The people, represented by the group Emojination, had a simple request: consider the hippo. “The HIPPOPOTAMUS, or HIPPO for short, is one of the last remaining popular charismatic megafauna that still does not have its own emoji symbol,” its proposal, submitted to the Unicode Consortium in 2017, read. Nicole Wong and Jennifer 8. Lee, two writers who authored the proposal, pointed to the hippo’s status as one of the most dangerous animals in sub-Saharan Africa, where they are “highly aggressive” and pose “daily threats to communities.” The semiaquatic mammals were also experiencing a “digital renaissance,” with Google searches on par with those for the koala and just behind those for the giraffe. Perhaps most important, the proposers argued that hippos have abundant metaphorical potential: “Users want a HIPPO emoji not only because this particular species is widely considered adorable, but also because the HIPPO emoji can signify culturally what other animals cannot: fatness, hunger, and a whimsical lethargy.” A hippo emoji could warn fellow-humans of danger and tell your girlfriend that you feel fat in a good way.

Wong and Lee are aligned with Emojination, a grassroots effort to make the emoji-approval process more democratic and inclusive. The hippo proposal followed Unicode’s guidelines closely, with “Factors for Inclusion” and “Factors for Exclusion” sections that anticipated possible criticisms and questions from the committee. Was the hippo distinctive enough, or could it be mistaken for an elephant or a rhinoceros? (No, the proposers wrote, because it would not have a trunk or a horn.) Would it be redundant, as people were already using the panda emoji to represent lethargy and the whale emoji to represent hunger? No, because the hippo also has a literal meaning and “the closest emoji one could use to represent the hippo species literally would be rhinoceros or elephant emojis, but these would be incorrect and provide poor representation for the hippo.” Also, the hippo’s symbolic connotations are particular—marrying laziness, fatness, hunger, and cuteness with an undercurrent of danger. Nor is the hippo likely to go out of style anytime soon: “The hippo is a relevant emoji symbol as long as hippos continue to graze in Africa and live in zoos.”

While it can seem like there’s an emoji for everything—a burrito, a yarn ball, a peach, an abacus, faces whose expressions span the breadth of the human condition—there are just over three thousand, all approved by the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit agency that develops an international standardized code for text data, including numerals and languages. The Unicode Consortium was incorporated in 1991, when there were no standards for turning written characters into computer “code points.” It was “an unholy mess,” Mark Davis, a co-founder of Unicode, which sought to clean it up, said. Unicode became the arbiter of more than a hundred and fifty modern and ancient scripts.

The tech companies approached Unicode about regulating emojis in the early two-thousands. “We thought, ‘That doesn’t look like text to us,’ and we decided not to pursue it,” Davis, who’s still involved with Unicode as the chair of the Emoji Subcommittee, said. In 2006, Google started adding emojis to its products, and several Google employees (including Davis, who works there) put together a proposal that asked Unicode to encode emojis. They accepted. It was new territory: not only because emojis aren’t a language but also because the Unicode group was tasked with creating new emojis in addition to standardizing existing ones. When dealing with living or even dead languages, the encoding process—the assignment of code points to characters—consisted of observation and research: How does the punctuation behave? How do the line breaks operate? “All of these questions are, in theory, answered by how the script works in practice, so it’s about looking at the way people use it in reality, and with emoji there are an unbounded number of possible images,” Davis said. Suddenly, Unicode had the more difficult mandate of writing the rules of an evolving style of communication as well as following them, trying to balance creative license and whimsy with standards, and hemming in the infinite variety of possible emojis. They have become a clearinghouse of a novel mode of communication.

