The first thing that comes to mind when you think about emojis might not be philosophical, artful, or that folks use them the world over. Likely, it's something you use in passing. Why bog yourself down with an overlong tl;dr text when you can use an emoji to do all the work for you? Here's a smile, here's a thumbs-up, there's the old 100.
Scholars can agree, without doubt, that the earliest form of writing began in Mesopotamia through early pictorial signs now known as cuneiform. Similarly, in the early days in Egypt, there are rock forms covered in what we now know as hieroglyphics. Not to say that Cleopatra invented emojis 😜, but using images to communicate isn't an invention of the iPhone or the late 20th century.
But what if our favorite pictographs were considered more than just seemingly arbitrary images? What if we held them to a higher standard, a standard in which they become a global language, a form of typography, and methodical art? And, what if that measure of approving something as innocuous as an emoji was also more inclusive, diverse, and less sexist?
The Cultural, Racial, And Sexist Divide Of Emojis
Journalist Jennifer 8. Lee discovered the emoji disparity almost by accident.
While having a casual conversation over text with her friend Yiying Lu, they noticed there wasn't a dumpling emoji. So instead of accepting the lacking emoji, Lee worked to figure out how she could bring it into existence.
"Emojis are universal, and dumplings are universal," Lee says. "Emojis originally come from Japan, and there are all kinds of Japanese foods represented. There's ramen, bento boxes, curry, tempura, and even weird Japanese food like different shapes on a stick, a fish cake, and a triangle rice cake that looks like it's had a bikini wax. But no dumplings, and I wondered how that could be."
Lee saw a broken system, and she wanted to fix that. But do that, she needed to know just how an emoji becomes an emoji in the first place.
How Do Emojis Become Emojis Anyway?
Today, Lee is a vice-chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee and the co-founder of Emojination, an organization that helps the public present emojis for consideration to the Unicode Consortium. Essentially, they want to give the public a voice concerning an emoji's creation and the approval process behind it.
But who even really decides what emojis the general population will get to use?
Currently, 12 full voting members pay $18,000 a year for the rights. Nine of them are United States multinational tech companies: Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook, Shopify, and Netflix. The other deciding members are German software corporation SAP, the Chinese telecom company Huawei, and the government of Oman.
When Lee tumbled down the emoji rabbit hole in 2015, the same $18,000 fee was the norm for voting members. "I was a little bit dissatisfied that this idea of emojis, something that's linguistic, was controlled by these large multinational companies," Lee says. "But there was a small loophole. If you were willing not to vote, you could pay $75 to join Unicode as an individual member. And I did that."
Unicode is the group in charge of accepting proposals from the public about which new emojis should get considered for inclusion in the standard. The standard ensures that the character encoding for emojis is consistent around the world. Without direction from the consortium, an emoji designed for an Apple device would look like a messy and illegible jumble on any other device.
The process of accepting new emoji ideas, however, is both complex and lengthy. It boils down to three things—will the emoji be usable at the small size that they get utilized, can it express a complete idea using just the emoji by itself, and will a substantial amount of folks find it helpful? If you can meet those three hurdles, approval is more likely to happen.
Once you do that, the Emoji Subcommittee gets a hold of it, and you can get bogged down in the drawn-out review and refinement process. Then, typically six months later, a list is created of all the emojis moving forward in the process, and the voting members will view the list and give their thoughts on the designs. A few months after, Unicode's Common Locale Data Repository establishes a name for the emoji and creates the terms in other languages. From there, the emoji goes into its closing design process where each vendor (think Apple, Google, Microsoft) follows their design style guides to create the final emoji.
And that process gets pretty messy, culturally speaking. For starters, many of the stakeholders in that approval process were white and male.
Because of the lack of exposure to other cultures, gender identities, and viewpoints, the emoji lexicon was seriously lacking. Sure, there were humans represented at the beginning, but why were all of them male? And yes, there might have been food, but why were some cultures at the forefront and others not represented even once?
While the Unicode Consortium is working towards being a more diverse and eclectic group, the board still has many members that share the same homogenous cultural background, making Emojination’s mission all the more critical.
“Emojination’s motto is 'Emojis by the people for the people,' and we strive to bring the voice of the people into the room where emojis are decided, and we advocate," Lee says. They launched a campaign about how unfair it was that there wasn't a dumpling emoji. After a successful Kickstarter and many, many iterations of adorable dumplings(🥟) from Yiying Lu—in addition to a Homeresque journey to approval—the emoji finally became a reality. Then followed the fortune cookie, chopsticks, and a Chinese takeout container initially designed by Lu.
From there, Lee's involvement in the world of emojis snowballed. The group has assisted in making the emoji process inclusive and representative, helping to gain approval for emojis throughout the years, such as the hijab emoji (🧕), the broccoli emoji (🥦), the DNA emoji(🧬), and many, many more.
The Future Of Emojis
The Emojination group shares the upcoming approved emojis on their website, and, in 2022, we can look forward to a troll, a disco ball, an X-ray, a saluting face, an
equal sign, and countless more. Since the group's founding thought, it can still take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for an emoji to be approved, so these particular emojis have been a long time coming.
And while it might not be evident to all, it's important to note that once an emoji get approved, you can never really delete it in its entirety. "Once an emoji is out in the world, it can never be "retired" completely; it can only change in appearance," Lee says. "For example, there used to be a gun emoji, but Apple took it away without really telling anyone else and made it look like a water gun (🔫) instead. This new icon holds an extremely different meaning than the previous one." So, it's imperative to ensure that once an emoji gets approved, there won't be lasting negative impacts or wrongful uses.
The world of emoji and all of its approval intricacies are still trying to catch up with the rest of the world and reflect a more global worldview. It's by no means perfect, but it's slowly making progress. And hey, if you still feel like big tech is still missing out on some much-needed emojis, you can make your own proposal (with instructions courtesy of Emojination right here).
"We're moving towards emojis that are more inclusive, diverse, and gender-neutral," Lee says.