Happy World Emoji Day! If you look closely at the calendar emoji, it reads July 17 (at least on most platforms), a date that is now marked as a celebration of pictorial messaging. But who decided we needed a calendar emoji at all, as opposed to, say, a shrug or bacon emoji, both of which do not exist (yet)?
An international non-profit called the Unicode Consortium—with members like Google, Adobe, and the Indian government—is the final decider of all things emoji. Unicode is the reason you can send someone a smiling poop or a purple eggplant, regardless of whether you’re texting from an iPhone or an Android, though the images might look slightly different to someone using a different device and software than you.
Emoji were introduced in Japan in 1999, but each phone carrier encoded the graphics in different ways, leading to some confusion—a person might text a friend a thumbs up, only to have it appear on a different phone as a thumbs down. And when Japanese users tried emailing emoji to non-Japanese-hosted emails, like Gmail addresses, the messages would get mangled.
Unicode is how computers represent text. Instead of having to standardize fonts and text sizes and alphabets and symbols like the plus sign so that they can be read on all devices, characters are represented by a set of standard codes, which software on your computer or phone (no matter who your email provider or phone carrier is) reads and translates into the text you see.
Google was a main force in standardizing emoji, because in 2007, the company partnered with the Japanese telecom companies that had pioneered emoji in the mid-'90s to adopt a standard code in order to bring the graphics to Gmail. Emoji were added to Unicode. In 2011, Apple added an emoji keyboard to iOS.
In the process, the poop emoji almost disappeared, because the head honchos at Google felt a steaming pile of poop was sort of an offensive symbol. Luckily, a few key engineers showed them the error of their ways, and the poop survived, and thrived (especially in Canada, as it happens).
Unicode mandates that most emoji be represented as gender-neutral, except for a specific set of emoji that include symbols like “man and woman holding hands,” “bride with veil,” and “man in business suit levitating.” Why can’t a woman in a business suit be levitating? No idea, but as of right now, them’s the standards.
This year, the first racially diverse emoji hit the scene, replacing light-skinned default emoji with a range of skin tones. According to a Unicode Consortium report, emoji were intended to be generic, but, thanks to their Japanese origins, they typically ended up with light skin. Now, emoji code provides for five skin colors, based on a dermatology standard called the Fitzpatrick scale.
However, software developers design their own images to correspond to the code, which is why Gmail’s emoji look different than Apple’s. The Unicode Consortium recommends that when designing emoji, default options for human skin appear as generic, non-realistic colors, like yellow, blue, or grey. The Consortium also recommends dark hair, because it’s a common hue on people of every skin color.
There are currently 38 new emoji on the table for release in the near future, including the aforementioned shruggie emoji. But, should you find your emoji keyboard constraining, you can submit new characters for consideration to the Unicode Consortium here. The group considers factors like whether the new emoji will be compatible with existing systems, whether the pictograph in question is expected to see high usage, and whether it’s distinctive enough from other emoji that people will be able to recognize it. The group has hard and fast rules excluding any new emoji representing deities, company logos, and specific individuals.
But why should an international group like the Unicode Consortium bother with emoji at all? Do we really need to insert engorged purple eggplants into our communications?
Well, yes. “In social media, emoji make up for the lack of gestures, facial expressions, and intonation that are found in speech,” as the Consortium wrote in a recent report on the pictographs. “They also add useful ambiguity to messages, allowing the writer to convey many different possible concepts at the same time.” In short, emoji allow us to fill in the gaps where pure text communication fails, better approximating a face-to-face conversation.
You know? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