ‘🏼’, ‘🏽’, ‘🏾’, and ‘🏿’ — that were less easy to fathom.29 By themselves, EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE 1, EMOJI MODIFIER FITZPATRICK TYPE 2 et al did very little, but when used in combination with certain other emoji they made a world of difference. And Unicode 8.0 made use of another character, too, that turned emoji on its head. All of this came together not in the virtual doorstop that was Unicode version 8.0, but in a new and, relatively speaking, accessible document.

Enter Emoji 1.0.


Bear with me for a moment, because we need to make a brief but sexy detour into the world of version numbering. Major revisions of the Unicode Consortium’s eponymous standard have always been named Unicode 1.0, Unicode 2.0, and so on. In August 2015, however, in the wake of Unicode 8.0, the group published a supplementary document called “Unicode® Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji”30 which was both a guide to the technical aspects of emoji encoding and a list of all emoji characters that existed in the main Unicode 8.0 standard itself. It was a field guide to emoji, in essence, cherry-picking those parts of the Unicode standard that related to emoji and eliding the rest, and it came to be known by the slightly more wieldy name of “Emoji 1.0”.31,1

Emoji 1.0 freed emoji from Unicode’s rigorous and conservative standardisation process. The basic concept of Unicode was unchanged — every single character included in the Unicode standard, whether emoji or not, still had to be voted on and approved by the full Unicode Technical Committe and ratified by the (deep breath) Coded Character Sets standardization subcommittee of ISO/IEC Joint Technical Committee 1 — but with Emoji 1.0 the Unicode Consortium was giving emoji a shortcut. For reasons you may already have guessed at, it was now possible to combine multiple emoji characters to create new composite glyphs, but with the caveat that such new glyphs were recommendations only, rather than “real” Unicode characters. Henceforth, the main Unicode standard would contain only standalone characters; Emoji 1.0 and its successors, on the other hand, would list all recommended combinations of emoji.1 A small but significant wedge had been driven between staid old Unicode and vibrant, vital emoji.

The first group of composite characters introduced with Emoji 1.0 came courtesy of the five skin colour emoji described above. These five tones drew on a dermatological classification called the “Fitzpatrick scale” that categorized skin tone by a person’s reaction to ultraviolet light.32 When placed immediately after one of a designated set of emoji (all of which displayed at least some skin), a Fitzpatrick modifier glyph caused the emoji to change its skin tone so that, for example, the BABY emoji took on a more realistic skin colour: 👶 + 🏾 = 👶🏾 .30 The method of combining a regular emoji with a Fitzpatrick modifier simply by placing the two next to each other was simple and robust: if a given messaging app or web browser understood that ‘👶’ and ‘🏾’ could be combined, so much the better; if not, and the two were displayed as separate glyphs, the reader would at least still get the general idea: “👶‌🏾”.

Beyond the Fitzpatrick modifiers, the key to Emoji 1.0’s next parlour trick was a previously unheralded character called the ZERO WIDTH JOINER. I would reproduce it here, but there is no point: the ZWJ, as it is usually called, is one of a handful of Unicode characters that have no visible representation but rather exist to change the behaviour of the “real” characters around them. The ZWJ, for its part, had been created to help make sense of certain complex scripts such as Arabic, Devanagari and Malayalam, where two abutting letters could take one form or another depending on context: the ZWJ “glued” such characters together; its sibling, the ZERO WIDTH NON JOINER, held them apart.33

When applied to emoji, the ZERO WIDTH JOINER opened the door to a much more diverse character set. Unlike the skin tone modifiers, the ZWJ did not simply change the colour of existing emoji; instead, it created entirely new glyphs. The prototypical example given in Emoji 1.0 was as follows: 👩 + ZWJ + ❤️ + ZWJ + 👩 = 👩‍❤️‍👩 , creating a same-sex couple emoji that, along with tens of similar composite glyphs, sailed blissfully past the lumbering ISO/IEC standardisation process.30

Taken together, Emoji 1.0’s skin tone modifiers and ZWJ-based symbols marked fundamental shifts both in how emoji worked on a technical level and in the set of symbols that we, the users, could make use of in our online writings. Moreover, Emoji 1.0 was the first of many emoji updates that would make a splash in the mainstream press, giving rise to the annual festival of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick over the new glyphs that will soon make an appearance on their smartphones and computers.

Next time, we’ll take a look at some of the new symbols that emoji season has brought us over the years and, in doing so, we’ll see just how difficult it is to build a truly representative character set.

1.
Jeremy Burge, “230 New Emojis in Final List for 2019”, Emojipedia Blog, 2019. 
2.
“Unicode 6.0.0”, Unicode.Org, 2010. 
3.
“Unicode 7.0.0”, Unicode.Org, 2014. 
4.
“Twemoji v1.4.0”, 2014. 
5.
Caitlin Dewey, “Are Apple’s New ‘yellow face’ Emoji Racist?”, Washington Post, February–2015. 
6.
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Unicode Technical Standard #51: Unicode Emoji (version 11.0)”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
7.
Robinson Meyer, “Finally, Emoji People of Color”, The Atlantic, February–2015. 
8.
Andrew McGill, “Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji”, The Atlantic, 2016. 
9.
“Hotseat: The Simpsons Creator Matt Groening”, CBBC Newsround, 2007. 
10.
Zara Rahman, “The Problem With Emoji Skin Tones That No One Talks About”, The Daily Dot, 2018. 
11.
Jeremy Burge, “Man Emoji”, Emojipedia
12.
Tamiko Lippit, “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”, International Herald Tribune, April–1995. 
13.
The Unicode Consortium, The Unicode Standard, Version 6.0 - Archived Code Charts, 2010. 
14.
Ed Trager, “Emoji: Public Review December 2008 - A Very Pretty Can of Worms Indeed”, Unicode Mail List Archive, 2008. 
15.
Heather Alexander, “Mom’s New Line of Diverse Emoticons Includes Same Sex Couples, Brown Faces”, Houston Chronicle, July–2014. 
16.
Elizabeth Robinson, “The One-Woman Mission to Diversify Emoji”, The Daily Dot, July–2014. 
17.
Lucia Peters, “IDiversicons Give Us the Emoji Diversity We Need (Finally!)”, Bustle, July–2014. 
18.
Katrina Parrott, “L2/14-085: UTC Document Submission: Request Approval to Add ‘Our New IDiversicons: Diverse Emoji Characters’ to the Next Updated Unicode Standard”, 2014. 
19.
Shervin Afshar and Katrina Parrott, “L2/14-154R: Report on Diversity Emoji Use in IDiversicons and Proposal to Add New Emoji from IDiversicons Collection to Unicode”, 2014. 
20.
Alicia Lutes, “Chattin’ Diversity, Emojis, and Representation With iDiversicons’ Katrina Parrott”, Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls, June–2015. 
21.
Joey Parker, “What Does Apple Think About The Lack Of Diversity In Emojis? We Have Their Response.”, MTV Act, March–2014. 
22.
“Emoji Versions & Sources, v11.0”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
23.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 7.0”, Emojipedia
24.
Eric Brown, “Unicode Unveils 250 New Emoji, Gets Thumbs Down For Diversity”, International Business Times, June–2014. 
25.
Alex Hern, “More Than 250 New Emojis Announced by Unicode”, The Guardian, June–2014. 
26.
Allison P. Davis, “Life Won’t Be Complete Until We Get These Emojis”, The Cut, June–2014. 
27.
Peter Edberg and Mark Davis, “L2/14-172R: Proposed Enhancements for Emoji Characters: Background”, 2014. 
28.
Exception when rendering entry (Unicode800) 
29.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 8.0”, Emojipedia
30.
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Unicode Technical Report #51: Unicode Emoji (version 1.0)”, Unicode.Org, 2015. 
31.
Jeremy Burge, “Emoji Version 1.0”, Emojipedia
32.
Thomas Fitzpatrick B, “The Validity and Practicality of Sun-Reactive Skin Types I Through VI”, June–1988. 
33.
The Unicode Consortium, “3.0 New Character Semantics”, in Unicode Standard, Version 1.1, 1993, 5-8. 
*
Yes, they are yellow now. Come back next time to find out why. 
There was one glimmer of hope, in that two men could hold hands (👬), or two women (👭).3 
Ironically, in order to demonstrate the fallback rendering of a BABY emoji followed by a Fitzpatrick skin tone modifier (👶‌🏾), I had to place a ZERO WIDTH NON JOINER between the two to stop them being rendered as a single glyph. 

