Our dictionary of digital pictograms keeps growing, but is it costing us our creativity?
By Kyle Chayka
Illustration by Nicolas Ortega
Animation by Alejandro Ussa
July 17, 2017
This summer our digital communication gets an upgrade. A whole new world will be opened to us in which we can frictionlessly converse about saunas, zombies, wizards, dumplings, scarves, meditation, and crickets without so much as typing a word. Our pixelated faces will wear monocles, swear, and swap stars for eyes. We will wear hijabs and sport beards, become mermaids and breastfeed. Welcome to the latest batch of emojis.
Every time we hit that smiley-face button to flip to the emoji keyboard on our smartphones, we’re faced with a palette of emotions, ideas, and objects that we can deploy instantaneously. The set has grown rapidly ever since the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit body that oversees the set of standard characters on the web—including emojis—launched the first set in August of 2009. This June we received the new Unicode 10.0, which added elves, mermaids, rock climbers, a vomiting face, starry eyes, and an exploding head, among many others, to the list. As our burgeoning pictographic language continues to expand, we have to stop and ask, do we really want emojis for everything?
Language usually evolves on its own, what the Indiana University linguist Susan Herring describes as “change from below.” We don’t often think about adding new words to English; rather, neologisms and slang develop organically as we need them: woke and lit adapt to their new meanings the more often we use the words in their new contexts.
But emojis can’t function that way. To keep the system standardized across platforms—phones and computers, Google and Apple—Unicode controls what’s available for us to use, a linguistic process called “change from above.” The problem is that “top-down change doesn’t always work,” Herring says. It’s hard to force language adoption.
We often take the universality of emojis for granted. Some concepts are just easier to get across in an image than words, like exhaustion, say, or laughter, or even lust (eggplants, peaches, and devils). Emojis are also easy and quick to type on the digital interfaces that have become our de facto mode of communication. Whatever screen you use, you can understand them: A rose is a rose, at least in the literal sense.
And yet, how emojis appear across our various digital conversations isn’t up to Unicode. The Consortium’s sets come down to a list of familiar descriptive phrases—“tired face”; “woman dancing”—that companies can interpret at will. (See how they vary here.) “The different designs are like the differences between fonts like Arial and Garamond,” explains Unicode’s cofounder and president Mark Davis. “The images can vary significantly, but shouldn’t be so different that people can’t recognize a core concept.” Our most visual means of communication requires no universal design to understand. The significance of an emoji is more fundamental than its superficial form, even if that meaning shifts over time.
Like slang, their definitions do evolve, and some emojis take on connotations that even the Unicode staff doesn’t expect. “Their meaning ends up being determined by how people use them,” Davis says. “You’re obviously aware of the secondary meanings of the peach [emoji], for example, which we didn’t exactly foresee!” The relative simplicity allows us to use them however we want.
There’s a tension then between that organic change—users giving emojis their own spin—and the top-down change of Unicode administering the ones we’re supposed to use: Is having access to a rock-climbing emoji any better than the ways we previously experimented with expressing the concept, say, with a strong arm plus a mountain?
Some of the specificity Unicode has introduced lately has been a boon to the emoji-using community. In 2015, the Consortium added the ability to change the skin color or gender of more emojis, giving the set more verisimilitude for a wider array of people. The default yellow might be seen as neutral, but it wasn’t until more colors were added that we really understood how race was communicated—or not communicated. As The Atlantic reported in 2016, white people aren’t likely to use white emojis, even when they’re available.
The diversification is a change that designer Julia Heffernan, who has created original emojis for the likes of The Tonight Show, appreciates. “I’m excited that the new ones are adding more female-focused emojis representing breastfeeding and women in hijabs,” she says. “I’m glad to see that as emojis become more mainstream, they are attempting to become more inclusive as well.”
If that’s the case, what might their more fantastical counterparts—the new zombies, elves, and genies—communicate? “That could be an indicator of how many of us are wanting to escape into fantasy these days—or perhaps it just provides a better shorthand for pop-cultural references and cosplay,” says Carla Gannis, a visual artist whose work often incorporates emojis.
In fact, Unicode doesn’t really consider current trends when creating emoji lists, though the Consortium will take public suggestions for additions with each batch. “We don’t aim for relevance for a particular year,” Davis explains. “Although one of my favorites, the ‘face with raised eyebrow’ seems particularly apt.” 2017: The year of emoji-expressed skepticism.
According to Davis, the key to creating new emojis lies in predicting their popularity: “One of the main goals is to pick emojis that will be frequently used.” One might wonder, though, how that criterium could be applied to the new rock climber or can of tomato sauce.
This laissez-faire approach might come at a cost for emojis, which must compete with their more flexible alternatives in digital expression, like animated gifs and customizable stickers, that offer more room for nuance and personalization. Thanks to services like Bitmoji, users can design stickers to not only evoke our race or gender, but to look exactly like us. Google’s new messaging app Allo even uses A.I. to create as close a replica as possible.
“There is more room for customization with stickers since they don’t have to adhere to Unicode standards,” Heffernan says. “They can be churned out faster for the same reason, so they are often more relevant to current events.” That doesn’t herald the death of the pictogram, however: “Unless something changes so stickers can be sent in line with text, like emojis, I think they will always have a special place in our hearts and our phones,” Heffernan says. July’s Emoji Movie is perhaps all the evidence we need to prove our affection for the static pixels.
Like any pictographic language, emojis can be recombined into a linear narrative. Fred Benenson, a data engineer currently employed at the tech incubator Y Combinator, translated the entirety of Moby-Dick into the pictograms in 2010. But for all their vaunted utility—the latest major iOS update now lets you directly “translate” certain words into emojis—they lack a fundamental subtlety. “They don’t include more abstract symbols or connectors or words that would function in the way that grammatical function words do in English, like prepositions or tense markers,” Herring argues.
But part of what makes emojis great is their building-block simplicity: We make our own manifold meanings from the limited palette available to us. What risk does the arbitrary abundance carry for the medium’s capacity for creativity? Unicode is important because it acts kind of like the Oxford English Dictionary for this visual-verbal argot. The universal standard makes emojis the common language they are, and the limited number is part of what keeps them functional. We could no more have an emoji for every little thing in the world than we could have an alphabet with an infinite number of letters. “There is also a goal of balance,” Davis says. “For every emoji added, some other potential emoji has to be removed from consideration.”
Taking the need for moderation into account, creating ever more emojis out of a deep-seated desire to represent everything seems wrongheaded, not only because it’s annoying to flip through all those keyboard screens, but because it amounts to a kind of digital waste that the archaeologists of the future will inevitably dig up. We’re playing with history here.
“Every time you type or see a letter on your smartphone, it’s a Unicode character,” Davis says. “Long after you and I are both dust, the Unicode characters will be used to store and represent text. And that includes emojis.” Do we really need a soft pretzel and a flying saucer?