Monday, September 1, 2014

Where emoji come from


Eat, pray and every other kind of emoji you can find.

On Monday, it was announced that around 250 new emoji would be entering our universe to replace more words and add things like context and texture to our digital conversations. But wait — who gets to decide what is and isn't an emoji? What's the process? And why isn't there one for "cheese"?

The beginnings of emoji

Emoji are a type of visual shorthand that was first developed in 1999 by a man named Shigetaka Kurita. You can think of them as those standard emoticons on steroids.

To be clear: we're talking about the standard "=)" emoticons as opposed to the more complex emoticons like:

  • the shrug  "¯\_(ツ)_/¯"
  • or the table flip: (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

The word emoji comes from the Japanese characters 絵 (e = picture) 文 (mo = writing) 字 (ji = character). Kurita was looking to create symbols that would provide more context in a digital conversation than texts or regular emoticons, which could get misconstrued.

For example: if a friend texts you that they got a promotion, you can send a happy-face emoticon back, but that conveys something very simple ("I am happy about this"), and suggests you didn't put much thought into it. And it might not convey the enthusiasm you actually feel. Same with texting something like "Congrats!"

However, if you were to do something like this:


You manage to convey a more specific emotion or sentiment ("great job, get the money, let's celebrate and dance") without needing to work that hard.

Adding them to traditional texts can help clarify your tone. "If someone says Wakarimashita you don’t know whether it’s a kind of warm, soft ‘I understand’ or a ‘yeah, I get it’ kind of cool, negative feeling," Kurita told The Verge last year. "You don’t know what’s in the writer’s head."

That said, emoji still allow for creative ambiguity. Take the "nail care" emoji:


"Nail care" could convey something as simple as "getting my nails done" or, within the right context, it could be something more haughty like "haters gonna hate", "look what I just did", or "I'm not bothered." That added interpretation is part of the beauty of emoji.

Is "emoji" plural or singular?

There's no consensus here. Some publications, like The Guardian and Slate use the term "emojis" to refer to multiple emoji. TimeUSA Today, and the Associated Press prefer to use emoji as both the singular and plural. Like we do with deer and fish, Vox is going to use emoji as both the plural and singular.

Where emoji came from

The first 250 or so emoji came from Kurita's former company, Docomo. It wasn't able to get a copyright on their designs which opened the door for other companies to adopt emoji. Docomo's rivals and tech juggernauts like Apple either built on Docomo's or made their own set of rival emoji.  Eventually, hundreds of emoji were encoded in Unicode, the industry standard that sets the coding of text across different software platforms, in 2010. Since most modern computer systems are compatible with Unicode, that made emoji access virtually universal.

Because emoji originated in Japan, there may be a "lost in translation" quality to some of them. One of these is the "sweat smiley" emoji:


That bead of sweat is popular in Japanese anime and manga, and is meant to symbolize stress, frustration, embarrassment, confusion.

"I’d really like to know to what degree they’re used in the same way, and to what degree there’s a local nuance … there are probably things that only Japanese people would understand, or only Americans would understand," Kurita said.

Who decides which emoji make the cut?

The Unicode Consortium is responsible for deciding what characters are part of Unicode, and thus which emoji are widely available. The consortium is made up of computer corporations, software producers, database vendors, research institutions and many more. The Unicode Technical Committee, a smaller committee within the consortium, is in charge of accepting characters, scripts, and emoji into the Unicode Standard.

If you see an emoji that you think should exist but doesn't, you can fill out a form and begin a long, formal process to get it into the standard. "It frequently takes years to move from an initial draft to final standardization," the Unicode website states, explaining that each character, emoji, or whatnot is scrutinized very carefully.

To get a new emoji approved, you have to prove that your proposed emoji or character is widely used and will be used after its adopted into the Unicode standard.

Emoji's diversity problem

With the exception of "man in turban" and "man with gua pia mao", most of the "people" emoji available are white; Miley Cyrus, among many others, has been quite vocal in calling for this to change. Back in March, Apple said it was going to work with the Unicode consortium to get more diverse emoji, but it appears that non-white "people" emoji were not included in this update.

The consortium says it is working on it, writing, "Because there are concerns regarding the emoji characters for people, proposals are being developed by Unicode Consortium members to provide more diversity."

The great cheese emoji crisis

The continued lack of a "cheese" emoji is perhaps the greatest tragedy in the world of emoji. The lack of a "taco" emoji is a close second:


A grave injustice

There seems to be something strange going on when "man in business suit levitating" gets an emoji before cheese or taco. As I mentioned, the process is long and detailed but any cheese or taco aficionado could start up an application. There haven't been any reports if Big Taco or Big Cheese are involved or are willing to get involved, but there's been some grassroots activism on behalf of taco and hot dog emoji.

What's new in this batch

There are 274 new emoji being added in July. A couple of our favorites include:

  • bed
  • "right anger bubble" (not to be confused with left anger bubble)
  • "reversed hand with middle finger extended"
  • "sleuth or spy"
  • "weightlifter"
  • "derelict house building"
  • "man in business suit levitating."

You can find the entire list here. A majority of emoji that were added this time around were derived from the Wingdings and Webdings fonts.

The Unicode update went up on Monday. However, it will be up to Unicode platforms like iOS and Android to implement the new standards; once they do, you can start using the new ones on your phone.

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