Back in 1999, when the mobile internet first flickered to life on Japan’s i-mode, email was confined to a snug 250 characters. Email! So when designer Shigetaka Kurita centered pixels on his potter’s wheel and spun them into sunshine and rain, he was both supplying a jolt of atmospherics to the early smog-screened smartphone and frugally conserving space.
Kurita’s horizontal rain and naval-ensign sun were among the first 176 emoji. These symbols, of course, put meat on the bones of emoticons, the digital typographical form born in the 1970s on Plato, a computer-based teaching system. Plato emoticons had to be styled by hand, with meticulous backspacing, like screen-based needlepoint. But they were also much more sophisticated than later ASCII and could be quite beautiful when encountered in the bleak midwinter of Arpanet-era networks.
There are now more than 2,700 emoji, and new ones get introduced every year. But which emoji appear on the major keypads: That is left to the whims of the Sanhedrin of emoji—the Unicode Consortium.
Twelve dues-paying members with full voting rights make up the consortium: one each from Oracle, IBM, Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Facebook, Shopify, Netflix, the German software company SAP, the Chinese telecom company Huawei, and the government of Oman (…🤷). UC Berkeley, as well as the governments of India and Bangladesh, have lower-level memberships.
The consortium’s chief task is to set the Unicode Standard that gives order to the way text is encoded and represented in the world’s writing systems. But when it comes to emoji, Unicode needs political and cultural finesse. Since 2015, the consortium has had to choose the hues available for the complexions of smileys. It has had to OK and reject religious symbols. And one day it may have to decide whether to endorse an emoji family with two gender-fluid parents, or, as is allowed in Oman, a family with one husband and four wives.
In the past year, for example, Unicode faced a sensitive matter: whether to include a menstruation emoji. The glyph, which showed blood-stained underwear, was proposed by an international girls’ organization to promote frankness around the delicate subject of uterine linings.
It gets tricky.
🙏 Namaste and thanks, therefore, for Jennifer 8. Lee, the investor, journalist, and activist who keeps a cool head in cultural minefields. Having stormed the then-stodgy Unicode in 2015, when she and designer Yiying Lu (who created the Twitter Fail Whale) successfully campaigned to get a dumpling emoji approved, Lee is now on the inside; she helps lead Unicode’s emoji subcommittee. Each year, after lengthy debate, the subcommittee submits a giant list of recommendations to the Unicode Technical Committee. What’s discussed in the meetings is strictly confidential, Lee says. But after them, perhaps thanks to Lee’s erudition, her diplomacy with competing cultural factions, and her powers of persuasion, the votes are more or less foregone. “We do things by consensus,” she says.
Our emoji heroine is very earnest when she waxes idealistic. “Emoji by the people, for the people” is her Les Miz rallying cry. It’s also the slogan of Emojination, her emoji advocacy group, which often recruits what might be called emoji stakeholders—cultural clans—to oversee a submission.
The WIRED Guide to Emoji
Lee doesn’t show favoritism. She refers anyone with an idea to Unicode. I once told her at a party that I wanted a Soviet hammer-and-sickle emoji, and she looked at me as if I’d proposed doing a biology postdoc at Stanford in September. “You can apply,” she said, coolly. Gatekeeper.
Getting approval takes persistence. Bearing the rules firmly in mind—your emoji can’t represent a deity, a logo, or a specific person (living, dead, or fictional)—you must write a full-dress proposal for your prospective emoji, to which you’re often asked to make revisions, as well as provide speculative data for frequency of use. You must also mock up the icon you’re proposing in both color and black and white. Designers almost certainly won’t use applicants’ designs—emoji images are generally proprietary to the vendor (chiefly Apple or Google)—but they want to get an idea of how you envision it.
To regulate the development of a language is not, strictly speaking, the American way. Unlike French and German, the language of the United States has no organization that polices its use. American English is meant to grow wild and woolly on our shores, spawning dialects and pidgins, wantonly consuming foreign words and locutions, anarchically legitimizing slang and warped grammar.
But emoji are not American. Born in Japan, they fit most comfortably in Asian languages that are at least partly pictographic. Of course, they’re not Japanese either. They’re on every continent and conceived as pluralist (hijab, man in tux, two-mom family) without being globalist (no Golden Arches, no Starbucks mermaid). That’s a tall order, especially in this moment of renewed tribalism. No wonder emoji need a thoughtful and meticulous Academie Emojiaise. In fact, the regulation of emoji—especially since Lee took her power-to-the-people to Unicode—may serve as a singular example of how online communication might be supervised with rigor, generosity, and imagination.
Lee gave me a table of emoji under consideration, along with the mocked-up images, explaining that this year’s list was stacked with Indian symbols—a tuk-tuk, a sari, a diya lamp. The sari was 💯, as were, elsewhere, garlic, parachute, stethoscope, and sloth. I was already thinking of off-label uses. Could parachute mean “here goes nothing”? But Lee doesn’t goof around when it comes to emoji. As a repository of symbolism, these things are serious business; one wrong move and you could anger … everyone.
I waited for her to explain how emoji could subvert patriarchy.
So did bloody underwear make the cut?
Lee is at the vanguard of issues of social justice and representation. I waited for her to explain how emoji could subvert patriarchy. I knew I could trust her judgment.
What she said, via text, was “It’s a terrible idea.”
“Bloody underwear simply isn’t very atomic,” she went on. “The grammar of emoji pushes us to more atomic units. So skateboard instead of skateboarder, or probing cane instead of person with cane. We can create compound emoji by gluing them together. But each one, on its own, should be atomic.”
Not atomic. I decided that meant “gross,” and left it alone. But something else occurred to me: What do you use for menstruation, then?
“🌙 + blood drop is the way to go,” Lee shot back.
A blood drop emoji?! How had I missed that?
“There is one perhaps coming in 2019,” Lee texted, darkly.
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