Emoji We Lost

Illustration: Elena Scotti (Gizmodo)

Who doesn’t love a good Google blob? From 2013-2017, these doughy emoji served a special role in the digital universe. They represented humans in the form of blobs and gum drop faces, with actual personalities. Often transformed by the type of gloves, hats, and wigs they wore, they spread joy over Android operating systems. But in 2017, Google wiped these guys from messages and emails and replaced them with more conventional emoji shapes—circles for faces, humans for humans. Similarly, between 2008 and 2018, Apple morphed their creepy evil twins with bunny ears into bland, happy dancers with bunny ears and a expressive rendering of two wing-shaped egg shells hovering over an egg into an ordinary frying pan. Boring.

Over the last ten years, major software companies like Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft have made countless small but potent changes to emoji. Those changes not only reflect the needs of users and technology companies, but a host of power struggles fought along the way. Taken together, they impact how we communicate, what we communicate, and even how we think.

Often, lost emoji have been forgotten for a reason. Many simple changes in rendering were not consequential. According to Jeremy Burge, the founder and chief emoji officer of Emojipedia, with only a few exceptions, “for non-Apple platforms, it’s hard to recall many emojis that were popular enough to be missed.” Burge cites “minor losses” over the years on the Apple platform; the golf ball, which now shows as a golf flag; the clam shell which became a spiral shell; and the black Japanese graduation shirt that became a westernized graduation cap. I adamantly disagreed. The golf ball counts as one of sports most vividly attractive objects and the scallop shell icon signals Botticili, beaches, and bathroom decoration. A true loss. The cap is cultural imperialism at work.

In other cases, though, what vendors chose to represent produced a good argument for stronger protection of human rights and freedoms. Outraging the adult community (among others), Facebook and Instagram made news in 2019 for new community standards banning the use of “contextually specific and commonly sexual emojis or emoji strings.” No more soliciting nudie pics with your emoji peaches.

Amongst the recent controversies, many interpreted Apple’s decision drop the ???????? Taiwan flag from the emoji keyboard for users in Hong Kong and Macau as an act of corporate subservience to the Chinese government. Apple rolled out the change in its 2019 iOS 13.1.1 operating system update without mention, quietly aiding mainland China’s efforts to establish sovereignty over areas it considers its own.

While this decision doesn’t directly impact most Americans, the unilateral decision to remove an icon should cause pause. If Apple will aid Chinese government’s censorship efforts for the purpose of profit, would they do this for our own government as well? Although different in motive, internet linguist and author of Because Internet Gretchen McCulloch drew a comparison between Apple and Mainland China’s decision to remove the Taiwanese flag and the Associated Press’s (AP) recent announcement to use the Ukrainian spelling of its capital city, Kyiv. As rationale for the change from its English spelling, the AP wrote in a statement, “To many Ukrainians, the former spelling Kiev appears outdated because it is associated with a time when Ukraine was part of the Russian and Soviet states, rather than an independent country.”

Unlike a vernacular use of language that evolves organically and democratically, small groups of people make decisions about communication standards ranging from spelling recommendations to emoji availability that impacts millions. But whereas the Associated Press acts as an authority that influences language usage in the press, it has no control over what spelling people use in their emails and personal text messages. Apple, Unicode, and the governing bodies of nations, on the other hand, do have that power. “There’s a material difference of Ukraine making a recommendation that people and organisations can choose to accept or not, and what emojis you’re able to physically type,” McCulloch told Gizmodo.

That’s not to say the emoji universe is devoid of democratic processes. Anyone can submit an emoji proposal to Unicode, though only about 50 make it to the review stage. (Proposal requirements are intense.) The 2019 documentary Picture Character offers a fairly straight-forward way to understand what images matter to people—it tracks the process of proposing emoji to the Unicode Consortium and what gets accepted. The non-profit Unicode Consortium develops, maintains, and promotes the internationalized software standards that ensure that when you type letters on a keyboard, a computer knows where to find them. To anyone not already a computer engineer, the process may sound complicated, but the upshot is that encoding a character works a little like carving letters into stone. Once encoded, they’re there for good. (Removing a code point breaks the standard.)

This inflexibility serves as a great tool for preservation, but isn’t perfect; mistakes happen, abuse of power occurs, and emoji are lost. Take as a starting point, the Unicode standard, which precludes the possibility of changing encoded characters, but serves an ecosystem of vendors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Since Unicode accepted the proposal to adopt 625 new emoji into their standard in 2010, these for-profit enterprises have been determining the look and feel of emoji—even what emoji we see.

As Picture Character producer Fred Benenson sees it, the inevitable errors that occur within a system vulnerable to both human error and abuse of power evidence Unicode’s impossible task: corralling human writing into a digital system. The potential for further lost emoji ranks high because no governing body exists to prevent censorship from occurring. Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, an expert featured in Picture Character, places some blame on the Unicode Consortium. “Unicode disavows the responsibility to determine what anything that it standardizes looks like,” he told Gizmodo.

Like fonts, software companies all develop their own set of glyphs, and the consortium has no say in those decisions. “Unicode always puts these political questions about what we should be representing at a given code point back on the user or the software company. They do that to maintain this appearance of neutrality, but it’s obviously a bit more thorny than that.” Schnoebelen cited the Unicode voting committees that decide which new emoji get encoded as particularly problematic. A voting membership costs $US21,000 ($30,561), making it prohibitively expensive to most and dominated by wealthy software companies and governments with vested interests.

Like any non-profit, for-profit mingling of interests, though, decisions don’t get made from inside a vacuum. Apple’s 2016 release of IOS 10 included a design overhaul of the emoji pistol to a green squirt gun and followed a series of mass shootings that dominated headlines. Apple made no statement on the change, preferring to focus on the new cast of characters added to their arsenal, but the message spoke clearly—real guns have no place on the emoji keyboard.

“In the history of running Emojipedia, I have never seen an emoji change so poorly received,” Burge wrote on the company’s blog. According to the author, reaction ranged from ridicule to frustration and anger over the gun emoji’s removal, reflecting America’s cultural divide on the subject. But many, including Burge, also worried about the potential for confusion. No other vendors had changed the way they represented guns, so those sending toy guns to friends with some Android phones or various social media platforms would actually receive a realistically drawn pistol. Burge, concerned about the danger of miscommunication implored Apple not to release the emoji. They did so anyway.

Two years later, during what many described as The Year of Emoji Convergence, software vendors came together to standardize the way they rendered Unicode’s characters—including the pistol emoji. Users rightfully complaining about message confusion had their day—no more looking like a pervert when the wide-eyed emoji you used on one platform gets translated as a drooling creep on another. Vendors began to standardize glyphs so their meaning wouldn’t be confused. Now, piles of smiling poo ???? are all piles of smiling poo—not faceless Google poo surrounded by flies. Pistols have been fully replaced by toy guns.

Despite efforts to minimise communication mishaps, problems endure well past the point of convergence. When I spoke to Dragan Espenschied, the Preservation Director of digital arts non-profit Rhizome, I received two pages worth of explanation back to what I assumed was a simple question. Does their web archiving service Webrecorder call up updated emoji on recorded materials? The answer was a caveated “no” in which Espenschied pointed out platforms with protocols almost certain to create confusion. “When you capture a tweet from 2014 today, Twitter will send its current 2020 emoji set to your browser,” he wrote. “It will be captured in that possibly misrepresented state.” Digital archivists refer to these temporal anomalies as zombies.

The gun emoji brings up a myriad of questions beyond the loss of meaning that can occur when vendors make design changes. “I think a really big question to ask about emoji is, ‘Can a change in design over time change how people use the emoji?’” said Jane Solomon, a lexicographic emoji expert and author who has written extensively on the directionality of the gun emoji (how emoji placed before or after the gun change its meaning). The answer, she said, is “absolutely, yes.”

In the case of the gun, though, symbolism may win out over design. At Solomon’s SXSW panel “Let’s Talk About the Gun Emoji,” Columbia’s Associate Professor at the School of Social Work Desmond U. Patton reported that even though emoji gun design had changed to a toy, usage continued as if it were real. Patton did not return requests for comment.

While emoji objects like the gun may retain their original meaning, changed illustrations of faces do not have this problem. A face gritting teeth is always going to read differently than the toothy smile it evolved into and short of a biological evolution that alters our instincts that’s not going to change. According to Alicia Eler, author of The Selfie Generation and visual art critic and reporter at the Minneapolis Star Tribune, manipulation of meaning happens at a user level. While one sad emoji might represent genuine despair, the aunt who sends six in the hopes of signalling emotional vulnerability may in fact be using emoji to emotionally distance herself.

