iPhone For Dummies, 2022 Edition
Book image
Explore Book Buy On Amazon
These days, it’s all but impossible to deny the cultural sway of emojis. The beloved pictographs have accomplished quite a lot, from winning Oxford Dictionary’s 2015 Word of the Year to starring in their own feature film. Emojis even have their own day of appreciation: July 17 (the date immortalized by the calendar emoji in iOS). To celebrate, let’s look back at how emojis found a permanent place in our hearts, minds, and texts.

Smiley face emoji © Domingo Alvarez E / Unsplash.com

The prequel: emoticons

Before emojis could run, emoticons had to walk. Emoticons rose in popularity during the chatroom boom of the 1990s, allowing early Internet users to add emotional context and tone to their words. Common emoticons included :) for happy and :( for sad, :o for shock and :p for teasing, ;) for wink and :* for a smooch. Variations on eyeballs, such as =) or 8) — and the optional addition of noses — :o) or :^), provided an extended range of self-expression. Though emoticons were quite popular online at this time, there were few opportunities and little incentive to use them in other contexts.

The first emojis

The emojis we know and love today have their roots in Japan (emoji is Japanese for “picture character”). They were created by artist Shigetaka Kurita, who was on the development team for an early mobile Internet platform created by the leading mobile carrier at the time, DoCoMo. Kurita’s first batch of emojis was released in 1999 and consisted of 176 pictographs, which were meant to convey information more so than mood. There were symbols pertaining to weather, traffic conditions, locations like hospitals and gas stations, and even the 12 zodiac signs.

The spread and standardization of emojis

The popularity of emojis in Japan eventually caught the attention of DoCoMo’s Japanese competitors, as well as international companies, like Apple and Google. These companies saw opportunity in the new picto-language, but there was a problem: If developers each created their own emojis in a vacuum, the pictures wouldn’t translate from carrier to carrier. That’s because computers rely on numerical code to find and display emojis on our screens. So, if one carrier assigns code #123 to “smiley face,” but another carrier assigns #123 to, say, “dolphin,” emojis would create more communication problems than solutions.

In 2007, Google petitioned the Unicode Consortium — the body responsible for the international standardization of computer code for text — to recognize emoji as a language. This would ensure that the numerical code for “smiley face” was consistent across carriers, developers, servers, and countries.

Apple quickly joined Google’s cause, and the two became collaborators in advocating for an international emoji “alphabet.” While Unicode had previously considered emoji out of scope for its organization, its popularity in Japan convinced them to reverse course and, in 2009, they began the process of identifying a standard set of emojis. The joint effort, involving representatives from Japan, Europe, and the U.S., resulted in a standardized set of almost 1,000 emoji, which debuted in Unicode 6.0 in October 2010.

Total emoji takeover

Over the following decade, Apple and Android would release emoji keyboards that catapulted their use across the world, Unicode continued to refine specifications and grow their emoji lexicon, and a new language would come to define and reflect culture as we know it. Highlights include:
  • 2012: Three years before same-sex marriage became legal in all 50 states, Apple releases emojis depicting same-sex couples holding hands in its iOS 6 upgrade.
  • 2015: Responding to user feedback regarding emoji’s “white guy as default” bias, Unicode begins to diversify its offerings. Updates include support for five skin tones, expanded representation for LGBTQ couples, and emojis depicting women as doctors, scientists, and other professionals. Unicode also begins to fill additional culture gaps at this time, adding flags and food items that recognize the diversity of emoji users worldwide.
  • 2015: Just two years after the word “emoji” was added to the dictionary, “Face with Tears of Joy” — or the laugh-cry emoji — wins Oxford Dictionary's 2015 Word of the Year. The same emoji was later reported to be the most used in the world.
  • 2016: Apple responds to growing despair over gun violence by redesigning its revolver emoji as a bright green water gun. Google, Microsoft, Samsung, Facebook, and Twitter will follow suit over the next two years.
  • 2017: New York’s Museum of Modern Art acquires Shigetaka Kurita’s original set of 176 emojis for its permanent collection, a nod to the lasting cultural impact of his creation.
  • 2017: Sony releases The Emoji Movie. While largely considered a critical flop, the picture — which cost $50 million to produce — grosses $217.8 million at the box office.
  • 2019: The first documentary telling the story of emoji, Picture Character, debuts at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York. (The film has since been retitled The Emoji Story.)
  • 2020: In recognition of the trans community, Unicode 13.0 includes the trans flag, a non-binary Santa Claus, and “woman with a beard,” emoji, among others.
  • 2021: Unicode 14.0 introduces 112 new emojis, for a total 3,633 since they first premiered in Unicode 6.0 (as of September 2021).
While purists may never accept emoji as a language unto itself, its evolution over time shows that it’s earned the title. Not only does it allow us to communicate with people around the globe, its growing number of icons reflect change and evolution in our cultural attitudes and expectations. In that way, emoji is more than a language: It’s a time capsule.

About This Article

This article can be found in the category: