With emoji more popular than ever, the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit that oversees the process of creating an emoji, wields unusual pop-culture power. Here’s how it found itself on that lofty perch.
Emoji—the iconic pictographs hiding in your phone’s keyboard—have become a key part of the fabric of digital life
And their influence is growing. In 2015, Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji, “Face With Tears of Joy,” its word of the year. There was, of course, a (somewhat poorly reviewed) animated movie about emoji last year, and they’ve become a common feature both in every social network and in TV shows. In just a few short years, emoji have grown into a cultural phenomenon.
They also have raised the profile of the Unicode Consortium, which in nearly 30 years has evolved from the organization tasked with digitizing the world’s many languages 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 in a 2015 interview. “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 consortium, which launched in 1991, is 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 Emoji
The standardization process has helped to make computing universal, but before emoji, there wasn’t really a universal language that could be easily understood no matter the mother tongue.
Emoji, a set of pictographs born 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 emoji 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 emoji still can’t be considered 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. “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
Getting an emoji off the ground takes a lot of time and requires a variety of considerations. Nonetheless, lobbying efforts for new emoji have picked up steam: Recently, the nonprofit Plan International announced a campaign to include an emoji to fight stigmas about menstruation. Meanwhile, Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian and Tinder have encouraged the addition of emoji that depict interracial relationships.
Jennifer 8. Lee, a well-known journalist who once wrote for The New York Times and now serves on Unicode’s emoji subcommittee, played a role in launching the latter campaign. In an interview with The Guardian this month, she highlighted her role in getting acceptance for emoji that have significant cultural value in many parts of the world—particularly the dumpling emoji and the hijab emoji.
“The beautiful thing about emoji is anyone can propose one,” she said.
Some emoji, such as the eye/speech bubble combination used in the Ad Council’s I Am a Witness campaign, have gotten around Unicode’s lengthy standardization process. The Ad Council worked directly with Apple to get the emoji added to iOS, highlighting the importance of software-makers in encouraging emoji usage and uptake.
“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.”