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.
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?
In 2011, Apple became the first big tech company in the West to visibly embrace emoji. The detailed, glossy symbols that appeared that year on the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard were a far cry from Shigetaka Kurita’s lo-fi efforts and they went on to become the de facto standard for modern emoji design. But though Apple holds the emoji 👑, it was Gmail, Google’s email service, that had first dragged emoji out of Japan and onto the world stage. And drag it had to, for emoji did not come quietly.
As we saw in part 1, emoji did not arise in a vacuum. In designing his suite of icons, Shigetaka Kurita selected subjects that would be both recognisable and useful in the context of NTT DOCOMO’s new mobile internet service. Smiling faces (😊) and broken hearts (💔) conveyed emotion; trains (🚆) and planes (✈️) called up ticket booking services; videogame controllers (🎮) denoted mobile games; and so on. But the way in which emoji were and are presented — embedded among our letters and words while simultaneously being distinct from them — has always been as important as their content. In this respect, emoji owe as much to ancient scrolls, medieval books and typewriters as they do to pagers and mobile phones.
Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The brief history of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at where the world’s newest language* came from, how it works and where it’s going.
It started with a heart.
In the mid-1990s, Japan found itself in the grip of a pager boom. Sales of “pocket bells”, or poke beru,1 ran at over a million per year, with the country’s largest mobile network, NTT DoCoMo, taking the lion’s share.2 Elsewhere in the world, pagers were the preserve of businesses and hospitals where they called trauma surgeons to the emergency room or managers to the telephone. In Japan, however, pocket bells were increasingly sought after by teenagers: by 1996, almost half of all female high school students owned one, and peak pager hours had shifted from during the working day to the late evening, when the airwaves buzzed with teenagers’ illicit messages.3
- NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. ↢