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.

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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.

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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?

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Emoji, part 3: go west

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.

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Emoji, part 2: what went before

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.

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