With emojis more popular than ever—as highlighted by the fact that the Oxford Dictionary’s word of the year is a joyfully laughing smiley face—it’s worth noting that the process of creating an emoji is held by the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that suddenly wields unusual pop-culture power. Here’s how it found itself atop that lofty perch.
Emojis—the iconic pictographs hiding in your phone’s keyboard—were already going mainstream long before this week.
But this week really put the icons into the spotlight, after the Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji its word of the year. You’re most likely familiar with that icon: “Face With Tears of Joy” has become widely accepted as the the new LOL.
Being an emoji, that announcement did create some controversy, but it nonetheless reflects the cultural role emojis have attained in just a few years.
The state of affairs for the emoji is an unusual one for the Unicode Consortium, which in roughly 25 years has evolved from the organization tasked with digitizing the world’s many languages into a consistently understandable form into what can be best described as a meme machine.
“Our goal is to make sure that all of the text on computers for every language in the world is represented,” the consortium’s cofounder and president, Mark Davis, told NPR last month. “But we get a lot more attention for emojis than for the fact that you can type Chinese on your phone and have it work with another phone.”
The organization, which launched in 1991 as an offshoot of a collaboration between Xerox and Apple on universal character sets, has quietly grown hugely influential in the world of computing, helping to build consistency across platforms for character sets as diverse as Cyrillic, Chinese, Inuktitut, and Thai, and digitizing those characters in a form that computers can easily understand and convey.
The Birth of Emojis
The standardization process has helped to make computing universal, but before emojis, there wasn’t really anything in terms of a universal language that could be easily understood no matter the mother tongue.
Emojis, a set of pictographs borne from the Japanese mobile industry in the late 1990s, bring us a lot closer than we were before. In a 2013 interview with The Verge, emoji inventor Shigetaka Kurita—then a Docomo employee—says he took inspiration from weather forecasts and comic books and was focused on offering a system that got past the complexities of the Japanese language.
“In Japanese comics, there are a lot of different symbols. People draw expressions like the person with the bead of sweat, you know, or like, when someone gets an idea and they have the lightbulb,” Kurita explained. “So there were a lot of cases where I used those as a kind of hint and rearranged things.”
In 2010, Unicode took over emojis at a time when Apple had begun including them in its operating systems, helping to drive their long-term success. But Unicode’s Davis emphasizes that there’s still a lot open to interpretation—and as a result, they shouldn’t be called a language.
“I can tell you, using language, I need to go get a haircut, but only if I can get there by 3 p.m., and otherwise I have to pick up the kids,” Davis told The New York Times last month. “You try to express that in emoji and you get a series of symbols that people could interpret in a thousand different ways.”
Keepers of the Standard
The process of getting an emoji off the ground takes a lot of time and requires a variety of considerations and discussions before formally getting implemented. The process often leads to some lobbying over icons that takes both a serious tone (the push for diversity in emoji that led to a variety of new skin tones being added earlier this year) and a not-so-serious one (a petition launched earlier this month, with the help of a cancer nonprofit, to include a beard emoji).
That said, there have been cases, such as the eye/speech bubble combination used in the Ad Council’s I Am a Witness campaign, where emojis have gotten around Unicode’s lengthy standardization process. The situation, in which the Ad Council worked directly with Apple to get the emoji added to iOS, highlights the importance of software-makers in encouraging the usage and uptake of emojis, though Unicode’s influence remains strong.
“These don’t magically appear once we approve them,” Davis added in his comments to the Times. “Manufacturers have to put them on their phones.”
Nonetheless, the process continues. The latest set of icons, which is anticipated to include 67 images—including an eye-rolling emoji and an avocado—is expected to be voted on by Unicode next spring and will likely be added to popular operating systems by next summer.