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Apple's new mystery emoji might be part of an anti-bullying campaign

What do you think this emoji signifies?

Eye see you.

Jeremy Burge

When it first appeared in the iOS 9.1 developer preview, no one knew the meaning of this odd eye-in-speech-bubble emoji — not even Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia. A few days after Burge published his technical review of the eye bubble (more on that below), intrepid designer Erik Veland cleverly applied the "speak text" option to reveal Apple's intent.

Veland discovered that the eye bubble is related to an "anti-bullying campaign," making this one of the few emoji in Apple's keyboard related to a specific social message. While Apple's website mentions no anti-bullying campaign explicitly in a search for the phrase, author Walt Isaacson shared Steve Jobs's account of being bullied as a child in his biography of Jobs. There's no sense that the emoji's introduction was prompted by events in Jobs's personal life; the Apple co-founder was himself accused of bullying colleagues during his career.

During a recent appearance on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, Apple CEO Tim Cook stated that he felt a responsibility to share his sexual orientation with the public in a landmark Bloomberg interview last year — partly in order to address the childhood bullying of "resident outsiders" of mainstream culture.

We don't know who introduced the anti-bullying emoji or its text-to--speech description at Apple, or why — but it signals a possible shift in how the company provides users with options to discuss challenging social problems using very simple tools.

The eye bubble's meaning has stumped emoji experts and fans

On Tumblr, Burge gave what context there was to give about the unsolved mystery: Many emoji are combinations of one or more characters. For example, the family emoji are combinations of characters of a woman, man, and child, and the eye bubble is no different from that. Character combo emoji are called "Zero Width Joiners" or ZWJs in the biz (carry this fact with you; it's a great one).

Seriously, what the hell is this?

Jeremy Burge

What made the eye bubble unique from other combo emoji is that no one knew how to interpret it (and technically, we still don't). Is the eye bubble sort of like talking with your eyes? Does it mean "someone is seeing your chats"? Is it a friendly reminder from the Department of Homeland Security to that if you "see something" you should "say something"? Or is the eye bubble, as Veland found, a new emoji in conjunction with an anti-bullying campaign yet to be announced by Apple?

The "anti-bullying" implication further raises the matter of the emoji's official review, as well. Did you know that all emoji are officially interpreted by a group called the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, who are the rulers of the emoji character galaxy? That's not a joke. The eye bubble's interpretation for non-Apple devices, like Android and Windows phones, now rests in their hands.

My fantastical theory on what it meant? The first time I saw it, I interpreted it as a dreamy homage to talented performer Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes of TLC, who died in a car crash in 2002. Only '90s kids may remember her, but I would simply love a Left Eye-specific emoji. Now that we are a little closer to finding out what the eye bubble means, we can take a break in our investigation. As Burge wisely remarked, we all "love a good mystery."