How an Emoji Becomes an Emoji

Some days ago I attended another amazing live session organized by the CS50’s program professors Malan and Yu.  This time the topic revolved around how an emoji ends up on your phone keyboard. As always, I’m glad that I could learn some new things.

What is Really an Emoji? 🤓

The term “emoji” is a loanword borrowed from the Japanese (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”). An emoji is basically a digital image or symbol that is used to convey ideas or feelings. But what an emoji is behind the scenes is just…a number! When you see an emoji, what you get is a Unicode code (e.g. U+1F36E). As of March 2020, there is a repertoire of 143,859 characters.

Some Facts About Unicode

Unicode is an IT standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text. It is maintained by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization based in Silicon Valley. Its voting members count among the main technological companies of the world: Adobe, Apple Inc., Facebook, Google, Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, etc.

The consortium works to make the emoji approval process an inclusive and representative process. Among its accomplishments are HIJAB, DUMPLING, INTERRACIAL COUPLE, SARI, PINATA, as well as half of all emoji passed in the last years.

A Dumpling Story

This session was co-hosted by David Malan and Jennifer Lee, a former Harvard student (she also took CS50 in her sophomore year) and founder of Emojination.

Jennifer, a very inspiring woman of Chinese origins, was cooking dumplings at home one day and wanted to text this to a friend, but she couldn’t find an emoji to depict “dumplings”. The two friends started then talking about how cool would be to have an emoji dumpling…since food is always a cornerstone for cultures, in this case, for the Chinese.

The missing emoji piqued her curiosity and, after finishing her meal, she googled who controls the creation of emoji…and found out about the Unicode consortium. What is more, she learned that you can actually become an official member (without voting rights) for 75 dollars.

It was then that she decided to play an active role in the creation process of emoji…she became a member of the consortium and created her own company “Emojination” to promote integration via emoji.

Submitting Emoji Proposals

On average the approval process of a new emoji lasts from 18 to 24 months. Everybody can submit a proposal.  The process is as follows:

  1. First, check if somebody else has already had the same idea. There is a list of submitted emoji here.
  2. Submit your proposal.
  3. The committee approves a new batch (which might include your proposal) once a year.

Selection Factors

There are two types of selection factors. Some weigh in favor and some against.

The key selection factors are:

  • High expected usage
  • Distinctiveness (is this new emoji really different from the rest?)
  • Broad scope (the proposed emoji can be used metaphorically. For example, a turtle can be an animal but can also represent that someone or something is very slow)

The main goal is that emoji can be used by people with very different backgrounds and languages.

The Most Frequently Used Emoji

The most popular emoji by far is….

Face with tears of joy! 😂 According to Unicode, this emoji ranks number one for frequency of use, followed by the red heart (❤️) and the head with heart-shaped eyes (😍). In fact, “face with tears of joy” is so popular that is was named “word of the year” by the Oxford dictionaries in 2015.

Source: Unicode Consortium’s emoji use frequency survey, 2019.

Some Interesting Facts About Emoji

  • Apple added emoji into the keyboard in 2011.
  • 95% of Internet users use emoji.
  • Shigetaka Kurita created the first collection of emoji in 1999. This emoji set was designed for the Japanese market. Some years later, the Museum of Modern Art in New York acquired his set for its permanent collection.This is how the original collection looked like (click here to go to the source article):
  • Rayouf Alhumedhi, a 16-year old Saudi teenager created the “Hijab” emoji in 2017 and made Time‘s list of the 30 most influential teens in the world for it.
  • Latest emoji additions to represent diversity (like different skin tones) encourage social inclusion. For more information, read this article
  • A lot of emoji are consistent with Chinese characters
  • Florie Hutchinson  started a campaign for a flat-shoe emoji 🥿 to address the negative impact of highly sexualized emoji and fight against gender-stereotypical roles. Until then, women could only represent their footwear as high-heeled shoes: 👠  This campaign was followed by another one to add a one-piece swimsuit 🩱, as an alternative to the pink-and-white polka-dot bikini 👙.

Update (February 2021): You can now watch The Emoji Story, a documentary entirely about emoji. For more information see and/or the trailer on YouTube.

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