As we saw last time, Emoji 4.0 cemented the Unicode Consortium’s practice of annual emoji updates. In doing so it created the phenomenon of “emoji season”, in which commentators pick apart the new emoji that will soon arrive on smartphones and computers and then go back to their usual business. Emoji season has come to be defined by the major theme of the accompanying emoji update: 2015’s Emoji 1.0 added skin tone support, while 2016’s Emoji 4.0 brought a more equitable treatment of male and female emoji. Now, in May 2017, Emoji 5.0 added the concept of gender-neutral emoji.1
For all its attendant fanfare, Emoji 5.0 added only three new emoji in the service of gender inclusivity: CHILD (🧒), PERSON (🧑), and OLDER PERSON (🧓). Each one was intended to provide a gender-neutral alternative to its gendered counterparts: BOY (👦) or GIRL (👧), MAN (👨) or WOMAN (👩), and OLD MAN (👴) or OLD WOMAN (👵). But, as is often the way with emoji specifically, and with Unicode in general, things were a little more complicated than they seemed.
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.
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!
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.