Emoji, part 5: a trending topic

So far in this series we’ve seen how emoji were created in Japan, how they made their way into the wider world, and who takes responsibility for them now they’re free to range across our screens. Aside from mentions in a few tech news outlets, however, emoji’s early life went largely unreported. The mainstream media prefers a juicier drama and, in this article, we’ll take a look at some of the stories that have seen emoji riding high — and low — in the press.


It can feel like emoji have been around forever, but Google’s search trends tool pinpoints the surprisingly recent moment at which emoji caught 🔥: it was June 2014,1 a month in which two events in particular caught the popular imagination. The first was the arrival of the seventh edition of a hitherto-obscure technical standard called Unicode, in which the addition of 250 so-called emoji characters was cause for wild celebration. But the associated media frenzy was slightly misplaced. It is true that Unicode labelled 250 new glyphs as emoji, but 248 of them were actually dingbats, taken from Microsoft’s ubiquitous “Wingdings” pi font, and most of those were recommended to be drawn as sober, monochrome symbols rather than joyous, multicoloured emoji.2,3 As we saw last time round, the only genuinely new emoji were SLIGHTLY SMILING FACE (🙂) and SLIGHTLY FROWNING FACE (🙁).4

Even so, it was apparent that emoji had fired the popular imagination, and the second event that occurred in June 2014 was designed to piggyback on exactly this phenomenon. Enter “Emojli”, the first and so far only social network limited to the use of emoji. Emojli was founded on June 30, 2014, by a broadcast engineer named Matt Gray and a YouTube producer called Tom Scott. Inspired by the launch of Unicode’s new emoji, Gray and Scott created a “Coming soon!” website allowing users to pre-register their choice of username (comprising only emoji, of course) on what was, at that point, an entirely fictitious social network.5,6 70,000 reservations later the pair felt duty bound to turn Emojli from a joke into reality in the form of a messaging app that could send only emoji.7

The media, both new and old, could not get enough. Drawing comparisons with another social network named “Yo” (itself a hair’s breadth from outright parody, Yo’s only feature was the ability to exchange messages containing the word “Yo”),8 Emojli was featured by the Daily Mail, Forbes, The Verge, the Washington Post, Time and more.9,10,11,12,13 Soon, news outlets began to widen their search for novel emoji stories. The lack of diversity in emoji skin tones became a public issue for the first time.14 Australian politician Julie Bishop, then president of the the UN Security Council, raised columnists’ eyebrows after spending a day replying to tweets using only emoji.15* Fast Company ran an inadvertently Freudian “Oral History of the Poop Emoji”,18 while NBA player Mike Scott gained a rare mainstream interview because of his extensive emoji tattoos.19

The following year was no different. As President Barack Obama welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House in April 2015, the president thanked his guest for Japan’s cultural exports of “manga and anime, and, of course, emojis”.20 That same month, former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray raised the profile of Scotland’s wedding of the year — that is, his own — by posting a tweet about it comprising only emoji:21

🌞☔😂👔💅💇😂👰😂🚗💒💃👫🙏💍💏👏📝🎹📷🎥🚗🍷🍴🎂🎊🎉👯🎶🎤🍹🍻🍷🍺🍩🍦🍷🍹🍸🍺🌙❤💕😘💤💤💤💤💤💤💤22

Also in April 2015, Snapchat, a zeitgeisty messaging service, modified its apps to use emoji to show relationships between users. “Best friend” relationships, where two users exchanged the bulk of their messages with each other, were labelled with “💛”, one-sided relationships with “😏︎”, “love triangles” with “😬”, and so on. It was a savvy use of emoji, partly because those little symbols conveyed a whole multitude of teenage angsts in a mere thirty-two bits each, but mostly because it propelled Snapchat into the headlines for some free publicity.23 May, too, was another notable month for emoji: the United Arab Emirates made waves when they threatened to prosecute anyone caught using the middle finger emoji (🖕), while over in the UK, the BBC reported that emoji were “the fastest growing form of language in history”.24,25

Matt Gray and Tom Scott shuttered Emojli in mid-2015, tired of providing technical support for what was essentially a joke gone viral (Gray: “We don’t want it to die”; Scott: “We just don’t want it to live either”).7 Alone among the big news outlets, Forbes and Business Insider lamented Emojli’s passing,26,27 but they did not linger long upon it. Emojli was old news, and the firehose of new emoji stories showed no signs of slowing. Kurita’s symbols had taken on a life of their own in the unrelenting glare of the media.


