By Navya Paliwal
What does a moose, a blackbird, a goose and a jellyfish have in common? Besides managing to throw you off completely, they also happen to be few of the many proposed emoji candidates that are up for approval by Unicode this September. After bursting into being as 176 pixelated pictograms rendered on a 12 x 12 grid, Shigetaka Kurita’s tiny graphic and emotional vehicles have come a long way in realising and surpassing the limitations of text, evolving as a language of their own.
A Nearly Melting Pot 🍲
With roots in Japan and a history of subsequent standardisation by the Unicode Consortium, various fragmented populations still continue to challenge the largely polarised cultural and socio-political representation in emoji today.
Boasting a strength of 16 mighty voting parties, the balloting powers under Unicode chiefly fall in the lap of a handful of multinational American tech corporations — with the Apples, Microsofts and Googles of the world constituting a fair bulk of this fabric. For a landscape as universal as emoji, these powers often trickle down to a skewed, mostly white-male gaze looking at the life of every emoji from start to finish — oscillating between the two ends of representation in the emoji ecosystem.
In a sea of 3,633 (and counting) emoji ranging from 5 different kinds of Japanese desserts to 24 clocks dedicated to each hour and a half of the day, it’s only natural to look for reflections of ourselves amidst the neatly packed, compartmentalised waves of emotions, objects and practices that pan across our keyboards. What started off as an army of yellows 😄 eventually bled into layers of Fitzpatrick skin tones 👩🏻👩🏼👩🏽👩🏾👩🏿 and a gamut once restricted to dancers, brides and princesses welcomed multiple additions of women welders, magicians, rockstars and scientists.
Coined by the filmmaker and writer Theo Schear, “Digital Alcoholism” sheds light upon the overrepresentation of alcoholic beverages in the universal character set with 8 alcohol emoji but only milk for kids. To address this oddity, Schear came to propose the infamous Beverage Box with the help of his friend Jennifer 8. Lee, the vice chair of the Emoji Subcommittee of the Unicode Consortium who’s also co-authored several other characters including the Hijab and the Dumpling emoji. Originally proposed as Juice, it’s relevant for kids and teetotallers alike and can be enjoyed by both, not to mention adults who aren’t in the mood for a tipple.
Gradual visionary shifts like these have persistently hinted at the gaping holes across these pictograms, calling for better representation and inclusion of individuals from all walks of life. The Silicon Valley giants have tried bridging these gaps in their own distinct ways. In 2017, Apple added a feature called Animoji that uses Apple’s Face ID camera system to map popular emoji characters to your face that mimic facial expressions in a real-time recording. Branching from the same vision, Apple successively released Memoji, allowing you to create an avatar based on facial personalisation, just the way you like.
Emoji Kitchen, a feature of Google’s first-party keyboard on Android only, is an experience that lets you combine any two emoji to come up with a completely new expression. While resembling our usual emoji, these Zero Width Joiners operate as combinatorial stickers that don’t necessarily rely on the Unicode Standard, and encourage creative expression through over 30,000 hand drawn, manual permutations and combinations performed within the Android ecosystem.
From a bird’s-eye view, visual nuggets like customised stickers and GIFs across supporting platforms continue to join the many dots between colloquialisms, weaving a dense web of intuitive and learned internet vocabulary. An ever-growing library of ideas and expressions, it seeps into our physical lives and back to the digital in no time, constantly playing with the permeable nature of communication.
Mighties of the Valley 🔧
With great power of upholding an unvarying standard of digital semantics comes an immensely large responsibility, and while Unicode can’t encode every curl of the lip or every condiment on this planet, the incredibly selective and judicious nature of adding new emoji every year raises questions about the autonomy of a language that is for the people and by the people.
Time and again, the same vendors with the power vested in them to vote and transform the architecture of this framework have attempted to censor and make purposeful cuts around the fabric of emoji. In 2019, Apple decided to drop the flag of Taiwan for users that had their iOS region set to Hong Kong or Macau with its timely update — an alleged response to the brewing tensions between China and Hong Kong. While the emoji could still present itself via copy paste or an auto-suggestion on typing Taiwan, the flag was replaced by a missing tofu character to prevent display on any app, on any iPhone purchased in China.
