Talk to Me: The Evolution of Emoji
🤷♀️ A brief history of emoji Emoticons—proto-emoji, made from keyboard characters—first showed up about 40 years ago, with emoji coming along 20 years later. Relative to all written language, this is nothing. Written language emerged somewhere around 80,000 to 150,000 years ago, and as McWhorter has said: If humanity existed for 24 hours, writing only came around at 11:07 p.m. When emoji first arrived on the scene in Japan in 1999, they quickly became popular for their ability to add a layer of humanity to texts that otherwise felt too dry or perfunctory. The word itself is Japanese: e (絵, “picture”) moji (文字, “character”) = emoji. At that time emoji were available on three semi-incompatible Japanese mobile phones (Docomo, KDDI, Softbank). It wasn’t until western vendors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft started adopting emoji for their products that the tiny pictograms became part of the Unicode family. close Early emoji from Softbank, Docomo, and KDDI What is Unicode, you ask? Unicode is the closest we get to having a universal encoding system, without which different computers and servers wouldn’t always show text the same way. Unicode is responsible for glyphs like currency signs and umlauts—basically, characters that have a universal name and meaning. This marks an important turning point. Instead of individual vendors creating their own emoji standards that wouldn’t be compatible on other platforms, Unicode created a subcommittee to standardize these pictograms. (I serve as a member on this subcommittee.) Like its name suggests, emoji get defined by two attributes: The picture the user sees on the screen, and the code that defines it. Unicode’s job is to create that code. close Emoji get defined by two attributes: the picture a user sees (determined by the device) and a code (determined by Unicode). For example: pizza and U 1F355. Since 2010, Unicode has accepted annual proposals for new emoji. Anyone can submit an idea as long as they have a prototype of the emoji, an explanation of how and why people would use it, and an argument for how the addition would improve the greater emoji ecosystem. This process can take up to two years. 👥 Inside the Unicode Consortium When I first joined the consortium I admit that I found many of the proposals—like a person juggling 🤹 or Mrs. Claus 🤶—rather frivolous. I wondered how Unicode could justify adding a wilted flower 🥀 , a tumbler glass 🥃 , and a person playing water polo 🤽 (among so many others) to the emoji alphabet. In less than a decade we’ve gone from a menu of 500 emoji to one with 3,000. Reading through proposal after proposal I wondered, Are any of those tiny pieces of Unicode adding real value to our lexicon? I’ve grown to enjoy these documents, written by civilians who are ultimately seeking representation. When they scroll through the monkeys, trains, and sushi, they aren’t seeing signs of themselves. So, they take time out of their lives to propose emoji for bubble tea or a pickup truck or the transgender flag. And that’s not frivolous—that’s awesome. close The grinning face emoji as rendered by Apple, Google, Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, LG, Microsoft, and Samsung (clockwise from top-left). However, once Unicode releases its guidelines, Apple, Microsoft, Google, Samsung, and other tech companies start designing the new emoji. So, » Read More
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