In February 2015, as the emoji trend-o-meter crept ever upwards, a dating network called Match.com published the results of a survey of single Americans. Entitled Singles in America, the survey revealed that online daters were more likely than their real-world counterparts to have a full-time job, to be educated to university level or higher and, ironically, to conduct break-ups without the aid of their smartphones.28 But this was not what caught the headlines. No, what the Guardian, the Huffington Post, Time and USA Today29,30,31,32 rushed to tell their readers was that a higher level of emoji use was an accurate predictor of which singles had more sex.33

As with Snapchat, Match.com were not shy in using emoji to attract attention. Press releases and corporate blog posts about the survey were widely quoted, so that we discovered that women who used kissing emoji more than others and who had sex with familiar partners found it easier to reach orgasm.35§ We learned about respondents’ favourite amorous emoji, such as “😉”, “😊”, and “😘”.37 It was all was gently titillating, a Pythonesque nudge and a wink for the internet age, but it rather missed the point: emoji were and had been in use as overtly sexual symbols almost from the beginning.

It is time to talk about the aubergine in the room. And be aware: the following paragraphs contain figurative emoji nudity.

As described by The Daily Dot’s John-Michael Bond in his 2016 article A beginner’s guide to sexting with emoji, the modern descendants of Shigetaka Kurita’s little icons have become a godsend for horny internet users: TACO (🌮), PEACH (🍑) and AUBERGINE (🍆) have made their way into the sexting canon as go-to symbols for the vagina, bottom, and penis, with many other emoji along for the ride. If the taco seems too vulgar, for instance, rest assured that the euphemistic HONEY POT (🍯) and TULIP (🌷) are viable alternatives, as is the rather more risqué CAT FACE (🐱). Correspondents who feel uncomfortable with an aubergine, so to speak, might choose to use a shrimp instead (🍤); or, if they prefer to keep things vegetarian, the once-popular BANANA (🍌).38

The aubergine stands out as mascot of the emoji sexual revolution to the extent that “🍆” has become almost wholly dissociated from real aubergines in favour of its saucy alternative meaning. Writing in the rarefied pages of Duke University’s American Speech journal, lexicographers Ben Zimmer, Jane Solomon and Charles E. Carson trace its emergence as graphical slang for “penis” as far back as 2011, barely a year after it first entered the emoji vocabulary.39 Its star has only risen since then. The aubergine’s first big appearance in the public eye came in 2015, when the photo sharing service Instagram banned searches for “🍆” because it was a surefire way to find penis-related contraventions of the site’s code of conduct.40 A year later, the aubergine was back in the news when a British publicity flack named Jack Kenyon launched eggplantmail.com, a service whereby customers could anonymously send an aubergine to their person of their choice. (Incredibly, this PR disaster-in-waiting lives on today: as Kenyon described it at the time, it was and remains “100% phallic. 100% anonymous. 100% disturbing.”)41 Later again in 2016, condom maker Durex stoked the fire by tweeting a hoax advert for aubergine-flavoured prophylactics.42,43

The peach emoji provides the aubergine’s only real competition in the sexy-emoji-in-the-news stakes, but it hit a bum note in 2016. A glance at Emojipedia’s visual history of the peach demonstrates that through the emoji ages, and across many emoji platforms, the shape of the “🍑” has always leaned towards the gluteal. As with the aubergine, in fact, the peach has come close to shedding its original meaning. In December 2016, for example, Emojipedia found that the top five words used in tweets that also contained a peach emoji were “like”, “ass”, “peach”, “badgirl”, and “booty”, and that a mere 7% of tweets containing a “🍑” actually referred to the fruit itself.44 The peach’s beatification (or debasement, depending on your point of view), was complete.

This might go some way to explaining the collective shout of anger sent up in November 2016 when Apple changed the appearance of the “🍑” in a test version of iOS, its mobile operating system. The new, rounder and generally more believable “🍑” was part of a general overhaul of Apple’s emoji that gave existing symbols a lick of paint and added new ones to bring iOS into line with Unicode version 9.0. Reaction was swift and dismayed and, such was the power of emoji, much of it emanated from parts of the media unused to caring about the minutiae of software beta testing. “I, for one, am furious”, wrote Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed in an opus that bemoaned the neutering of the peach emoji as “the worst kind of gentrification of the internet”.45 At Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Narins considered that “shit has hit the fan”,46 while an unimpressed EJ Dickson of Glamour likened the new design to “one of those foamy Fisher Price balls your teachers made you use in gym class because they were afraid of getting sued by the parents”.47 Apple’s new peach had gone pear-shaped.

To its credit, Apple backed down almost as soon as the scale of the outrage became clear. The first polemics on the family-friendly “🍑” redesign were published at the start of November 2016; the very same writers and news outlets were reporting on the reinstatement of the older, fruitier peach barely a fortnight later.48,49 And so it is today that the “🍑” has returned to its euphemistic roots: it, and emoji in general, remain attentive to your bedroom needs.


In their brief existence, emoji have colonised almost all aspects of online communication. We live in a world in which businesspeople have to be reminded not to use “🍆” in formal emails;50 where Julie Bishop, the emoji-loving UN official, can give an interview using only emoji;51 and where Patrick Stewart, Shakespearean stalwart and Star Trek’s Jean-Luc Picard, can voice a talking “💩” in an animated movie designed solely to capitalise on tween emoji fever.52 Like all forms of communication, however, ubiquity has its down side (and not only because, I am led to believe, The Emoji Movie is terrible): the more often people use emoji, the more often emoji find themselves employed in less than innocent circumstances.

That emoji could have a less savoury side was foreshadowed in 2013 by its ASCII ancestor, the emoticon. In July that year, a medical researcher named Dr Robert Ferrante was arrested in West Virgina for poisoning his wife, Dr Autumn Klein, with a cyanide-spiked energy drink. Among the evidence presented by prosecutors was an exchange of text messages in which Klein asked her husband, “Will [the energy drink] stimulate egg production too?” Ferrante replied with a smiling emoticon. It may not have been the first time an emoticon was used in court, but it does seem to have been the first time the media picked up on it. CBS News, People, the BBC and others made special mention of Ferrante’s manipulative use of a smiling face.53,54,55

The next criminal emoticon to appear in the news predated Ferrante’s but was only reported in 2014, a year later, when another grim murder case went to trial. On November 29th, 2009, a Twitter user named Lacey E. Spears had posted the following tweet:

My Sweet Angel Is In The Hospital For The 23rd Time :( Please Pray He Gets To Come Home Soon.56

