With emoji everywhere you might care to look, a nagging question remains unanswered. What are emoji? Are they a language, whatever that means? A pictographic script in the manner of hieroglyphics or Chinese characters? Or are they something else entirely? In this post we examine how emoji are, and aren’t, used, and what that might tell us about the nature of emoji as a whole.
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
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.
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
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.