Origin tale: Where do emojis come from?
There’s a lot of sushi on the emoji keyboard, and more meals in a bowl than most people need. And that’s not an accident.
The emoji was born in Japan. It is now administered by the Unicode Consortium (UC), a California-based not-for-profit network started by software engineers Joe Becker, Mark Davis and Lee Collins.
Unicode is an open-source initiative that essentially works with platforms like Google and Microsoft to ensure that languages look similar across websites, browsers and devices. They began working with emojis in 2010, uniformalising and expanding the little pictorial dictionary. Amid calls to make it more inclusive, there are now more races represented, and more cultures and cuisines.
Anyone can propose an emoji. Many of the new types of emojis have, in fact, been a response to public demand. The most notable was when Unicode added the option, in 2015, of picking between skin shades for its various hand and face symbols.
Actual emojis introduced on request include breastfeeding woman, mosquito and paella. So how does one go about putting in such a request?
You start by drafting a proposal online, on unicode.org, with a note on the proposed character, a colour sample and a black-and-white image of the proposed emoji.
The criteria for approval are compatibility (whether it’s already being widely used as an icon or image on platforms like Snapchat and Twitter), expected usage level (it shouldn’t be too niche), distinctiveness, completeness (it should fill a gap in current set of emojis), and how often the proposed emoji has been requested or searched for.
The consortium decides which emojis to add, through a poll of it subcommittee members. Any individual can be on the subcommittee, for an annual fee of $75 ($35 for students). The UC subcommittee must reach a consensus on all proposals.
Once every three months, all proposals that make it past the first level go to the UC’s full voting members. There are currently 12 such members — including Netflix, Google, Adobe, Apple and Facebook; any company or organisation can become a full voting member for an annual fee of $18,000.
Once approved, they are forwarded to the technical committee, for eventual design and rollout. Each new emoji is posted on the Unicode website for public feedback. A final batch of new emojis is released each June.
In 2017, 56 new emojis were added, along with 183 emojis sequences for gender, skin tone and flags variations. Interestingly, likenesses of people (living, dead or fictional), deities and business logos are banned in the emoji world. Santa Claus is the only exception.
Once the new emojis are launched, it is up to the vendors [Apple, Facebook etc] to choose which ones they want to support on their operating systems.
Given the politics involved in trying to represent the world through a limited set of icons, emoji activism has become a full-time affair. There are activists campaigning for greater diversity; healthier food; equal representation (the bunny-eared woman was given a friend to dance with; and has been counterbalanced by dancing bunny-eared men) and peace over violence (which saw the gun emoji into a water pistol).
One such activist is Jennifer 8 Lee, founder of EmojiNation, who became a Unicode sub-committee member in 2016 and is now vice-chair of the subcommittee.
“I wanted to move the needle by being a part of the system,” she says. It was Lee who proposed that the dumpling emoji, which was added last year. Similarly, emoji activist Rayouf Alhumedhi, a student from Berlin, successfully campaigned for a headscarf emoji, also rolled out in 2017.
This year’s new emojis included a mango, tuk tuk, diya, peacock and teddy bear. Got more in mind? You know what to do.
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