emojis and phone
Image: Rawf8 - stock.adobe.com

We have a smiling pile of poop. What about one that’s sad?

There’s a loaf of bread and a croissant. But where’s the sliced bagel?

And how can our emotional vocabulary be complete without a teddy bear, a lobster, a petri dish or a tooth?

These are the kind of questions that trigger heated debates and verbal bomb tossing — or at least memos with bursts of capital letters. And the members of the group burdened with deciding what new emojis make it onto our phones and computer screens each year are often at the receiving end.

The Unicode Consortium is tasked with setting the global standard for the icons. It’s a heady responsibility and it can take years from inspiration to a new symbol being added to our phones.

Anyone can propose an emoji. But for it to make it to phones and computers, it has to be approved by Unicode. The nonprofit group — mostly made up of people from large tech companies like Apple, Google and Facebook — translates emoji into one standard code, so that a person in France, for example, can send an emoji or a text message to a person in the United States and it will look the same, no matter what brand of phone or operating system they use.

smartphone with emojis

From the proposals to the design, a bevy of rules govern emojis. To submit a proposal to Unicode, you must follow a strict format that includes your emoji’s expected usage level and whether it can be used as an archetype or metaphor (a pig face, for example, can go beyond representing an animal to represent human gluttony).

There are many reasons for exclusion, too.

Emojis can’t be logos or brands, people (living or dead), or deities — or overly specific. A swastika wouldn’t be approved either.

Each year, a new version of the Unicode Standard is released. In 2017, the consortium released Unicode 10.0, which added 8,518 characters — of which 56 were emoji. Also added were the bitcoin symbol, a set of 285 Hentaigana characters used in Japan, and support for languages such as Masaram Gondi, used to write Gondi in Central and Southeast India. Unicode now totals 136,690 characters.

The birth of the emoji

These tiny pictographs became a part of our online language with the ascent of cellphones, getting their start in Japan in 1999. “Emoji” combines the Japanese words for picture — “e” (pronounced eh) — and letters — “moji” (moh-jee). At first, there were just 176: simplistic, highly pixelated icons such as a heart, a soccer ball and a rocking horse. Today there are more than a thousand. And as none are taken away, their number keeps growing.

“Long after you and I are dust in the wind there will be a red-wine emoji,” said Mark Davis, the co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium who also works at Google.

Dumplings and diversity

Back in August 2015, journalist and author Jennifer 8. Lee was texting with her friend Yiying Lu, the graphic designer behind the iconic “fail whale” illustration that used to pop up when Twitter’s network was down. It dawned on Lee that there was no dumpling emoji.

“There are so many weird Japanese food emoji,” she said, but she didn’t understand how there could be no dumpling. After all, dumplings are almost universal — think ravioli, empanadas, pierogi, pot stickers.

The process took almost two years, including research, many meetings and a written, illustrated proposal that reads a bit like an academic paper, complete with research on dumpling history and popularity.

But thanks largely to her efforts, the dumpling emoji was added to the Unicode Standard last year. And as part of her dumpling emoji lobbying, Lee decided to join the Unicode Consortium.

It was an eye-opener.

When she showed up at her first quarterly meeting of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, she expected a big auditorium. Instead, it was just a conference room. Most people there, she said, were “older, white male engineers,” from the big tech companies.

Many of the emoji decision-makers are engineers or have linguistic backgrounds, she said, but very few are designers, which can mean limitations on how they think about the images.

As part of their efforts to diversify emojis, Lee and Lu founded Emojination, a group promoting “emoji by the people, for the people.” While it all started with a dumpling, the group also helped launch other food, clothing, science and animal emoji, including the sandwich and the fortune cookie.

Dookie emoji

The Unicode Consortium is tasked with setting the global standard for the icons. At left is a smiling poop emoji.

But when Emojination proposed the frowning poop, they met with some resistance.

“Will we have a CRYING PILE OF POO next? PILE OF POO WITH TONGUE STICKING OUT? PILE OF POO WITH QUESTION MARKS FOR EYES? PILE OF POO WITH KARAOKE MIC? Will we have to encode a neutral FACELESS PILE OF POO? As an ordinary user, I don’t want this kind of crap on my phone,” wrote Michael Everson, a linguist and typographer, in a memo to the Unicode Technical Committee.

