Emojinealogy: Where the Heck Emojis Come From


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On June 16th, the Unicode Consortium announced that 250 new emoji would be added to the list of symbols available to people’s cellphones and computer devices. The list of the new symbols can be found on Emojipedia. And no, the list doesn’t include the much needed minority representation, but it does include your favorite (?) symbols such as “White Hard Shell Floppy Disk,” “Sideways Black Left Pointing Index,” and “Chipmunk.” But why did the Unicode Consortium decide to incorporate these, of all, symbols? Simply, it wasn’t up to them.

First, let’s take a step back. The Unicode Consortium is a non-profit organization formed in 1991 to create a standard for encoding text, we call Unicode. Members of the group include Google, Apple, Microsoft, and IBM. As such, the Unicode standard has found widespread use in operating systems and coding languages. Specifically, it provides anyone with a standard set of images that correspond to a particular number for computers to understand. This means they determine most of the emojis people can use.

It works like this: say you send a text to your BFF Jill. Your phone, instead of sending the actual letters, will work like morse code, translating what you input into bytes worth of numbers and sending them to Jill’s phone. Jill’s phone, in turn, uses the same coding information as your phone to properly re-translate those numbers back into text on her screen. With the Unicode Standard, all sorts of different text, symbols, images, and emojis can be sent between devices, because they all use the same byte-reading Rosetta Stone. This is also the magic that allows you to read out a variety of fonts and sizes when your computer is given the same basic information.

via Emojipedia

via Emojipedia

For a while, emojis—the cute images that now come standard on many mobile devices—were not universally transmittable, for they were not included in the Unicode system. How did they get in a system? A quirk, really.

Unicode only aims to codify standard communicatory signs, and in a catch-22, without being included in Unicode, it is tough to become standard. Emojis beat the system by springing up in the early days of mobile usage in Japan. Starting in 1998, local phone companies started including the software to read and transmit the images. With fewer pressures from international phone giants, the Japanese companies were able to create a critical mass of users who wanted to communicate with emojis between their phones. In turn, companies like Apple included emojis in their products, building a separate language beside Unicode just to transmit the little images.

Following mass adoption, in 2010 Unicode decided to include 722 emojis common across the mobile carriers of Japan. They pulled these basic symbols directly from pre-existing libraries. They did not design them, so companies are free to create different interpretations, meaning something like the “pile of poo” emoji takes a different shape on different services—just like a font.

More via John Brownlee at FastCoDesign:

“It has to be in the wild already,” says [Mark] Davis [president of the Unicode Consortium]. You can’t just design a new character and submit it to Unicode for approval: you need to basically prove that the Unicode standard has a hole in it without that character, because people are already using it to communicate every single day. Even if you do prove it, though, getting the character adopted can take years. For an extreme example, consider Egyptian hieroglyphics. Although they have been used for thousands of years, and scholars write about them every day, they were only added to the Unicode standard in 2010.

The emojis that will be added in the 7.0 update to Unicode have been in use a while, then, rather than addressing any cosmetic faults with the current set. Most of them derive from symbols incorporated into Microsoft’s Windings and Webdings fonts that have been in Office since 1990. Only after nearly 25 years of usage is Unicode standardizing these symbols, so if you’re hoping your “gangnam style dance” emoji will reach Unicode, keep hoping.


Attribution

“Where Do Emoji Come From?”, John Brownlee, FastCoDesign


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