Spears’s “Sweet Angel” was her son Garnett, as her followers knew, but the sentiment in her tweet — and its jarring emoticon — was in grotesque opposition to the truth. Spears had fed Garnett toxic amounts of salt in order to hospitalize him and, in doing so, to elicit sympathy from friends, family and other well-wishers. The 5-year-old Garnett died in 2014 and Spears was put on trial in New York for his murder. Her lawyers tried to portray her as a doting mother by citing her tweets (including the one above) and highlighting her frequent use of emoticons as proof of her loving intent, but the jury was unconvinced and she received a 20 year sentence in 2015.57,58,59

Emoji joined the macabre party in April 2014 with news of a shooting in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in which the suspected murderer had taunted the sister of his intended victim by text message. “It’s a chess game,” Christopher Levi Jackson wrote, “I’m up two moves a head … try again. Bang bang, bang.” For emphasis, the message ended with 27 gun-related emoji, leading police to arrest Jackson on the strength of his graphic threat.60 In January the next year, at the other end of the country, NYPD officers apprehended one Osiris Aristy for a Facebook post that contained a string of violent emoji, claiming that they “caused New York City police to fear for their safety”.61 Emoji were now grounds for arrest.

Emoji’s criminal associations have only intensified since those first provocative salvos. In December 2014, for instance, papers reported that three Muslim siblings were arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare airport as they boarded a flight to Istanbul on the way to join Islamic State in Syria. The prosecution cited a tweet sent by the 17-year-old sister, who expressed her appreciation of a grisly IS propaganda video with a heart emoji and a smiley face — proof positive, the prosecution said, that she planned to join IS.62 In 2015, as the trial began of Ross Ulbricht, accused of running a notorious online black market, Ulbricht’s defence lawyer successfully argued that emoji in his client’s written correspondence should be presented in full to the court so that there would be no mistaking their true intent.63 And as if to prove that geography is no barrier to emoji appearing in legally fraught circumstances, in 2017 an Israeli landlord successfully sued prospective tenants who had replied to his advert of a house to let with a text that read:

Good morning 😊 Interested in the house 💃🏻👯‍✌️☄️🐿🍾… Just need to discuss the details… When’s a good time for you?64

So encouraged, the landlord took down his advert only to miss out on potential rental income when the clients dropped out without warning. The judge in the case opined:

These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff’s great reliance on the defendants’ desire to rent his apartment.65

These and other cases have peppered the headlines in the past few years. As they have come and gone, two things have become apparent.

First, emoji (even when gun-shaped) do not reliably constitute smoking guns. A grand jury in the case levelled against alleged Baton Rouge shooter Christopher Levi Jackson were unconvinced that his 27-emoji rant communicated intent to commit murder and declined to prosecute;66 similarly, the NYPD’s complaint against Osiris Aristy was dismissed by a New York grand jury that decided “🔫🔥🔥🔥👮🔫🔫” was not enough to send the 17-year-old to jail.67 Conversely, nor are emoji get-out-of-jail-free cards: black marketeer Ross Ulbricht was ultimately convicted and sentenced to life in prison, so whatever goodwill his lawyer hoped might be conjured by a friendly emoji or two singularly failed to materialise.68

Second, the shifting technological and semantic sands on which emoji are built makes it uniquely difficult to rely on them as evidence. It’s tempting to look at Aristy’s cartoonish water pistols, for instance, and wonder why New York’s finest felt threatened in any way — but in 2014, when Aristy posted the offending message, his “🔫” emoji would have appeared as realistic guns. It was only in April this year that Facebook joined other major emoji platforms in rendering the PISTOL as a harmless plastic toy and thereby taking the menace out of Aristy’s messages.69

These are complex issues and, despite having been taken up by the crime beat journalists, law students and legal scholars who take an interest in such things,70,71,72 it remains to be seen how emoji’s place in court will shake out. To coin a phrase, as far as emoji are concerned, the jury is still out.


So much, then, for the good, the bad and the sexy of emoji news. For all this coverage, perhaps the most telling emoji-related headline of 2018 is one that does not fit into any of the above categories. It appeared on the New York Times website on December 23rd, 2018, and it read:

Does This Look Right to You? HOLLA🎄D TONNEL73

To put this in context, the Holland Tunnel is a road tunnel that crosses beneath the Hudson from Manhattan to Jersey City.74 Each year for some years the tunnel’s tollbooths have been decorated with giant Christmas decorations in the shape of two wreaths and a Christmas tree. Here is the scene in 2007:

Holland Tunnel in December 2007
The Holland Tunnel in December 2007. (CC BY-ND 2.0 image courtesy of Flickr user “Kingfox”.)

The first wreath fits neatly over the ‘O’ in “HOLLAND”, but here the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey parts ways from civilised society. Rather than place the Christmas tree over the geometrically friendly ‘A’, the Port Authority hangs it on the antagonistic ‘N’. (The second wreath is placed over the ‘U’ in tunnel, which is certainly frustrating, but at least the ‘U’ and the implied ‘O’ that replaces it are both vowels.)

Irritation with this odious tradition boiled over in the run-up to Christmas 2018, leading to a petition on Change.org that in turn prompted the NYT to weigh in with its emojified “HOLLA🎄D TONNEL” headline. The Port Authority capitulated a few days after the Times’ article and let the public vote on the placement of the decorations; the voters, to their credit, demanded that the Christmas tree be moved to the ‘A’ and the second wreath removed altogether.75

What are we to make of this? For one thing, the public can be trusted to make the correct decision at least some of the time. But for our purposes, the true moral of the story is this: emoji are no longer merely driving the headlines. From this point on, they are quite capable of being the headlines.