We use emoji as tone markers or to make messages more beautiful. They have many of what lexicographers call paralinguistic uses—meaning that emoji fits inside what’s already written to add nuance or modify meaning, rather than simply replacing words. In the documentary Picture Character, Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen described the job of emoji as that of “happiness work.” “The most popular [emoji], by far, the smiley faces and hearts,” he said. Emoji scan far more quickly than words; a red heart instantly communicates love and compassion, whereas the black version communicates morbidity, sorrow, and dark humour. “Emoji is a softer way” than a selfie “of sharing because it’s a standardised type of image,” said Eler. “It’s a safer way to express emotions—less vulnerable and more clear. They’re soft emotions.”

Even soft emotions pack a punch. When I asked Benenson what keeps him to returning to emoji since publishing his book, Emoji Dick in 2010, he told me he wanted to know what images matter. “[Emoji] are the symbols we chose to encode in our software and a front seat to what’s influencing people,” he said. Put another way, they’re the images we’ve decided are valuable enough to preserve forever. In 2015, the emoji keyboard was enabled for all iOS users by default, which lent them the momentum to become the most popular keyboard in the world. According to Benenson, their placement in our keyboards, which he describes as the most precious real estate in the digital world, makes them a particularly important communication tool. “They’re in our most intimate exchanges with our friends and family. That’s bigger than an app,” he said. “Ultimately it’s a conversation about power.”

Although sometimes banal, emoji history supports Benenson’s observations. Burge divides emoji loss into two eras—2010 and 2016—although the vast majority of loss occurs in the second. In 2010, Unicode accepted all emoji available on Japanese phones into the standard except the Shibuya emoji, a Japanese department store reject because Unicode doesn’t encode brands.

The second occurred in 2016 when Apple replaced nearly all emoji at 1090 code points, with a more detailed, 3D-like design. Some emoji stayed true to their earlier versions, while others were transformed; designers remade the wolf face that looked like a dog to resemble a mouse, a sparkling comet became a fiery vagina, and the bus stop is now just as much of an eyesore as a real bus stop.

Apple’s running woman emoji.

Unicode’s zero width joiner (ZWJ)—a code point that facilitates the combination of emoji sequences—is where Benenson’s theories really start to play out. ZWJ allows software companies to render sequenced emoji as unique: what was once ????♀, now appears as a woman running emoji pictured here. This applies to skin tone variation, giving users the ability to pick the skin tone of the emoji people they share. Unsurprisingly, people care about the ability to represent themselves accurately.

Few among us would consider the ability to streamline emoji and build identity a loss, though with one set of solutions, a new set of problems arises. “The yellow default for smiley faces or human emoji is a huge issue because it makes the default light skin,” Solomon told me over email. “That’s a huge loss of representation that emoji had before skin tones were introduced.” This bears out in the family emoji options, which only come in yellow, whereas other human emoji come in different skin tone options. In the Netflix series The StandUps Comedian Aparna Nancherla refers to the family options as an “Aryan nation starter kit.”

“There is a fundamental tension between what people want and what the Unicode consortium and the companies are able to pass on a regular basis,” said Founder of Emojination, Jennifer 8 Lee in the documentary Picture Character. The combination of race, sex, religion, and physical attributes could be almost limitless. “At a certain point you’re looking at tens of thousands of new characters. This is a system that might implode under the huge demand.” Jennifer Daniel, Google’s creative director of emoji expressed similar concerns over email, wondering if adding more emoji and details to these emoji each year created “zones of exclusion”—as representation reaches new levels of specificity, additional groups of people would be left out.  

“One of the motivations behind the gender inclusive initiative was to bring back what was successful about emoji in the first place—their universality,” wrote Daniel. Google’s now retired emoji blobs provide one of the more profound examples of emoji loss, according to Solomon, who extolled the expressive virtues woman dancing [emoji has been retired]. “I feel like I can relate to it,” she said.

