Emojis are more than a millennial messaging fad. Think of them more like a primitive language. The tiny, emotive characters — from smiley faces to fireworks, to sushi — represent the first language born of the digital world, designed to add emotional nuance to otherwise flat text messages. Emojis have been popular since they first appeared on Japanese mobile phones in the late ’90s, and in the past few years, they have become a hallmark of the way people communicate. They show up in press releases and corporate emails. The White House once issued an economic report illustrated with emojis. In 2015, the cry-laughing emoji became Oxford Dictionaries’ “Word” of the Year. Emojis aren’t just for people who say things like “lmao smh”. Emojis are for everyone.
That puts a lot of pressure on the designs and standards for emojis. If emojis are a language for everyone in the digital world, then the emoji lexicon needs to constantly evolve across cultures, across screens, across time. Today there are thousands of emojis depicting people in all their diversity, and thousands more to represent the things we interact with in our world: money, prayer beads, Apple Watches. In the future, as the world becomes increasingly digital and increasingly globalized, emojis will become important tools for translation and communication—a lingua franca for the digital age.
In the beginning, there were emoticons. For the most part, these came of age as the 🙂 and 🙁 of chat room conversations in the 1990s. These primitive gestures represented an important part of early netspeak: You could convey sarcasm by tacking on 😉 at the end of your message or share your ambivalence with the ¯_(ツ)_/¯ face.
Emojis have been available outside of Japan since the mid-2000s through separate apps, which let users copy and paste the icons into text messages and emails. In 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS; Android followed suit two years later. This allowed people to access emojis directly from a keyboard on their phones—the same way you’d switch to a Korean or Japanese keyboard to access those language-specific characters—and popularized emojis with an entirely new audience.
As emojis became more popular, they also became more plentiful. The Unicode Consortium added new emojis to its approved list each year, gathered from users around the world: the first emoji bride, dozens of plants and animals, types of food, and depictions of all kinds of activities. Unicode requires a lengthy submission and approval process for every new batch hoping for christening, and it can take up to two years for an emoji to travel from first draft to your phone.
By 2014, the Emoji Politicization had begun. It happened with emojis representing food (there were none depicting traditional African cuisine), flags (the Israeli flag existed, but not the Palestinian one), families (debates about family units depicting same-sex parents or single parents), and more. It wasn’t just a matter of having the right icon to describe what you ate for lunch—it was having a digital acknowledgment of your culture. Emojis had emerged as an important language of the digital age, but it was a language that had no words for “women with jobs” or “people of color.”
The Unicode Consortium considers new emojis every year, which means the cultural lexicon of emojis continues to evolve with every update to iOS and Android. An update that reached screens in 2017 included mythical creatures such as mermaids and elves, foods like pie and takeout, and animals like the dinosaur or hedgehog. Perhaps more importantly, the update also added half a dozen new ways to represent humans: a woman cradling a baby, a woman wearing a hijab, and three new gender-neutral options to represent people of all ages. Most recently, emoji additions include symbols for deaf people, people in wheelchairs, and couples with mixed genders and skin tones. Those feel like the most fundamental improvements to emoji’s vocabulary, and the best indication of where emojis are headed. As underrepresented communities continue to show up as thoughtfully designed icons, we can understand something about cultural priorities and the types of people who are included in forming this growing digital language.