1.
“Emoji”, Google Trends, 2018. 
2.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 8.0”, Emojipedia
3.
“Emoji Versions & Sources, v11.0”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
4.
Karl Pentzlin, “L2/10-429: Proposal to Encode Three Additional Emoticons”, 2010. 
5.
Emojli, “Emojli - the Emoji-Only Network Launches Soon! Register Your Username Now at http://emoj.Li”, Twitter, June–2014. 
6.
Parmy Olson, “Bye-Bye, Words: An Emoji-Only Social App Is Coming”, Forbes, 2014. 
7.
Victoria Turk, “The Creators of Emojli: ’Don’t Build an App’”, Motherboard, September–2014. 
8.
Steven Tweedie, “The Rise, Falter, And Future Of Yo”, Business Insider, June–2014. 
9.
Victoria Woollaston, “App That Only Lets You Communicate Using EMOJIS Launches - and Even the Usernames Are Made up of Emoticons”, Daily Mail Online, September–2014. 
10.
Tara Tiger Brown, “My Emojli Username Is TigerHeartTiger - What’s Yours?”, Forbes, August–2014. 
11.
Jacob Kastrenakes, “Emojli Is a Chat App That Only Lets You Send Emoji”, The Verge, June–2014. 
12.
Jessica Stahl, “Quiz: Is Your Emoji Game Ready for the Emoji-Only Social Network?”, Washington Post, July–2014. 
13.
Laura Stampler, “Emojli: Social Network That Uses Emojis Only”, Time.Com, July–2014. 
14.
Andrew Cunningham, “Apple’s Working to Introduce More Diverse emoji—what’s the Holdup?”, Ars Technica, March–2014. 
15.
“Julie Bishop Twitter Emoji Use Is Winning Her Fans.”, Mamamia, 2014. 
16.
Sarah Kimmorly, “#WorldEmojiDay Is on the Same Day As Emoji Fan Julie Bishop’s Birthday”, Business Insider, July–2015. 
17.
Jeremy Burge, “World Emoji Day FAQ”, World Emoji Day
18.
Lauren Schwartzberg, “The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)”, Fast Company, 2014. 
19.
Sam Laird, “Express Yourself: NBA’s Mike Scott Explains His Sweet Emoji Tattoos”, Mashable, October–2014. 
20.
Matt Alt, “How Emoji Got to the White House”, The New Yorker, 2015. 
21.
Katie Baillie, “Andy Murray Predicts Entire Wedding Day in Epic Emoji Tweet”, Metro, April–2015. 
22.
Andy Murray, “Tweet”, Twitter, April–2015. 
23.
Caitlin Dewey, “Snapchat’s Controversial Emoji Update: An Explainer for the Old and/Or Confused”, The Washington Post, April–2015. 
24.
Mari Shibata, “The Middle Finger Emoji Could Land You in Jail in the UAE”, Motherboard, 2015. 
25.
Anna Doble, “UK’s Fastest Growing Language is... Emoji”, BBC Newsbeat, 2015. 
26.
Erin Griffith, “Emojli Emoji Social Network to Shut down”, Fortune, June–2015. 
27.
Matt Weinberger, “Emojli Emoji-Only Social Network Shuts down”, Business Insider, June–2015. 
28.
“Singles in America 2015”, Match.Com, 2015. 
29.
Jess Zimmerman, “Are You a Smug Emoji Snob? Chances Are you’re Not Getting Laid”, The Guardian, February–2015. 
30.
Chris York, “Emoji Use Linked To Great Sex Life And Better Orgasms”, The Huffington Post UK, February–2015. 
31.
Laura Stampler, “Match.Com’s 2014 Singles in America Survey: What Emoji Say About Sex”, Time, February–2015. 
32.
Mary Bowerman, “Emoji Users More Likely to Have Sex, Survey Finds”, USA Today, February–2015. 
33.
Justin R. Garcia, “So Emojional{\ldots} Why U.S. Singles Use Emojis”, Match.Com, 2015. 
34.
Caitlin Dewey, “Using More Emoji Does Not Mean you’ll Have More Sex {>}:-(”, The Washington Post, February–2015. 
35.
“Happy National Orgasm Day!”, Match.Com, 2015. 
36.
Darcy Raymond, “Swipe Right for (Love)”, MacEwan University Student Research Proceedings, 2017. 
37.
Emma Finamore, “The More Emojis You Use, the More Sex You Have”, The Independent, February–2015. 
38.
John-Michael Bond, “A Beginner’s Guide to Sexting With Emoji”, The Daily Dot, December–2016. 
39.
Benjamin Zimmer, Jane Solomon, and Charles Carson E, “Among the New Words”, May–2016. 
40.
Amanda Holpuch, “Instagram Ban on Emoji Has Sexters Searching for Fruity Alternatives”, The Guardian, April–2015. 
41.
Chitra Ramaswamy, “Real Life Emoji Sexting: Would You Post Someone an Aubergine?”, The Guardian, March–2016. 
42.
Durex Global, “#BreakingNews: We’re Launching an Exciting New Savoury #condom Range - Eggplant Flavour! ? #CondomEmoji”, Twitter, September–2016. 
43.
Arjun Kharpal, “Durex Announced an Eggplant Flavored Condom for a Very Serious Reason”, CNBC, September–2016. 
44.
Hamdan Azhar, “How We Really Use The Peach”, Emojipedia, September–2016. 
45.
Charlie Warzel, “Emojis Are Becoming Hyper-Realistic And That Is A Bad Thing”, BuzzFeed News, November–2016. 
46.
Elizabeth Narins, “People Are Panicking About the New Peach Emoji Because It Doesn’t Look Like a Butt”, Cosmopolitan, November–2016. 
47.
EJ Dickson, “Apple’s Peach Emoji No Longer Looks Like a Butt”, Glamour, November–2016. 
48.
Julie Gerstein, “Apple Brought The Peach Butt Emoji Back, Thank God”, BuzzFeed News, November–2016. 
49.
Romain Dillet, “Apple Brings Back the Peach Butt Emoji”, TechCrunch, 2016. 
50.
Lydia Dishman, “The Business Etiquette Guide To Emojis”, Fast Company, July–2016. 
51.
Mark Di Stefano, “Julie Bishop Describes Serious Diplomatic Relationships With Emoji”, BuzzFeed News, February–2015. 
52.
“Patrick Stewart to Voice Poo Emoji in The Emoji Movie”, The Guardian
53.
Crimesider Staff, “Autumn Klein Update: Robert Ferrante, Pittsburgh Medical Researcher, Accused of Poisoning Doctor Wife With Cyanide”, CBS News, July–2013. 
54.
Steve Helling, “Dr. Robert Ferrante Accused of Killing His Wife, Dr. Autumn Klein”, People, November–2013. 
55.
“Pittsburgh Scientist Charged over wife’s Cyanide Death”, BBC News, July–2013. 
56.
Lacey E. Spears, “My Sweet Angel Is In The Hospital For The 23rd Time :( Please Pray He Gets To Come Home Soon...”, Twitter, November–2009. 
57.
“Defense in Case of Woman Accused of Poisoning Son With Salt Faces Uphill Battle, Legal Experts Say”, May–2015. 
58.
“Emojis As Evidence: Recent Developments”, Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2015. 
59.
Associated Press, “Lacey Spears, Who Killed Son With Salt, Gets Leniency in Sentencing”, New York Times, April–2015. 
60.
Ryan Broussard, “Text Message Helps Detectives Find Suspect in Shooting”, The Advocate, July–2014. 
61.
Katie Zavadski, “Brooklyn Teen Arrested for Emoji-Laden Threats Against NYPD”, New York
62.
Kevin Sullivan, “Three American Teens, Recruited Online, Are Caught Trying to Join the Islamic State”, Washington Post, December–2014. 
63.
Benjamin Weiser, “At Silk Road Trial, Lawyers Fight to Include Evidence They Call Vital: Emoji”, New York Times
64.
Ephrat Livni, “An Israeli Judge Ruled in That Emojis Show Intent for Legal Purposes”, Quartz, May–2017. 
65.
Ido Kenan, “[Emoji] Show Intention to Rent Apartment, Says Judge”, Room 404, 2017. 
66.
Joe Gyan, “Grand Jury Takes No Action in Baton Rouge Murder Case, Suspect to Be Set Free”, The Advocate, October–2014. 
67.
Holly Richmond, “Should Emoji Hold Up in Court?”, Center for Digital Ethics & Policy, 2015. 
68.
Sam Thielman, “Silk Road Operator Ross Ulbricht Sentenced to Life in Prison”, The Guardian, May–2015. 
69.
Jeremy Burge, “Google Updates Gun Emoji”, Emojipedia Blog, 2018. 
70.
Eli Hager, “Is an Emoji Worth 1,000 Words?”, The Marshall Project, 2015. 
71.
“Emojis As Evidence: Recent Developments”, Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 2015. 
72.
Rebecca Berels, “Take Me Seriously: Emoji As Evidence”
73.
Michael Gold, “Does This Look Right to You? HOLLA?D TONNEL”, New York Times, December–2018. 
74.
“History - Holland Tunnel”, The Port Authority of NY & NJ
75.
Jen Maxfield, “Port Authority Moves Holland Tunnel Wreaths After Majority of Commuters Vote for Change”, NBC New York, December–2018. 
*
In a gratifying coincidence, Bishop’s birthday takes place on July 17 — which is the date of World Emoji Day,16 as founded by Jeremy Burge, the mastermind behind Emojipedia. Burge chose the date in reference to Apple’s calendar emoji (📅), which itself commemorates the launch of Apple’s iCal calendar app.17

