Emoji are the cutest PR tool ever—but it's a reminder that corporations control the internet language


On Wednesday, when Facebook announced it was releasing over 1,500 newly designed emoji to its Messenger app, it became an opportunity for the company to put its progressiveness on display:

The status update posted to Facebook Wednesday boasted, “You’ll see a female police officer, runner, pedestrian, surfer and swimmer for the very first time, and we’ll keep rolling these out.”

Most of the new emoji are the result of Facebook finally updating its popular Messenger app to reflect the current diversity of skin tones that’s been available for the last year on many other platforms. But yes, it also included some emoji ladies (as well as some red heads, in a boon for the previously emoji-excluded ginger community).

This is good! But it is also strange that emoji have become the new vehicle used by corporations’ public relations teams to emphasize that social ideals matter to them. It is changing the nature of this pictoral language in some good ways but also in ways we may come to regret.

Gaining more representation for women in the emoji set has been THE emoji diversity battle of 2016, as made clear in a New York Times opinion piece published this past March on ‘Emoji Feminism.’ “We are told we are the new generation of American women; no longer a minority, we are, in fact, the majority of breadwinners in American homes,” wrote Amy Butcher, an assistant professor of English at Ohio Wesleyan University, after realizing the dearth of female emoji doing work. “And yet the best we can get is the flamenco [dancer].”

Before Facebook was bringing us little liberated emoji women, Google was getting props for their strides in the area. When Google proposed 13 new professional emoji last month, the media excitedly reported that Google was bringing us 13 new working women emoji, including lady scientists and long-haired welders. But for those paying close attention, what Google actually proposed was 13 new female emoji and 13 new male emoji, created using existing characters. So Google’s move was as much about bringing us a diversity of working class people as gender parity.

The method would combine the current characters to form new ones, using what’s known as a Zero Width Joiner sequence (ZWJ for short). The diversely gendered family options that we got with the last big emoji update were assembled using this method: the equation only happens behind the scenes, where the codepoints for woman, woman, boy and boy are all added up to render as one happy lesbian family with twin boys emoji. The Google proposal smartly suggests using ZWJ sequences for these new professions, bypassing the need to encode brand new emojis, and expediting public availability.

And with the recent push for a better, more diverse, more representative emoji set, there is a need for workarounds because the regulatory body whose responsibilities include oversight of emoji is backlogged. If you follow emoji news , you’ll know that there has been a bit of drama behind the curtains of the Unicode Consortium as of late. Deep font nerds know that the Consortium is not only responsible for voting on which emoji will be unleashed onto the world, but also all of the other crazy medieval punctuation marks, Han ideographs, Digbats and Webdings you can think of. With the recent popularity of emoji, the Consortium has been tied up with stacks of fun emoji proposals, which have garnered them significant press coverage, and have left the medieval Cornish flexus mark on the back burner. And there is no reason to think that the emoji proposals will stop anytime soon.

In just a few weeks on June 21st, Unicode is scheduled to release 77 new emoji candidates, including such updates as ‘selfie’ and ‘face palm’. While there are several important new characters like ‘crossed fingers’ and ‘pregnant woman’, I’m starting to wonder how the politics of the members-only Consortium will start to impact which emoji we get. I can’t imagine anyone will vote against 13 new female professional emoji, and for that I am glad, but the reality is that there are still genders other than male and female that are absent from the update. If we can’t find an equitable gender solution, why move forward with this one?

The answer, I fear, is that new emoji have become merely an opportunity for good PR, a cute way of advertising tacos and ideology, voted on by a board of private interests. Largely made up of white, male engineers representing the titans of Silicon Valley, there are currently about a dozen full voting members on the Unicode Consortium who pay $18,000 a year for the privilege. That’s who gets to decide the future of the internet language.

There is an outside group, Emojination, working on a more democratic representation process, united by their quest to add a dumpling emoji to the cannon. While the dumpling emoji itself is an effort towards more inclusive food representation, the larger goal of the campaign is to expose how emoji are voted into being, and create a pathway to emoji approval for non-corporations. The group ran a successful Kickstarter campaign, presented the proposal to the Consortium, and now the dumpling emoji, along with emoji for chopsticks, Chinese take-out, and a fortune cookie, are all on the list of candidates for Unicode 10.0. Of course, those will not be released until 2017, at a comfortable pace for phone updates.

I will certainly welcome the new fem-moji, and I’m sure I will use them with delight, but it is a strange thing to watch a language emerge through a standards committee. As we into our emoji future, who will we entrust to diversify the many languages of the internet? Emoji risks becoming nothing more than a tool used by advertisers and companies painting themselves as heroes if we don’t pay close attention. Maybe there is another way that involves all of us. A future in which we go to the polls in November, log on to the Unicode site, and vote.

Cara Rose DeFabio is a pop addicted, emoji fluent, transmedia artist, focusing on live events as an experience designer for Real Future.

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