New emojis are added annually and undergo rigorous vetting, with proposals considered first by the Emoji Subcommittee, which meets weekly by phone, and later by the Technical Committee, which meets quarterly and is largely composed of representatives from big companies. If an emoji is finalized, Apple, Google, and Microsoft—who are all voting members of Unicode—will design their versions and release them. About seventy emojis are added each year, and it’s not easy to get an emoji accepted. Among the rejected proposals: a radish, rye bread, the Aboriginal flag, a cannabis leaf, a condom. One highly publicized rejection was of a proposed “period pants” emoji, to represent menstruation. Unicode did not specify its reasons for this rejection, but it did add a droplet-of-blood emoji in this year’s release—a compromise of sorts, offering a more general symbol that could be used, perhaps, to signify either menstruation or murder.

One reason for the limitations on new emojis is technical: the characters take up significant memory space on a phone. Another is more philosophical: emojis were originally intended to be more like accents to text, mimicking gestures and facial expressions; they weren’t meant to represent every single specific thing in the world. Emojis represent concepts: the smiley face gets at the concept of “happy” and the heart gets at the idea of “love.” But symbolic uses of emojis become complicated as the committee approves more of them and emojis become increasingly specific. There is no such thing as a generic dog. In emoji, there’s a poodle, a yellowish Akita Inu, and a dog-face emoji, which looks different in different interfaces but nonetheless has specific characteristics that exclude certain breeds. So why not also a golden retriever or a German shepherd? “Someone made a proposal for a couple dozen dinosaurs,” Davis said. “We winnowed it down to two, a brontosaurus-like dinosaur and a T. rex, sort of going for the carnivore and the herbivore. In general, people want to convey the general notion of ‘dinosaur,’ not ‘triceratops.’ ” This may be true for long-extinct beasts, but it has not placated white-wine drinkers, who are affronted that the concept of wine is represented through a glass of red. But to add white wine would be to start down a slippery slope—what about rosé?

These choices become more serious when you move away from wine and dinosaurs and dogs. The representation of people is particularly vexed; after years of receiving complaints about the uniform yellow skin tone, Unicode added five skin-tone variants, in 2015. Though this move was generally celebrated, some thought it muddied the waters. “Because I’m black, should I now feel compelled to use the ‘appropriate’ brown-skinned nail-painting emoji? Why would I use the white one? Now in simple text messages and tweets, I have to identify myself racially,” Paige Tutt wrote, in the Washington Post. Interracial emoji couples were approved this year, but the emoji families remain the original daffodil yellow. Unicode is also attempting, slowly, to rectify gender imbalance in various professions and incorporate representations of people with disabilities.

There are also the national flags, which Jeremy Burge, an Emoji Subcommittee member and the founder of the popular emoji-search engine Emojipedia, said have the potential to be “a political minefield.” In a recent emoji update, the flags of Scotland, Wales, and England were added. The Emoji Subcommittee did not, however, add the Ulster Banner—a flag used in Northern Ireland by the national football team, but also by loyalist communities associated with ethnic nationalism. “The real issue is that Northern Ireland doesn’t have an officially recognized flag, except for the Union Jack,” Burge said. The imposition of an “official flag” is part of a bitter decades-long conflict in Northern Ireland that was itself deeply fraught with symbols and signs. As emojis come to represent the world more specifically and fully, they collide with the thorny reality that they reduce to a pictograph.

What, exactly, do we want from our emojis? A visual language of our universe, categorized and illustrated ad infinitum? Or a series of bright, whimsical accents for our text-speak? The most popular emojis tend to be gestural: faces, hearts, and hands. These types of emojis can also be difficult to propose to Unicode, because there are few metrics to suggest their worthiness or popularity. Gretchen McCulloch, an Internet linguist, said that the current standards would prevent some of the most-loved emojis—grandfathered in during the early heady days—from existing. “I’m not saying Unicode’s criteria are bad,” McCulloch said. “But it’s weird that, say, the smiling pile of poo, which was very important to emoji usage, wouldn’t make it through today. You could never get another inanimate object with a face on it added today. You couldn’t get a smiling apple through Unicode today.” But you could get through a hippo, which was encoded in 2018. As we collectively puzzle our way to the future of emoji, we are now never at a loss to depict a certain kind of lolling laziness.



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