Most software companies currently use a sexy or athletic rendering of the ???? woman dancing that aims to capture an action more than an expression. From 2014-2016, Google’s dancer used a blob playfully pirouetting to communicate a silly expression lacking in self-consciousness. But because no other software company used the blobs, exchange across platforms led to what Solomon describes as “extreme loss of meaning from sender to receiver.” The dancing blob you could imagine tripping over itself with a rose in its mouth does not communicate the same message as a sexy dancer.

“Blobs were this really good answer to how to have a gender fluid and gender inclusive emoji,” Solomon said. “Because it doesn’t look overly gendered, you can put more [meaning] on it.” Solomon cited Google’s Person Tipping Hand (often referred to as ????Information Help Desk Girl)—a blob in a pillbox hat—as an example how quirky the designs could get. Like the dancer, this blob has a very identifiable personality—nice white-gloved service lady.

Solomon lamented the loss of the blobs for their ridiculous joyous designs, and connected the limited number of emoji to the concept of forced creativity. Limitations force ingenuity wherein a ????cactus connotes the ????middle finger (this occurred up until the introduction of the middle finger in 2014); verbatim aping leads to the advent of creepy AR emojis and memoji.

New emoji don’t wash away these limitations. Pretty much everyone under the age of 40 can name emoji they use to mean something else—????????; (ejaculating penis), ???????? (weed), and ???? (I’d rather be painting my nails than talking to you). Meanwhile, faceless clocks and images of safety pins and flashlights few of us will ever use occupy precious keyboard real estate. Understanding what emoji people want and will use requires a thoughtful approach, vendor support, and usage data that up until last year wasn’t available to the public.

What isn’t required are more code points. Unicode has space for roughly a million characters (1,114,112 to be exact), only about a quarter of which are in use. (Chinese, Japanese, Korean characters alone occupy approximately 25,000 code points; mathematical arrows use nearly 300—more than double the characters encoded for Basic Latin.) “We don’t know how much space will eventually be used,” Roozbeh Pournader, a member of Unicode’s Technical Committee told me over DM. (He spoke in an unofficial capacity.) “But we don’t expect the space to fill up unless we make contact with alien civilizations and want to encode their writing systems in Unicode too.”

While making changes in the existing Unicode standard isn’t possible, the losses incurred in design aren’t always permanent. When I spoke to Daniel over email, she wrote extensively about Google’s efforts to bring back or alter emoji in a way that adds to users vocabulary of expression. This includes submitting a 16-page paper in 2018 recommending the use of gender-neutral emoji and a follow-up proposal suggesting transformations for all but seven gendered emoji. The recommendations came as a response to the host of issues caused by software vendors interpreting characters differently enough to cause messaging confusion, not to mention reinforcing stereotypes.

Apple’s construction worker emoji.

Daniel specifically identifies the default ???? male construction worker as problematic and describes compelling mechanical solutions to these issues. The designer argues that rather than offering scores of construction worker variations, a few more generalized representations could do the work of hundreds, thus saving valuable keyboard real estate. “In a way, Google had it right from the start with its non-gendered ‘blob’ emoji,” Daniel wrote. “Sometimes progress is reversing legacy decisions.”

Outside these larger initiatives, the designer has co-submitted several proposals that do just this. In one, she recommends reintroducing face holding back tears, a design once used for ???? confounded face and discontinued. In another, she recommends adding a code point for a new emoji called knocked-out face (an emoji that uses x’s for eyes) to address the problem of design variance between platforms. Currently, about half of all software vendors use the version of she calls knocked-out face for ???? dizzy face creating enough confusion that Emojipedia cautions the use of this emoji.

Proposed additions to the standard such as these typically take about two years to implement. Not only does the process include reviewing and voting prospective emoji, but encoding the chosen ones. Like democracy, change occurs incrementally, but can affect our lives in big ways.

Within a digital environment that essentially casts language in resin, perhaps the semi-chameleon-like quality of emoji most reflects the era into which they were born. Net-native languages evolve no matter how rigid the system we create to preserve them. But those systems are not without vulnerabilities. Vendors with profit motives do not have the same responsibility to the public as a non-profit. When small groups of people make decisions for millions, it takes less time and effort to compromise the integrity of the decision making process. Constant redesign of the web encourages a kind of collective amnesia that discourages reflection.

That last point arguably feels the least urgent, but the most significant. It’s important to look forward too, but if we don’t start examining the means in which emoji can hemorrhage creative and expressive loss, we won’t understand what we’re protecting.

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