The original emojis
Had Shigetaka Kurita realised when he sat down to design the first emoji that he was laying the foundation for what would become the world’s fastest-growing form of communication, he might have chosen his icons a little more carefully. Kurita’s original 176 designs, which launched in February 1999 for Japanese mobile phones, were weirdly specific, including no fewer than five phases of the moon, three timepieces (watch, clock, sand-timer) and two states of umbrella (open, closed).
Unmoderated by any panel, Kurita’s choices reflected his priorities and predilections, producing a singular suite of icons that, against the odds, proved universally handy. Today, there are now more than 1,800 emojis, which are estimated to be used by more than 90% of the world’s online population. As Satoe Haile, an emoji designer at Google, puts it, these pictograms “communicate beyond language”, transcending tongues and borders.
For some, these “brainless little icons” (as Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones described them last year) represent not an adjunct but a regression for our species. Their precursor, hieroglyphics, Jones argues, never produced an Iliad or an Odyssey because, put simply, the written word is infinitely more adaptable. But, for most, emojis offer not a substitute for the written word, but a complement, lending brevity or wit, irony or joy, to a text message.
The people who use emojis are certainly proving detractors wrong, at least in terms of the form’s adaptability. For example, denied a pictorial penis, millions have come to rely on the aubergine emoji – purple, engorged, topped with a pubic shock of green leaves. This abusage is now so widespread that, in 2015, Instagram banned search results for photographs tagged with an aubergine emoji, fearing it could be used as a signifier of nudity. The double meaning was formalised last month when an American woman launched a vibrator made in the eggplant’s image. (Be thankful, perhaps, that the hive mind settled on the vegetable as a genital stand-in, rather than the umbrella, in either state.)
The emoji’s success has attracted scrutiny. Just as English has adapted to remove signifiers of sex in professions – hoping to make obsolete words such as “actress” and “male nurse”, terms coined at a time when certain occupations were dominated by one gender – so the custodians of emojis are having to adapt to compensate for Silicon Valley’s bias.
In 2015 Unicode, the California-based consortium that standardises the use of these pictographs across the internet, added modifiers to enable us to alter the skin tone of our emoji (according to the Fitzpatrick Scale for humans, no less). A forthcoming update will add scores of gender-swap icons for existing professions, including a third, androgynous option. In this way, emojis present a rare opportunity. Many words smuggle quiet atrocities at an etymological level. Women who cannot have children are known as “barren”. Disabled children are known as “invalids”. Pictorial writing systems are no different. The Japanese kanji for “noisy”, for example, consists of three kanji for “women” squished together. The kanji for “wife” is comprised of the symbols for “house” and “inside”.
When sexism is entangled with language at such an elemental level, reforging words takes a great deal of time and education. Emojis work differently. Unicode assigns an object a numerical text code, to which companies add a relevant image according to their whim or aesthetic. “U+1F63B”, for example, is the code for “SMILING CAT FACE WITH HEART-SHAPED EYES”. Apple interprets this as a yellow cat with its mouth agape. Android translates the arcane script into a black cat with its mouth closed. Fixing problematic imagery, therefore, is as easy as redrawing the image associated with the code.
Mark Davis, who is 63 and works at Google, helped originate Unicode in the late 80s while working at Apple in Japan, where he was trying to find a way to encode kanji so they would display correctly across computers and operating systems. His elegant solution of assigning images to immovable codes proved popular. Today, every operating system, laptop, smartphone and even the internet itself is based on Unicode. For its first decade, the Unicode Consortium, which is made up of unpaid volunteers, many of whom work at Apple, Google and other tech giants, dealt principally with characters unique to specific written languages, current, classical and historical. The latest version of Unicode contains more than 128,000 characters covering 135 modern and historic scripts, and emojis are accounting for a greater number of additions every year.
New emojis can be proposed by companies, such as Durex condoms, and by private citizens. Additions cannot be bought, but are rather considered by an impartial panel, which votes on their inclusion based on a variety of factors including distinctiveness (is there really a need for “stew” when we already have “soup”?), whether it feels a meaningful gap in the vocabulary and the emoji’s expected levels of usage (a microphone versus a gramophone, for example).
While less than one percent of the 7,500 characters added to the latest version this summer are emoji, some argue that too much effort is being directed at the script.
For Everson, this focus has distracted effort and resources away from minority and historical writing systems, such as medieval Cornish. However, Mark Davis, president and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium, denies this is the case. “Emoji is still only a small part of what we do,” he says, pointing out that the attention emojis have brought has helped the consortium to further its goals for support of languages by allowing people to “Adopt a Character” for between $100 and $5,000 to raise money.
“There’s certainly an impression that new emojis get approved faster than writing system proposals or additional characters for historical scripts,” says John Hudson, another prominent typographer within Unicode. For Hudson, this is partly due to the fact that the questions that arise from emoji use are relatively straightforward (“Is the dumpling emoji just for East Asian dumplings, or can it be used for perogies?”) while historical languages require experts, who often disagree on finer points.
A greater issue, according to Hudson, and one that will deepen as the script continues to grow in popularity, is the use of Unicode to handle emojis in the first place. “It was the wrong technical solution,” he says. “The set of little pictures that people might want to send between mobile devices is boundless; therefore, it needs a technology that is endlessly extensible, which Unicode is not.” In other words, if emoji continues to evolve at its current rate, Hudson believes that will need much more flexible technology, capable of sending images between devices in a more efficient and flexible way. Davis, understandably perhaps, disagrees – although he won’t be drawn on the question of emoji’s future. “It’s very hard to say,” he wrote. “I don’t have a U+1F52E.” That’s emoji code for a crystal ball.