Writer and advocate Rhianna Jones was in the midst of emailing some friends one night — signing her message with her usual “insert Afro emoji here” — when she had an “aha” moment. “I decided I shouldn’t have to type that anymore,” Jones says. “We deserve to be seen in our conversations too.” Inspired by the approval of dating app Tinder’s campaign for an interracial couple emoji, Jones started a petition and submitted a proposal for an Afro hair emoji in March 2019.
Jones teamed up with graphic designer Kerrilyn Gibson to design the prototype. “Kerrilyn did wonders to fit as much ’fro as possible in the minute parameters of the emoji dimensions,” she says. “Naturally, Afros come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and textures, but we wanted a design that was definitively and visibly an Afro.”
Emojis have become a touchstone of instant messaging culture, a visual language capturing the zeitgeist of the digital era. They also often express something more succinct and powerful than words. “When it comes to communication, it can be difficult to express the subtleties of emotions in text,” says technology researcher Kate Miltner, who focuses on the intersection of technology, identity, culture, and inequality. “Emojis allow us to provide important context for expressing ourselves.”
While emojis have made strides toward diversity, they still have a long way to go when it comes to representation. A more diverse approving body and a more transparent and inclusive approval process could lead to emojis that represent different cultures.
Emojis were the brainchild of Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita, who was tasked to sketch 12-by-12-pixel icons to fit the interface of Japan telecom company Docomo’s i-mode service for sending short messages over pagers. Taking inspiration from manga and pictograms, Kurita’s original set of 176 emojis — which has been added to the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art — was released in 1999. It included the earliest iterations of the 💓, 🙂, and 👊 emojis, albeit pixelated and slightly off-center.
These picture characters immediately took off in Japan and were a big hit, with the rest of the world catching up more than a decade later. In 2007, Google was the first to lobby for encoding emoji in the Unicode standard, which provides a unique code for every character regardless of language, platform, or program. That same year, the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit body responsible for developing, maintaining, and promoting the Unicode standard, approved the proposal, and in 2010, 722 emoji characters were officially added to the Unicode standard.
Thousands of emojis are used globally, and there have been efforts to make emojis more diverse, starting with the introduction of skin tone modifiers in 2015 and followed by a woman breastfeeding a baby, couples of different genders, single-parent families, and the rainbow pride flag. The 2019 release includes emojis for an ear with a hearing aid, a person in a wheelchair, a guide dog, a sari, and a falafel.
Emojis are a vehicle of representation, which makes them so meaningful and valuable.
The campaign group Emojination has been advocating for more representative emojis, which began with the dumpling emoji designed by artist Yiying Lu and proposed by former New York Times journalist Jennifer 8 Lee. Lee, who is the founder of Emojination and vice chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, also helped Rayouf Alhumedhi with her hijab emoji proposal, connecting the then-15-year-old with graphic designer Aphee Messer to create the emoji for a woman wearing a headscarf. The hijab emoji was approved and released in 2017.
Despite these efforts, emojis still don’t reflect all cultures equally. Neha Kumar, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology whose work explores human-centered computing and global development, has been working with designer Philippe Kimura-Thollander. They say a cultural gap exists between the current emoji standards and how users adopt and perceive emojis.
“Communication is inherently culturally situated — whether it’s workplace culture or college culture; the culture of our place of origin, which provides the context for our communication with our families; the culture we might be living in, which may be different from that of our place of origin given the globalized world we live in; and more,” says Kumar. “However, emojis have been designed predominantly in limited contexts and for a limited audience.”
While anyone can propose an emoji, doing so requires a lot of resources — time, design skills, and the ability to draft a proposal in English — that many people don’t have access to. The 17-page proposal for the trans pride flag emoji includes not only the emoji name, keywords, a set of images for the proposed emoji, and where its location would be in the emoji ordering, but also exacting evidence to support the 13 selection factors. Proposals then go through a lengthy approval process of up to a year. Only full, institutional, and supporting members are given the privilege to vote on the final decision, and those full members are mostly American tech companies, including Adobe, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Netflix, and Oracle.
As part of their research, Kimura-Thollander got to sit in on a meeting that discussed emojis set for release in 2020 and noted a lack of diversity among members and biases that carried over in discussions. “When discussing a new pickup truck emoji, the members questioned if the name carried over to the U.K. without considering whether or how pickup trucks were used in the rest of the world or if the concept carried over beyond English,” says Kimura-Thollander.
For Miltner, the question has always been “Who gets to be included and why?” Like almost all issues of representation, this becomes a question of power, with the power given to those who already have it. As Emojination puts it, “The decision makers along the way are generally male, white, and engineers. They specialize in encoding. Such a review process certainly is less than ideal for promoting a vibrant visual language used throughout the world.”
What steps, then, are needed for emojis to better reflect representation? “Lowering the barriers to entry when it comes to proposing emoji,” Miltner says. “The structural resources required to even have a chance of being included are significant.”
For Kumar, what’s needed is the creation of a more transparent and inclusive process for both proposing and approving emojis. “The process is opaque at present and is mostly controlled by a homogeneous tech world,” she says. “Mobile submission platforms could be designed for people to submit, discuss, and vote on new emojis. Even if more people are involved in examining emojis, it’s also necessary to ensure that more culturally representative and diverse emojis are submitted in the first place, and this could be actively sought out by the Apples and Googles of the world.”
Emojis are a vehicle of representation, which makes them so meaningful and valuable. More representative emojis could facilitate conversations among cultures and empower people to truly see themselves.
“We’re a society that interacts in digital spaces, and emojis have become a universal language of self-expression,” Jones says. “However, current emojis reiterate Eurocentric standards that have dominated social norms. The Afro emoji would represent more than just a hairstyle, but an entire culture, history, and identity of people who don’t currently see themselves in these spaces.”