Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The story of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be. My forthcoming book, Face with Tears of Joy: A Natural History of Emoji, will explore where the world’s newest language came from, how it works, and where it’s going.
Emoji arrived with a 💥 in 1999. That was when Japan’s largest telecoms network launched its first mobile internet service. i-mode was similar to services elsewhere, except for the 176 pictograms, or emoji, sprinkled throughout it. Inspired by Japanese comic books, scripts, and street signs, these pixelated icons were the brainchildren of an engineer named Shigetaka Kurita (now feted by MoMA and others as the father of emoji) and they went on to spark a revolution in online communication.
Two decades later, we live in an emojified world: Drug deals go down in emoji. Friendships and court cases hinge on them. Sovereign nations bicker over emoji flags, and engineers argue about what a cookie emoji should look like. Almost a billion emoji are sent alone, without textual accompaniment, on Facebook Messenger every day. Emoji are as powerful, pervasive, and equivocal as pop music or social media, and we barely saw them coming.
Yet the real history of emoji remains obscure. Kurita-san, emoji’s patron saint, did not invent emoji. Nor did he invent typographic hearts, or crying faces, or smiling poops. Emoji’s line of descent stretches back to the dawn of writing, passing through medieval manuscripts, typewriters, dingbats, bulletin boards, and pagers. Face with Tears of Joy will uncover that history, but it will also take an expansive look at emoji today and tomorrow: how they work, how we use them, and where they might go in the future.
We’ll watch as the Unicode Consortium—the “shadowy overlords” who oversee emoji—become embroiled in controversies over skin tone, gender, and geographical bias. We’ll learn how a country’s use of emoji can betray its inhabitants’ appetites for risk, self-indulgence, and equality. We’ll watch as corporations try to monetize emoji and artists try to make sense of them. And we’ll follow Unicode’s increasingly desperate attempts to get out of the emoji business entirely: an emoji reckoning is coming, and no-one has noticed.
Face with Tears of Joy will not help you master emoji. (Only a tween could do that, and they will be too busy texting.) But it will provide an indispensable guide to the most vibrant part of modern language. To be published by W. W. Norton, Face with Tears of Joy will appeal to anyone who has ever encountered an emoji and pondered, however briefly, what it could mean.
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