Emojis are more than a millennial messaging fad. Think of them more like a primitive language. The tiny, emotive characters—from 😜 to 🎉 to 💩—represent the first language born of the digital world, designed to add emotional nuance to otherwise flat text. Emoji have been popular since they first appeared on Japanese mobile phones in the late ’90s, and in the past few years they have become a hallmark of the way people communicate. They show up in press releases and corporate emails. The White House once issued an economic report illustrated with emoji. In 2015, 😂 became Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word” of the Year. Emoji aren’t just for people who say things like “lmao smh tbh fam.” Emoji are for everyone.
That puts a lot of pressure on the designs and standards for emoji. If emoji are a language for everyone in the digital world, then the emoji lexicon needs to constantly evolve across cultures 👳 , across screens📱 , across time 🕑 . Today there are thousands of emoji depicting people in all their diversity, and thousands more to represent the things we interact with in our world: money 💰, prayer beads 📿, Apple Watches⌚. In the future, as the world becomes increasingly digital and increasingly globalized, emoji will become important tools for translation and communication—a lingua franca for the digital age.
In the beginning, there were emoticons. For the most part, these came of age as the 🙂 and 😦 and 8-D of chatroom conversations in the 1990s. These primitive gestures represented an important part of early netspeak: You could convey sarcasm by tacking on 😉 at the end of your message, or share your ambivalence with the ¯_(ツ)_/¯ face.
The first emoji were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita. Kurita worked on the development team for “i-mode,” an early mobile internet platform from Japan’s main mobile carrier, DOCOMO. Kurita wanted to design an attractive interface to convey information in a simple, succinct way: for example, an icon to show the weather forecast rather than spelling out “cloudy.” So Kurita sketched a set of 12- by 12-pixel images that could be selected from a keyboard-like grid within the i-mode interface, then sent on mobiles and pages as their own individual characters. Kurita’s original 176 emoji—now part of the permanent collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—privileged symbols over faces, because DOCOMO’s goal was to find new ways to express information. There were characters to show the weather (sun, clouds, umbrella, snowman), traffic (car, tram, airplane, ship), technology (landline, cell phone, TV, GameBoy), and all the phases of the moon. But those characters weren’t purely informational: For the first time, emoji offered a way to add emotional subtext to a message. “I understand” might sound cold or passive on its own, but add ❤️ and the message offered a sense of warmth and sympathy. It was the beginning of a new visual language.
Emoji quickly became popular in Japan, as rival mobile companies copied DOCOMO’s idea. And as mobile computing continued to explode throughout the mid-2000s, companies outside Japan, like Apple, saw an opportunity to incorporate emoji on other platforms. In 2007, a software internationalization team at Google decided to lead the charge, petitioning to get emoji recognized by the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group that works sort of like the United Nations to maintain text standards across computers.
Since computers fundamentally work with numbers, every letter or character you type on a computer is “encoded” or represented with a numerical code. Before Unicode, there were hundreds of different encoding systems, which meant different computers and servers didn’t always represent text the same way. Unicode focused on standardizing these codes for language, so that the letters you typed in English, Chinese, Arabic, or Hebrew showed up accurately across platforms and across devices. The Google team—Kat Momoi, Mark Davis, and Markus Scherer—noticed emoji’s ascent in Japan and argued that emoji should fall under the same standard. In 2009, a pair of Apple engineers, Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, joined in and submitted an official proposal to adopt 625 new emoji characters into the Unicode Standard.
Unicode accepted that proposal in 2010, in a move that would soon make emoji accessible everywhere. Unicode ultimately decided to index emoji “because of their use as characters for text-messaging in a number of Japanese manufacturers’ corporate standards.” In other words: Emoji had become too popular to ignore. Unicode’s blessing wasn’t just a way to maintain standards for the evolving lexicon of emoji—it was the beginning of legitimizing emoji as a form of communication. Now emoji were officially on their way to becoming a language.
Emoji have been available outside of Japan since the mid-2000s through separate apps, which let users copy and paste the icons into text messages and emails. In 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS; Android followed suit two years later. This allowed people to access emoji directly from a keyboard on their phones—the same way you’d switch to a Korean or Japanese keyboard to access those language-specific characters—and popularized emoji with an entirely new audience. The New York Times suggested the move could give emoji a shot at “mainstream success,” noting that young people were already adjusting their texting habits to include the small icons: “I love you” became ❤️. “LOL” became 🤣.
As emoji became more popular, they also became more plentiful. The Unicode Consortium added new emoji to its approved list each year, gathered from users around the world: the first emoji bride, dozens of plants and animals, types of food, and depictions of all kinds of activities. Unicode requires a lengthy submission and approval process for every new batch hoping for christening, and it can take up to two years for an emoji to travel from first draft to your phone. First, new emoji are suggested through a formal proposal to the Unicode Consortium. These detailed proposals include an explanation of why the emoji should be adopted and ideas for how it might look. (The design aspect is more complex than you might think: If there’s going to be an emoji to represent “beans,” should they be black beans? Refried beans? Lima beans? Green beans? Should they be in a can? In a bowl? Growing out of the ground?) Proposals are examined by the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee, which meets twice a week to discuss and decide on all emoji-related matters. When the subcomittee comes to a consensus, a new emoji can be born.
Most recently in the emoji world, Google gave their “blobs” a makeover. The Google designed emojis were called “Ponyon” which means “sound of something bouncing.” They differed from the iOS emojis in design by being less rounded and a little more abstract. Other issues with the original android emojis were the lost-in-translation between iPhone users and Android users. For example, Wired sites how a yellow heart on an iPhone looked like a hairy, pink heart on an android.
Another interesting aspect of emoji culture is race. In 2015, a line of different skin tone emojis made their debut. While some praised the inclusion of “diverse” faces, others thought that the skin tone choices were limiting. The Washington Post claimed in a 2015 article, “Apple’s intent was good. But the execution was completely flawed. Apple took the easy way out. Instead of creating actual emojis of color, Apple simply allows its users to make white emoji a different color.”
The future of the emoji is unknown, but it will surely continue to evolve in order to help us continue communicating with picture characters along with words.
Haven’t used it yet? Go find one that you like!
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