As an aside, this series owes an enormous amount to Burge’s site. Short only of certain Unicode minutiae, Emojipedia is the emoji reference source. It’s well worth a few moments of your time to have a look around. 

See Emojipedia for the full list
Caitlin Dewey of the Washington Post was one of the few columnists to point out that correlation does not equal causation, and that increased emoji use did not necessarily lead to increased sexy times.34 
§
Mind you, in 2017 a psychology student named Darcy Raymond studying at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Canada, found that emoji use in dating profiles correlated with a lower perceived intelligence on the part of the profile’s owner. You win some, you lose some.36 

Emoji, part 4: who owns emoji?

As emoji become ever more ingrained in our online lives, the question asks itself: who decides which emoji we can type? As we learned last time, the answer is the Unicode Consortium, the body that oversees the lexicon of symbols with which computers communicate. Founded in California in 1991, the consortium, in its own words,

is a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.1

A noble aim indeed. But who’s behind the curtain?

As might be expected from its origins in Silicon Valley, Unicode’s voting members — that is, those with the final say on which characters will enter the Unicode standard — skew heavily towards big tech companies such as Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and IBM. The German software company SAP is a rare non-American outlier; the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei is rarer still as the only voting company whose home country does not use the Latin alphabet. Rounding out these tech heavyweights are a pair of typographic specialists, Adobe and Monotype.2

There are also a number of non-commercial voting entities, and here things get more interesting. The governments of Oman, Bangladesh, India and Tamil Nadu, one of India’s constituent states, each spend between $12,000 and $18,000 per year for voting rights.2,3* Oman, which joined in 2015, spins its membership as a way to help promote Arabic script culture; more concretely, it wishes that Unicode would fix the way it encodes certain Qur’anic characters.5,6 Bangladesh and India, both of whom became members in 2010, make the case for better support for the scripts of the Indian subcontinent: some Bengali letters are cumbersome to use, for example, while Unicode’s treatment of Indic scripts in general has attracted criticism for a variety of technical reasons.7,8 Tamil Nadu joined a year later, partly to encourage Unicode to improve its approach to Tamil and partly to needle the federal Indian government, with which it had an ongoing feud about Tamil encoding.9 Yet another Indian state, Andhra Pradesh, was a member from 2011 to 2014, when it hoped to boost the profile and the interoperability of its own script, Telugu.10,5

Now, a cynic might look at all this and wonder: are India and the Arabian Peninsula blessed with community-minded governments who have joined up out of the goodness of their hearts? Or is it conceivable, perhaps, that Unicode may not always have been the best steward of non-Latin scripts? Unicode has also come under fire in China, Japan and the Korean Peninsula as the standard-bearer for “CJK unification”, a somewhat controversial effort to reduce the number of characters required to represent those regions’ closely-related scripts.11,12 CJK unification is driven by the Ideographic Rapporteur Group, a separate but related body, but Unicode’s rubber-stamping of the IRG’s work has opened it up to collateral damage all the same.13

These are the problems that arise when a small group of people — however well-informed they are, and however disinterested they try to be — take charge of the lingua franca of the world’s computers. And unfortunately for Unicode, emoji have only widened the scope for criticism.


As we saw last time, the Unicode Consortium’s core mission is to assign a unique number to each and every character that forms part of human writing. With the glyphs in Unicode 1.0 drawn from a collection of existing character sets such as the USA’s ASCII, Japan’s Shift-JIS, and (my personal favourite), the USSR’s spellbinding GOST 10859-64, or Alphanumerical Codes for Punchcards and Punchtapes,14 the question has since become: which new characters should be admitted?