Another fairly recent example talks about how Facebook and Instagram suppressed the use of sexually connotative aubergines and peaches strung together as a part of public and private discourse, which was seen as an intent to censor sex workers, ultimately jeopardising their safety and income. This was followed by a stream of outraged threads on Twitter by the community condemning this act and demanding better community policies and guidelines. One of these threads by Fran Tirado started out as a crowdsourcing call, asking for suggestions that could be used as an alternative to the ones blacklisted by Facebook — subverting a language of convention from one connotation to another.
This linguistic progression has niftily stepped in to circumvent censorship in more ways than one. During the peak of the Coronavirus in 2020, people on WeChat began evading algorithmic censors by translating the viral interview of Ai Fen, a Coronavirus whistleblower working at the Wuhan hospital, by rewriting her conversation backward, translating it into fictional characters and inserting emoji in between. A similar account dates back to 2018, the year that witnessed one of the biggest movements to talk about sexual misconduct against women under the hashtag ‘MeToo’. As stories about personal accounts of harassment and assault started to surface, Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website quickly tried resorting to this by blocking the hashtag making rounds. This was intercepted by replacing the tag #MeToo with #RiceBunny🍚🐰, a play at the homophone ‘mi tu’ and managed to escape detection skilfully.
In the same vein, when Russia launched an invasion on Ukraine early this year, an image with the Russian poet Pushkin, the number 7 and rows of pedestrian emoji starting doing rounds on Twitter as a signal for another unauthorised protest at the Pushkin square, Moscow — an act of orchestrating literary and visual codes to evade public arrests.
Win The Day 🎲
While your favourite cocktail or an outlandishly specific constellation might not always make the cut, you can still shoot your shot. After making a case for nearly a year and a half, Melissa Thermidor and Anshuman Pandey, two of the pioneering emoji-bearers of South Asian culture, managed to bag a spot for an animated Saree and a striking Tuk-Tuk on our keyboards. A laborious process, the journey of an emoji starts from anywhere between fifteen to twenty categorically schemed pages advancing in favour of the proposal. From Making a Submission to Evidence of Frequency, the Unicode Consortium outlines a definitive guide that zooms in on each step of the way, prompting a case no less than a dissertation.
Emojination, the brainchild of Jeanne Brooks, Jennifer 8. Lee and Yiying Lu helps draft emoji proposals by bringing several under-represented ideas to the Silicon Valley nonprofit’s notice. With successful examples like the Dumpling emoji through Kickstarter and the DNA emoji with GE and the American Chemical Society, this women-powered team aims to make the otherwise centred process a fair and inclusive practice, acknowledging the nuanced layers of our society.
Become a Parent 👩👧
From Nesting Dolls 🪆 to plated Falafel 🧆, you can now have your name immortalised beside your favourite character on unicode.org. With more than a million characters covering three sponsorship levels, the Adopt-a-Character campaign is one of the most efficient ways of extending your support towards Unicode’s conscious efforts of attempting to bridge the gap across digital communications. As the consortium continues to globalise the fabric of the internet and make it more accessible, this tiny act goes a long way towards sticking up for the scripts and languages it upholds. With the 🍔 no longer on the menu, one can still get hold of a 🌪️ or a 🧟♀️, charm a good old letter A or end the discussion with an asterisk — there’s something for everyone. This donation comes with a tiny custom-made badge embedded with the character you’re sponsoring.
So the next time you’re running late for class, apologise with emoji! 🏃🏽♀️⏰ Torn between two of your favourite characters? 😋😳 Chances are they’re already plated together in the Android kitchen.🍴Think Shrek deserves an honest shot at the next Unicode release? Sign this petition here, or create your own. As we find ourselves building on the foundations of a new, decentralised economy, how do we ensure a panoramic view of this terrain that continues to knit itself so intricately with our daily lives? Who draws the line, and where does this line begin? Where does it end?