I'm one of the many volunteers creating the emoji you use every day

Creating a new emoji that will make its way onto billions of phones and computers is not a trivial task.

I work with the non-profit Unicode Consortium – we are the folks who standardise how computers send text and emoji – and to understand how we pick which emoji to include and why, it helps to know the history of the emoji.

The history of the emoji

Emoji were first developed for mobile phones in Japan in the 90s as a fun and concise way to communicate via texting. As the popularity exploded globally in the early 00s, incompatibility problems appeared – you might send a smiley face, but all your friend saw was an empty box.

The consortium decided to encode emoji to stop this from happening, but there was a catch.

If you are a programmer looking to encode the scripts for languages like Arabic or Cherokee, you consult with experts in those languages, but who do you turn to for encoding emoji? The answer: people who use them!

At the beginning, we started by standardising those used in Japan, but as we considered which new emoji should be added, we allowed anyone to propose a new emoji.

We aim to add roughly 70 new emoji to the standard annually, and there is a set criteria to consider.

The process is managed by the Emoji Subcommittee (a team of volunteer designers, linguists and engineers), who review proposals for evidence that an emoji will a) used by millions of people daily, b) be easy to identify at tiny sizes, c) has the potential for both literal and metaphorical uses, and d) fills a gap in the existing set of widely used emoji.

The most widely used emoji include the heart, faces, thumbs up and OK. My favourite is the smiley face, because you can never have too much happiness in the world.

What makes a great emoji is a large community of people adopting an image to capture a big idea. There are websites that show the volume of emoji use on Twitter in real time and you will always notice the ‘recycle’ symbol near the top.

This is because in Muslim cultures this image has become a salutation that roughly means: ‘I pass you my blessing and hope you will pass them forward.’

How to create an emoji

Anyone is welcome to submit a proposal for a new emoji and it’s free. Proposals must be submitted by March 31 to be considered for the update in the following year.

There is often a back and forth between the proposers and the volunteer committee members to refine a proposal, to understand the data that suggests a broad need for the emoji and to refine the image so it works at a small size etc.

Once a proposal is well-formed, it is submitted to the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC), who meet quarterly. During the fourth quarter meeting, final decisions are made as to which emoji characters will be included in the next release.

When we’ve announced which emoji will be integrated, designers and programmers around the world get to work adapting those generic emoji into the specific designs that will be consistent with the style developed for phones, computer or system (think how the smiley face is unique but consistent across iPhones, Android, Twitter and Instagram.)

Once a character has added into the Unicode standard it stays there forever. Why? People aren’t the only ones who use characters.

Computers do too and we never know if some software developer, somewhere in the world, has decided to use a rarely-used character as a key part of their code (think about the @ or #). People may not notice if we removed that character from the standard but a computer programme could be brought to a crashing halt.

What started as a small set of icons has now expanded to close to 3,000 emoji, with most in recent years coming from public proposals – like the flamingo. On early low-res phone the images were fairly crude but they can now be quite subtle (though their small size still imposes restrictions on fine detail).

Emoji have become a global way of expressing yourself and with that has come the desire to support a wider diversity of genders, skin tones, hair styles, occupations, activities, dress (e.g. the hijab or the flat-soled woman’s shoe emoji) and foods.

The future of emoji

We don’t know what the future of the emoji will be. Will people settle on a relatively small set of a couple hundred emoji that are broadly and frequently used almost as short-hand or an expanded set of punctuation? Or will people seek to represent more and more of the world in small pictures that start to replace a sizable number of written words?

Since the dawn of civilisation language and writing systems have constantly morphed and evolved and emoji will be no different.

We at the Unicode Consortium will continue to seek public input in this evolution and work with the technology industry to develop continually better ways to help all the world’s people express themselves in their language of choice.

In celebration of World Emoji Day, July 17th, Unicode is re-launching its website and inviting people to support its on-going work by ‘adopting’ their favorite emoji or other character. To find out more visit: https://home.unicode.org

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