Here’s Where Your Emoji Actually Come From
Long gone are the days of the :), ;), and the :(. They’re relics of a bygone era, replaced by a new set of ways to describe how you feel, called the “emoji.” But have you ever wondered how these now ubiquitous icons came into being? Who decides what new icons millions of smartphone users worldwide get to use? It comes down to one company, and the process isn’t always straightforward.
It all started in Japan…
We have the Japanese to thank for emoji: In fact, the name itself is a combination of two Japanese words: “e,” meaning picture, and “moji,” which means “written character.”
The emoji’s beginnings go back 20 years (yes, you read that right) to the days of pagers. According to The Verge, Japanese telecommunications company DoCoMo first debuted the emoji in 1995 as a way to attract younger consumers to its pager service. The company realized that the Japanese language and its complexity made it tough for consumers to express themselves in a succinct manner.
Of course, there was also the brevity of email to contend with. Japanese culture, when it came to communication, didn’t translate well, and often the writer’s intention was misconstrued. So DoCoMo engineer Shigetaka Kurita set out to create a 172-character set of 12-by-12 pixel images that would allow users to accurately express their emotions. By chance, he found an unused region of the Japanese digital character set where these new icons could reside. And as they say, “The rest is history.”
From Japan to the world
Fast forward about 15 years. Apple and Google both noted the popularity of the emoji locally, and began to support the character set in their operating systems. Emoji appeared in the Japanese version of iOS in version 2.2, but was not accessible to users worldwide until late 2011 with the release of iOS 5.0.
Third-party developers took advantage of the international availability of the emoji character set, creating apps to allow any language version of iOS to access the emoji keyboard. Soon these icons appeared everywhere, from Facebook to text messages and Instagram posts. Emoji use became so widespread that Unicode, an organization traditionally tasked with ensuring how characters appear on your computer, added the emoji to their list of character sets for which they offer standardization. As it stands now some 1,300 different emoji exist, with approximately 60 new characters added every year, according to the Unicode Consortium.
How does Unicode decide on new emoji?
With standardization comes a process. The group meets to discuss character standardization four times a year. The group consists of executives from various technology companies, all aiming to ensure that characters on your computer — not just emoji — appear consistently no matter what platform you use.
According to The New York Times, the group is currently set to vote on 67 new emoji, including a groom in a tuxedo, a female Christmas figure (not everybody believes in a male Santa), a pregnant woman, a clown, and two strips of bacon. Unicode takes its job pretty seriously, and even provides recommendations on how emojis should be displayed and how they should appear.
It hasn’t been without controversy
Not everybody has been satisfied with Unicode’s work. The group was criticized for racial insensitivity in presenting emoji characters in only light skin tones, which may be why Unicode issued recommendations on options to allow people’s emoji to have different skin tones in June of this year.
Interest groups have also taken issue with the proposals. In early October, British pro-gun control group, InferTrust, argued that new proposed rifle emojis would glamorize guns. One thing Unicode will not do is assign a meaning or definition to an emoji. “Many of these characters acquire multiple meanings based on their appearance,” Unicode’s FAQ reads. “The meaning of each emoji may vary depending on language, culture, and context.”
How do they decide on new emoji?
In seeking new emoji, the group looks at a few factors. If a broadly used image is not already in the character set, if it has potential for high use, and if it is to some extent based on cultural trends. In fact, many of the new icons are sports based, a nod to the upcoming Olympics next year. There is no current way for you or any of your friends to suggest new possible emoji though; Unicode describes the process as “long and formal,” and there is no public process to bring emoji proposals in front of the committee.
While emoji will keep us busy for quite a while, Unicode is already looking towards the future as consumers seek new ways to communicate. One proposal is to standardize “embedded images,” much like the popular GIF keyboards used on Facebook Messenger and other platforms.
However, Unicode admits that getting a standard in how these systems work is much more difficult, considering users will obviously want more flexibility to add their own images and so forth. Until then, emojis and their ease of use and implementation look like the best bet for the foreseeable future. So our poop and lipstick emojis are going nowhere any time soon.
Follow Ed on Twitter @edoswald