If it’s your birthday today, it wouldn’t be surprising to know that you woke up to a thread of enthusiastic messages filled with emoji (although some people pluralise the word ‘emoji’, we prefer to go with the Unicode Consortium-preferred way of using the same word for both the singular and the plural forms) and wishes. It’s almost uncanny how easy it is to express emotions online—tensed, angry, excited, exuberant—you name it, chances are there is an emoji for it!
Apple recently introduced a number of new emoji with its iOS 15 update including a saluting sign and ‘a pregnant man’ emoji. About 30 more emoji are anticipated to be introduced on iOS and Android devices by 2023. According to the Unicode Consortium list, a non-profit organization that manages emoji throughout the world, there are 3,633 emoji in 2022. Today there exists a community of emoji enthusiasts, recognised as Emojination. There is also an Emojipedia, similar to an encyclopedia and an Emojitracker that tracks the usage and currency with which particular emoji are used.
Why is July 17 celebrated as World Emoji Day?
July 17 is displayed on the 📅 Calendar Emoji, which is why Emojipedia, a leading emoji resource, chose it as the date for World Emoji Day.
But first, what is an emoji, really?
Emoji comes from the Japanese term e, meaning ‘picture’ mo, meaning writing and ‘ji’ meaning character. Considering the pictorial nature of the Japanese language—where each character is a calligraphic representation of something, it seems natural that the emoji was invented in Japan.
An emoji is a cute pictograph or a pictogram character that represents a face (most of the time) comprising a particular emotion and is used online. While emoji were derived from emoticons, they are not the same. Emoticons are the pre-historic emoji we used. Remember when Facebook was brand new? Emoticons are punctuation marks and numbers used together to create pictorial representations of emotions. Think of emoji as an upgrade.
Shigetaka Kurita—the father of emoji
The emoji we use today date all the way back to the late 90s. The popular use of emoticons led Japanese creator Shigetaka Kurita to create the first emoji with the use of 12 by 12 pixels grid in 1999. That’s just 18 bytes of data. The total set of 176 emojis or pictograms back then that Kurita designed were a mere 3KB in size.
They were pixelated and had little resemblance to the emoji we now use but the designs that Kurita created inspired the next of many emoji that have come into being.
The Japanese emoji were created with the singular purpose of enhancing communication on the newly developed mobile network technology, the mobile internet built by Japanese telecom giant NTT DoCoMo. They were an immediate hit. Despite their popularity, most of these emoji remained within Japan for over a decade and were voraciously copied within the telecom industry of the country. What was missing? A standardisation of custom emoji. It meant that they could not be used across different networks.
What is the Unicode Consortium?
In order to attract Japanese customers, Apple hid an emoji keyboard in the first iPhone back in 2007, but North American users quickly became aware of the keyboard. It wasn't until 2010 that emoji were created by the tech giants of Silicon Valley. Over 722 emoji were released by iPhone and Android.
To make their use viable, the Unicode Consortium came into being. It is a non-profit- organisation that governs the standard coding of texts. It manages emoji and decides what new emoji will be created and launches them each year. The Consortium admits proposals for new emoji from everywhere. In fact, if you think you want an emoji that doesn't exist yet, you could design it and submit a proposal.
How a new emoji gets made
The Consortium keeps an active list of all the pitches it has received for new emoji. The list includes both successful and unsuccessful proposals along with the reason for their success or rejection. It also records a selection criterion for the proposals that it receives that includes factors such as compatibility, expected level of usage, distinctiveness and completeness.
The process is fairly simple. The Emoji Subcommittee (ESC) first reviews the proposals and sends them from endorsement to the Unicode Technical Committee or UTC. The UTC reviews the selected proposals and creates a list of ‘Provisional Candidate’. Selected few of these ‘Provisional Candidates’ are made ‘Draft Candidate’ and once an emoji proposal is selected to be released, it becomes a ‘Final Candidate'. These are then sent out to tech companies that design these emojis into codes. They are published into Unicode and apps begin supporting these. The entire process spans a year long time.
It may surprise you but the competition is pretty high, because emoji are all about self-expression. Patterns of emoji use across world can reveal something unique about cultures. Anthropological enquiries within the space of language and linguistics have come to recognise the world of emoji. Don't you agree it is easier to express emotions online than it is IRL?