A post from Shady Characters

Emoji, part 4: who owns emoji?

This is the fourth in a series of thirteen posts on Emoji (😂). Start at PART 1, continue to PART 5 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

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?



10 comments on “Emoji, part 4: who owns emoji?

  1. Comment posted by Screwtape on

    My understanding is that it’s a bit unfair to claim Unicode as Western-centric because of the Unicode consortium. While the consortium does control Unicode, the ISO 10646 Working Group also controls Unicode, and working under the auspices of ISO (and thus, indirectly under the auspices of the United Nations) brings all the international and diplomatic considerations one might reasonably expect. National governments generally don’t need to join the consortium to have their voices heard, they can have their say through ISO.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Screwtape — thanks for the comment! That’s all true, and I thank you for explaining it so concisely.

      What I perhaps failed to get across in the article is that even today, outsiders watching the Unicode Consortium at work often seem to come away with the impression that it isn’t as representative as it might be.

      Separately, my understanding (which may well be faulty) is that Unicode essentially lead on emoji. It was Mark Davis who first championed emoji at Google’s request, and it was under the Unicode banner that much of the ensuing discussion took place. The organisation that drives emoji forward is the same one that has been criticised for a lack of diversity. That said, I will admit that I don’t understand the interplay between ISO/IEC 10646 and the Unicode Consortium as well as I might. I’d be happy to be educated!

  2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    I realize that your focus is on emoji, but I feel it necessary to correct two major misemphases in your introduction.

    First, the Unicode Consortium is not the sole master of the Universal Character Set, also known as Unicode. There is also the contribution of ISO, the International Organisation for Standards, to the process. I admit that “ISO/IEC JTC1/SG2/WG2” is not a very sexy name, so its very existence rarely gets mentioned in popular articles, but not a single character, including emoji, gets in the standard without being approved by both the Consortium and the Working Group through their separate processes.

    ISO working groups are made up of representatives of the standards organizations of any country that has one (as well as invited experts), and WG2 sees attendance and participation from Canada, Ireland, China, Japan, and 23 other countries, with all countries having one vote. This substantially counterbalances any perceived inequities in Unicode Consortium membership. So while the Consortium does the work of collecting data on emoji, it does not by itself have the final say on whether they are put into the standard.

    Second, the unification of Han characters is and always has been in the hands of the countries who actually use them: it is the furthest thing possible from a Western plot. The Ideographic Rapporteur Group is a sub-group of WG2, with national members from China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam (which used to use Han characters and has many historical documents written in them), Hong Kong, Macau, and the Taipei Computer Association (a proxy for Taiwan). The only Western countries regularly participating are the UK and the U.S. (partly as a proxy for the Consortium). Both WG2 and the Consortium depend on the IRG for all new Han characters added to the standard.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — thanks for the comment!

      As I mention in my response to Screwtape’s comment, I will admit that I don’t understand the interplay between ISO/IEC 10646 and the Unicode Consortium as well as I might. That said, from my limited understanding so far it seems to me that Unicode is very much driving the bus on emoji. It was Mark Davis who first championed emoji at Google’s request, and it is under the Unicode banner that much of the ensuing discussion continues to take place. I note in particular that in Unicode 8.0 the consortium included a large number of emoji before ISO/IEC 10646 had voted on them.

      On CJK unification, I’m happy to defer to you. Thanks for pointing out the inaccuracy! I’ll modify the post accordingly.

      Thanks again for the comment!

  3. Comment posted by John Cowan on

    Thanks for the reply. The fast-tracked emoji you mention are the gender and skin-tone alternatives to existing emoji, which were felt to be extremely urgent because they were causing extremely bad publicity. WG2 had already agreed to them, and it was just the grindingly slow ISO publication process that was keeping them out of ISO 10646. Eventually of course the ISO standard caught up.

    The CJK characters are those officially described as “urgently needed”, and genuinely new characters like the names of newly discovered chemical elements and the character for the upcoming Japanese era (which has not been created yet, but an agreed-upon spot is needed for it). The Iranian rial sign, and before that the euro sign, got the same expedited treatment, although in the case of the euro sign WG2 was actually ahead of Unicode, which had to issue a new release with just one new character.

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — that clears things up for me. Thanks!

      Aside from the rubber-stamping applied by WG2, is there a purpose to the two-track system? It seems odd that both sides can choose to unilaterally advance their respective version of Unicode before the other side has ratified the change.

    2. Comment posted by John Cowan on

      It’s important to distinguish between the process of decision and the process of publication. The Unicode Consortium has only one decision-making body, its Technical Committee, and after it decides, only editorial work remains. ISO is inherently more complex: when WG2 decides (which, believe me, is no rubber stamp), then SC2 must approve (a rubber stamp indeed, as WG2 is the only working group of SC2, but it takes time), and then JTC1 must approve (another rubber stamp, taking even more time), and then editorial work is done by ISO’s publication arm (often very backed up with other work).

      So it was faster and easier for these urgently needed characters to be published by Unicode before ISO’s comparatively clunky publication process could get around to them. Nevertheless, WG2 as the decision-maker for ISO 10646 had already agreed to the identities, names, and code points of these characters before Unicode published them.

      The origin of the dual structure is historical (the two forces originally were going to have two separate universal character encodings before their efforts were merged as Unicode 1.1 and ISO 10646 1st edition), but it seems to work well, for the same kinds of reasons that bicameral legislatures can work well. Two different groups of representatives, consisting for the most part of different people, and representing two different kinds of organizations (mostly companies for Unicode, exclusively countries for WG2), must agree that a character is important and useful enough to be encoded forever (no character is never removed from the standard, even if it turns out to be encoded in error). That helps protect against the kinds of mistakes that human beings are naturally prone to. I think everyone involved in the process agrees that it is a Good Thing. And if WG2 mostly defers to Unicode on emoji, Unicode mostly defers to WG2 on ideographs, without either group giving up their powers of independent judgement. Characters of other kinds can and do originate on either side, and are reviewed simultaneously, as each has access (as does the public) to the other’s working documents.

    3. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi John — that is very informative. Thanks! Your bicameral parliament metaphor drives it home, and I will almost certainly half-inch it for use in the future (with due credit given, of course).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Marion — well, consider me educated. Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you’re enjoying the site!

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