For a textual character, such as we might find in the body of an email or the text of a book, the price of entry is relatively low. It must already be in use, and it must be a single indivisible character. Imagine, for instance, that you want to be able to type in the fictitious (and awesome) character with a single keystroke on any one of the millions of Unicode-compliant devices around the world. You submit a proposal to Unicode — and they summarily reject it, because no language in the world actually uses . Even if your beloved g-umlaut did exist in the wild, Unicode would reject it all the same because it can already be created by combining the existing LATIN SMALL LETTER G (g) and COMBINING DIAERESIS ( ̈) characters.15

When it comes to what we might call symbols — characters that live alongside our text but are not entirely of a piece with it — things get a little more complicated. The symbols in Zapf Dingbats and other pi fonts were grandfathered into Unicode 1.0 without a great deal of scrutiny, but the consortium has since become more choosy and today any proposed symbol will be evaluated against a litany of criteria. Is it already in use within computer applications? Is it in common use within an active community? Is its meaning fixed and understood? Can it be used within plain text? (Emoji can, for instance, whereas traffic signs cannot.) Is it part of a group of related symbols? Does it fill a gap in the Unicode standard? There is an equally long list of reasons for rejection. Is the symbol trademarked? Is it typically used in standalone contexts (such as the aforementioned road signs) rather than in running text? Does it occur more in handwritten text than within computer applications? Does it lack a supportive community?16 And so on.

Shigetaka Kurita’s emoji are certainly symbols, as Unicode understands them, and they meet almost all of the positive requirements while simultaneously avoiding most of the negative ones. As such, when Google asked for their admission into the standard, there was little debate. Yet emoji differ from other symbols in one important way: they are constantly changing, both in meaning and in number. And this is problematic for Unicode because, per the consortium’s own guidelines, a symbol that is “part of a set undergoing rapid changes” will normally be rejected.16 As the character set of record, Unicode prefers new additions to be fully baked before incorporating them.

Emoji’s uncertain status is one that Unicode has brought upon itself. In the four years between Unicode 6.0, when emoji first made their way into the standard, and the publication in 2014 of Unicode 7.0,17 the organisation largely ignored emoji. Only two new emoji glyphs were introduced in 2014: SLIGHTLY SMILING FACE and SLIGHTLY FROWNING FACE, intended mostly to complete the familiar airport-bathroom satisfaction spectrum of “😊”, “🙂”, “🙁” and “☹️”.18 In 2015, however, just a year later, the newly-minted Unicode 8.0 incorporated no fewer than forty-one new emoji. Among them were new smileys (🤑, 🤒, 🙄); animals (🦁, 🦀); places of worship (🕍, 🕋, 🕌); sports (🏏, 🏓); and many more besides.19 It heralded a sea-change in how Unicode treated emoji, the fallout from which the organisation is still learning how to handle.

Shortly after release of Unicode 7.0 and its paltry brace of new smileys, Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, respectively the consortium’s president and technical director, circulated a memo addressing the state of emoji. They wrote:

Emoji characters have become extremely popular. Yet the choice of emoji to be represented in Unicode has left many people confused or disappointed.20

They were not wrong. Emoji had spread far and wide since their debut in 2010, but it was apparent that users were dissatisfied with the icons on offer. Moreover, as Davis and Edberg explained, users were bamboozled by the seeming arbitrariness of the emoji on their keyboards — not to mention the basic unfairness of it, too.

To start with, there was a preponderance of Japan-related glyphs such as bullet trains (🚅), creatures from Japanese folklore (👹, 👺), cultural symbols (🎑, 🎍, 🎎) and more, all at the expense of similar icons for other countries. Professions such as construction worker, police officer and dancer (👷, 👮, 💃) were depicted as stereotypically male or female and, similarly, a number of emoji depicting couples and families hewed to heterosexual norms (💏, 👪). Nor was there any variation in skin tone. Emoji’s smiley faces and tiny human figures were drawn with deliberately unreal yellow skin, but it was clear that there were no dark-skinned emoji to be found. Lastly, people just wanted more emoji: Edberg and Davis cited articles from BuzzFeed, NYMag and Business Insider in which, they said, there was “some surprising consistency” among the asked-for symbols.20

All this prompted Unicode to take the unprecedented step of opening up the standard to wholly new emoji, a luxury denied to all other types of symbol before and since. In the run-up to the publication of Unicode 8.0, Edberg and Davis themselves put forward a host of new emoji in the hope of filling some of the most egregious gaps in the standard. Among their new symbols were non-Japanese sports such as cricket (🏏), ice hockey and field hockey (🏒, 🏑), table tennis (🏓) and badminton (🏸);17 foods items such as a taco (🌮), a champagne bottle (🍾), and a wedge of cheese (🧀), all of which had been mooted in magazine articles and publicity campaigns;17 and, more significantly, five “selector” characters that changed the skin tone of existing emoji (🏻, 🏼, 🏽, 🏾 and 🏿).17 From Shervin Afshar of HighTech Passport Ltd and Roozbeh Pournader of Google came an accompanying proposal for religious symbols such as prayer beads (📿), the Kaaba (🕋), a synagogue (🕍) and others.17

The result was a dramatically expanded set of emoji in Unicode version 8.0, formally approved in June 2015 and available on smartphones and computers later that year.19 The floodgates were open.


In this brave new world of user-submitted emoji, a new glyph may be accepted into Unicode if it fills an obvious gap (as in the sports listed above); if the Unicode Consortium thinks it will be popular, based on hashtag usage or other social media barometers; or, lastly, if the consortium knows it will be popular because so many people are asking for it. Corporate emoji, those that are too general or too specific, and those that are likely to be passing fads are rejected.21

What this means is that emoji are now subject to a kind of directed, and occasionally misdirected, evolution. Most simply, any sufficiently motivated individual can make the case for their own personal hobby horse. Erstwhile New York Times journalist Jennifer 8. Lee did just that in proposing the dumpling emoji (🥟), a globally-recognised food whose absence was one of emoji’s many cultural blindspots.22 When radio producer Mark Bramhill lobbied for PERSON IN LOTUS POSITION (🧘), on the other hand, he did so not out of altruism but rather to provide material for an episode of a popular design podcast called 99% Invisible.23 Similarly equivocal motives abound on the part of those companies who ask their customers to lobby for new emoji on their behalf. Taco Bell ran a textbook crowdsourcing campaign in which it exhorted its patrons to tweet in support of a taco emoji (🌮), which was ultimately added to Unicode 8.0;24 Durex, on the other hand, failed to raise the same level of support for a condom emoji.25

Non-profits, too, often see emoji as an alternative to traditional advertising. In 2016, a Catalan cultural group petitioned WhatsApp to add an emoji for the traditional Catalunyan porrón, or wine flask, failing to realise that the Unicode Consortium would have been a better bet.26§ Elsewhere, Scotland, England, and Wales recently received their own regional flag emoji (🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿, 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁥󠁮󠁧󠁿 and 🏴, although operating system support is still patchy󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿) after a rather more successful proposal by Owen Wilson, a Welsh journalist.27 And corporate sponsorship and regional boosterism collided when Spanish food company Fallera enlisted a comedian named Eugeni Alemany to promote a paella emoji. The boisterous #PaellaEmoji campaign that ensued persuaded Unicode to approve it, but the resultant SHALLOW PAN OF FOOD emoji (🥘) put a few noses out of joint when Apple’s version did not display the traditional ingredients of rabbit, green beans, and garrafó beans.28