Another member, typographer Andrew West, wasn’t happy with a proposal for a sliced bagel emoji.

“Why are we prioritizing bagel over other bread products?” he wrote. Clearly he is not a New Yorker.

Sign of a healthy language

Not since the printing press has something changed written language as much as emojis have, says Lauren Collister, a scholarly communications librarian at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Emoji is one way language is growing,” she says. “When it stops growing and adapting, that’s when a language dies.”

Growing and adapting doesn’t seem like an issue for emojis. The additions for 2017 included gender-neutral characters, a breast-feeding woman and a woman in a hijab.

Emojis - Spread

For better or worse, the expanding vocabulary has given us an emoji movie, emoji short-story contests and books written in emoji — someone translated Moby Dick into Emoji Dick.

In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries declared the “face with tears of joy” emoji its word of the year.

And New York’s Museum of Modern Art has added the original emoji set to its permanent collection.

Diversity’s an issue

Amy Butcher — whose 2015 essay prompted Google to propose emojis to represent women as professionals and not just brides and polished nails — thinks there’s more work to do. The Ohio Wesleyan University professor would like to see interracial couples and a human in a wheelchair to represent a disabled person, rather than the wheelchair icon one might see on a bathroom door.

“These tiny, insignificant images begin to create an everyday narrative, and it’s deeply problematic that one might consistently find their identity or demographic lacking, or pigeonholed, or altogether absent,” she said.

Got an idea for an emoji and are willing to fight for it? It’s not too late to submit one for the class of 2019. As for 2018, stay tuned. We’ll know in a few months which ones made the cut. And while there’s a desire to be funny and quirky, the diversity of emojis remains a real issue.

Emoji knew all along: Scientists pinpoint 27 states of emotion

Lisa Neff, Staff writer

It turns out that facial emoji might know something that science didn’t — it takes more than six expressions to capture the range of human emotion.

A recent study from the University of California–Berkeley challenges the assumption in psychology that most human emotions fall within the categories of happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear and disgust.

Using novel statistical models to analyze the responses of more than 800 men and women to more than 2,000 emotionally evocative video clips, the researchers identified 27 distinct categories of emotion and created a multidimensional, map to show how they’re connected.

“We found that 27 distinct dimensions, not six, were necessary to account for the way hundreds of people reliably reported feeling in response to each video,” study senior author Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor, said in a news release.

Moreover, in contrast to the notion that each emotional state is an island, the study found “there are smooth gradients of emotion between, say, awe and peacefulness, horror and sadness, and amusement and adoration,” Keltner added.

Emotional videos and three test groups

For the study, a group of 853 men and women went online to view a random sampling of silent videos intended to evoke a range of emotions. Themes included births and babies, weddings and proposals, death and suffering, spiders and snakes, physical pratfalls and risky stunts, sexual acts, natural disasters, wondrous nature, and awkward handshakes.

Three groups of study participants watched sequences of videos, and, after viewing each clip, completed a reporting task. The first group freely reported their emotional responses to each of 30 video clips.

“Their responses reflected a rich and nuanced array of emotional states, ranging from nostalgia to feeling ‘grossed out,’” Cowen said.

The second group ranked each video according to how strongly it made them feel admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation, amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom, calmness, confusion, contempt, craving, disappointment, disgust, empathic pain, entrancement, envy, excitement, fear, guilt, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia, pride, relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire, surprise, sympathy and triumph.

These participants converged on similar responses, with more than half of the viewers reporting the same category of emotion for each video.

The final cohort rated their emotional responses on a scale of one to nine to each of a dozen videos based on such dichotomies as positive versus negative, excitement versus calmness and dominance versus submissiveness. Researchers were able to predict how these participants would score the videos based on how previous participants assessed the emotions the videos elicited.

Overall, the results showed participants shared the same or similar emotional responses to the videos, providing data that allowed researchers to identify 27 distinct categories of emotion.

Their findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.


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