Stories

The decision-making behind emoji

Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge. Photo Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Emoji, the little icons used to represent everything from human expressions to various foods, are wildly popular around the world as a form of expression and communication. But less widely known is that these little icons are chosen and managed by the Unicode Consortium, a nearly 30-year-old organization that's also responsible for all the letters and characters in our smartphone keyboards. Its members include major companies like Apple and Google.

The bottom line: Adding new emoji to the permanent collection every year is challenging. Sure, sifting through all the proposals submitted is mostly just time consuming, but making those final cuts is really the hardest part. "That's when you really gotta be sure that that's the right characters to add," Jeremy Burge, founder of Emojipedia and the vice chair of the consortium's Emoji Subcommittee, tells Axios.

Here's more from Axios's recent conversation with Burge while he was in Silicon Valley for Unicode Consortium meetings:

What are some of the hardest decisions you guys have had to make?

"The hardest decisions are always about anything that multiplies the number of emojis. So it's easy enough to approve one new emoiji -- to say, here's a softball because there's already a baseball -- that's fine, it's fairly self-contained. Whereas when you talk about race, gender, hair colors in particular at the moment, like, that means there could be thousands more possibilities. This year there was the gender-neutral child, adult, and older adult added, and some people felt that was a good decision and were happy with it… and on the other hand then you get, 'What happens when you include them in the family combinations?'... and suddenly you get hundreds of combinations."

Is there an added dimension of difficulty because you want to be inclusive and represent people in the world?

"There's a responsibility there and how much does the responsibility weight in? It's easy for me because I want to see more people represented...and maybe it's easy for me to say as a white dude, I'm represented on the keyboard pretty well already but I start with what i'd like to see and work with the process to come out with an outcome…the system works reasonably well...the vendors they're bringing their users' voices to the table...it's how the skin tones happened — because people mostly contacted Apple."

iOS 11 has the Animoji -- what are your thoughts?

"I haven't played myself with them. I think it looks fun. the clever thing is that it's got nothing to do with emoji. It's its own thing. It's more like a little movie-maker thing. I don't think it's gonna replace emoji in any way, it looks pretty time consuming... I don't think this is just replying "I'm gonna be there in 10 minutes" -- you're not sending an animoji of you as a pile of poo to say that."

Do you think that the consortium should govern emoji?

"I mean, if you took a step back and said, hypothetically if we introduced some form of global icon system who should manage it. should Unicode be that? Maybe, maybe not. But, again, I'm all about the pragmatic. Look, the reason they're popular and the reason they works is because they're on every keyboard on every phone in the phone and they work on every app, and if Unicode's not involved in that, it doesn't work."

How often do you use emoji and how?

"Every day. Sometimes to be on brand. I'm mostly a clarifier—you say what you want to say, and then you add the emoji to clarify what you just said."

Do you have any good emoji stories?

"So I invented this World Emoji Day a couple of years ago, and [Apple CEO] Tim Cook tweeted about it this year so I was kind of excited about that... about 4 years ago, i thought there should be an emoji day. July 17, it's on the Apple keyboard, it's obvious... so yeah, I invented it as much as 'invented' means tweeting about it."

How can people out there help shape emoji?

"If you have time and if you care, anyone can submit a proposal. Salt shaker came from a member of the public last year… And then, when [the Unicode Consortium] comes out with a list, there's a public review period, you can fill out some feedback."