This last case illustrates another way in which emoji differ from other characters. If, having convinced the Unicode Consortium to approve your emoji, you will likely have little say in how it looks when it appears in the wild. In an ideal world, this would not be a problem — after all, how many type designers disagree on what the letter “A” should look like? — but emoji evolve so quickly that nothing can be taken for granted. In 2016, for instance, Apple decided to revise its PISTOL emoji so that it resembled a water pistol rather than a real gun. For two years, Apple’s “🔫” was at odds with the realistic guns depicted by more or less all of its competitors — until a collective change of heart in 2018 saw all of the other pistol emoji updated to match.29 Elsewhere, for a long time Samsung’s CROSSED FLAGS emoji (🎌) displayed Korean rather than the usual Japanese flags30 and, infamously, for most of 2014, Google’s YELLOW HEART (💛) incongruously presented itself as a pink, hairy heart.31 Unicode is a standard; emoji are not.


Today, Unicode finds itself at a crossroads. For most of the consortium’s twenty-seven–year history, its users — that is to say, us, the great unwashed of the internet — rarely gave text encoding a second thought. We typed our emails and text messages and read our web pages without worrying too much about how our letters and words were stored or communicated. That isn’t to say that computer manufacturers and software vendors were not jumping through hoops to make it all work, but nowadays, thanks to Unicode, the situation is much improved. As of October 2018, more than nine out of every ten websites use Unicode and mojibake, or garbled characters, are largely a thing of the past.32

With the advent of emoji, however, and particularly since the Great Emoji Expansion of ’14|| the public are paying a great deal more attention. Unicode’s yearly cadence of new versions brings with it “emoji season”, in which commentators critique the new emoji that will shortly appear on their computers, tablets and smartphones.33,34,35 Not all of this attention is positive (the Unicode Consortium has been criticised for its pale, male and stale membership; emoji for its cultural biases and lack of representation) but the limelight has encouraged the consortium to remake itself, and the little picture-characters it controls, in a more equitable light.

There are even whispers that Unicode would be happier to get out of the emoji business entirely so that it might rededicate itself to the job of encoding the world’s writing systems, but that is a story for another article. For now, it is enough to say that whatever the future holds, the 🧞 is out of the bottle and there is little prospect of it going back in.


1.
“The Unicode Consortium”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
2.
“Unicode Members”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
3.
“Membership Levels and Fees”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
4.
“Script Encoding Initiative”, UC Berkeley Department of Linguistics, 2018. 
5.
“Unicode Consortium Membership History”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
6.
Sheera Frenkel, “Why Is This Random Gulf Country Helping Pick Your Emojis?”, BuzzFeed News, 2016. 
7.
Aditya Mukerjee, “I Can Text You A Pile of Poo, But I Can’t Write My Name”, Model View Culture, 2015. 
8.
Jeroen Hellingman, “Indian Scripts and Unicode”, 1998. 
9.
Liat Berdugo, “Two Days With the Shadowy Emoji Overlords”, Rhizome, 2015. 
10.
“Telugu Joins Unicode Consortium As Full Member”, The Hindu, 2011. 
11.
Mirai No Moji kōdo Taikei Ni Watakushitachi Wa Fuan O Motteimasu, 1993. 
12.
Zhou Jing, “Combat over Chinese Character Unification”, china.org.Cn, 2008. 
13.
Ken Whistler, “Unicode Technical Note #26: On the Encoding of Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, and Han”, Unicode.Org, 2010. 
14.
“Source Standards and Specifications”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
15.
“Submitting Character Proposals”, Unicode.Org, 2016. 
16.
“Criteria for Encoding Symbols”, Unicode.Org, 2016. 
17.
Unknown entry 
18.
Karl Pentzlin, “L2/10-429: Proposal to Encode Three Additional Emoticons”, 2010. 
19.
Jeremy Burge, “Unicode Version 8.0”, Emojipedia
20.
Peter Edberg and Mark Davis, “L2/14-172R: Proposed Enhancements for Emoji Characters: Background”, 2014. 
21.
“Submitting Emoji Character Proposals”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
22.
Charlie Wurzel, “One Woman’s Bizarre, Delightful Quest To Change Emojis Forever”, BuzzFeed News, 2016. 
23.
Mark Bramhill, “Person in Lotus Position”, 99% Invisible, 2017. 
24.
Taco Bell, “The Taco Emoji Needs to Happen”, change.Org, 2014. 
25.
Durex Global, “#BreakingNews: We’re Launching an Exciting New Savoury #condom Range - Eggplant Flavour! ? #CondomEmoji”, Twitter, September–2016. 
26.
Sam Jones, “’A Symbol of Our land’: Catalan Group Pitches WhatsApp porrón Emoji”, The Guardian, August–2016. 
27.
“Wales Flag Emoji Finally Arrives on Twitter”, BBC News, 2017. 
28.
Sarah Miller, “The Secret History of the Paella Emoji”, Food & Wine, 2017. 
29.
Jeremy Burge, “Google Updates Gun Emoji”, Emojipedia Blog, 2018. 
30.
Jeremy Burge, “Samsung Puts Japan Back on the Map”, Emojipedia Blog, 2017. 
31.
John-Michael Bond, “You May Be Accidentally Sending Friends a Hairy Heart Emoji”, Engadget, 2014. 
32.
“Usage Statistics of Character Encodings for Websites”, W3Techs, 2018. 
33.
Jeremy Burge, “Issue 26 — Emoji Action Season”, Emoji Wrap, 2018. 
34.
“Drunk? Anaesthetised? Or Just Seen Your Bank Balance? – What the New Woozy Emoji Really Means”, The Guardian, November–2018. 
35.
Amelia Heathman, “World Emoji Day 2018: First Look at New Apple Emoji in IOS 12 Update”, Evening Standard, October–2018. 
*
The University of California, Berkeley, also stumps up the cash for a vote, albeit with an educational discount. Its involvement centres around the work of the Script Encoding Initiative, an ongoing project to encode scripts that are not yet in the Unicode standard.4 
By convention, Unicode character names are given in upper case. 
Full disclosure: I’ve contributed to two episodes of 99% Invisible
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WhatsApp duly declined, citing their inability to do actually do anything about the request. 
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I am trying to make this A Thing.