Tech

Face palm: When the emoji you want doesn’t exist

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bbc– Do you have a favourite emoji? Maybe it’s the wink or the face rolling around with tears of laughter. Perhaps if you’re feeling slightly more sardonic, it’s the smiling face with jazz hands.

With more than 3,000 to choose from, there are plenty of options.

But what happens when the one emoji you want isn’t there?

Rachel Murphy works at DroneUp, a drone services company based in Virginia Beach in the United States.

“Every day I’m writing tweets, I’m making posts, and my kneejerk reaction is to get people excited by including an emoji,” she says.

But the absence of a drone symbol on the list means Rachel has been forced to use the helicopter or flying saucer instead.

“Those really don’t cover what a drone is, and they don’t really act as an adequate replacement for it.”

Rachel started researching who controls emojis and how she can get a drone added to the official list of characters, which is updated every year or so.

White and male

New proposals are approved or rejected by a group known as the Emoji Subcommittee, part of the Unicode Consortium, a not-for-profit organisation made up of representatives from most of the world’s biggest tech firms including Google, Microsoft, Adobe and Huawei.

They meet regularly in Silicon Valley, California, and vote on draft emojis, the ideas for new characters which can come from anyone and anywhere. It’s an entirely open submission process.

But who are the people sitting round the table deciding if a proposal gets the nod and is added to every single smartphone or rejected outright?

The group is “mostly older, mostly white, mostly male”, says Jennifer 8 Lee, co-founder of a group called Emoji Nation, which helps people propose new emojis. She has the figure 8 as a middle name.

She likens turning up at an Emoji Subcommittee meeting to a religious gathering. “It totally had the vibe of showing up at a new church for the first time, it’s lots of older, nice white people,” she says.

Rachel Murphy’s research led to her and her DroneUp colleague Amy Weigand carefully drafting a proposal and making the case for a drone emoji. They included statistics of drone searches online, sample artwork, and an impassioned plea to Unicode.

“The main reasons drones are being used is to save lives, search-and-rescues and finding missing people,” says Ms Weigand.

But it wasn’t to be. Unicode rejected their proposal.

“We were quite shocked when we got the news,” said Rachel. The Emoji Subcommittee said a drone was quite new technology and may not have longevity. “Respectfully, we strongly disagree,” she said.

Japanese market

Scroll through the emoji keyboard and you’ll see plenty of pictures of redundant tech: a pager, a fax machine, even a floppy disk because once an emoji is added, it never gets removed. As a result, Unicode is wary of adding more symbols that it fears could end up pointlessly cluttering the keyboard in just a few years’ time.

But for Ms Weigand it’s baffling that so many outdated devices get to exist as symbols on all the world’s smartphones, while new technology like a drone is rejected.

“I haven’t seen a floppy disk probably since the 1980s,” she says. Clearly frustrated, Ms Weigand asks: “Who are you Unicode, and who do you think you are?”

The man behind the group is Mark Davis, who looks uncannily like the wizard emoji. He’s the co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium and he was instrumental in the launch of a global emoji set.

When he formed the Consortium in the early 1990s, Unicode’s goal was to encode all the world’s languages into a universal system that would allow digital texts to be accurately uploaded and downloaded, no matter what language they were in, where – or on what device – they were being read.

“Before that it was really a Tower of Babel,” Mr Davis says.

Fast-forward to the late 2000s when tech giants Apple and Google wanted to enter the Japanese market with products such as Gmail and the iPhone. Billionaire technology entrepreneur Masayoshi Son advised the Californian firms that if they wanted to succeed in Japan, they should offer emojis – because the “picture-characters” or “e-moji” were already a hit with users.

Hand over power?

Unicode agreed to add emojis to its character set and in 2010 the first 760 emojis became available to smartphone users everywhere. Almost overnight, millions of people had a new way of expressing themselves online. “And we kind of thought that would be the end of it,” says Mark Davis, sighing. “Obviously we were wrong.”

Mr Davis admits that the emoji craze has led to more public interest in the Unicode Consortium than the group could ever have imagined. The Emoji Subcommittee now finds itself in the unexpected position of having to adjudicate on whether proposals should be added to the list.

And that, says Keith Winstein, a professor at Stanford university, is a problem.

“No committee has the expertise to tell you if Tyrannosaurus Rex, or Yerba Mate [a herbal tea] or menstruation is or isn’t important. Certainly no committee of technical experts. They’re experts in the encoding of information,” he says.

Mr Winstein argues that Unicode should give up its power and hand over the creation of emoji to the public or app developers. He even suggested as much to the committee itself.

“They listened very politely and two years later Mark Davis wrote a reply that said, ‘We don’t feel like doing that'”, laughs Mr Winstein.

“It’s hard when you’ve been doing something kind of thankless and in a basement for 30 years and suddenly you have very interesting people coming to you from all over the world,” he said. “I bet it’s a lot more fun now than it used to be.”

Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen agrees there are issues with the Unicode system. “I do think many on the committee work hard to try to consider other viewpoints. But of course, that’s hard and it’s really hard to see your blinders.”

The current chair of the emoji subcommittee is Jennifer Daniel, from Google.

She admits that it is hard to sit in judgement on what makes the cut and she hypothesises about what might happen if the drone is approved. “Then there’s someone else going, ‘But I’m a nurse. Where are my nursing supplies?’ And the next person is like, ‘I’m dog walker. Where are all the dog breeds’, right? So when you add something, you’re excluding something else.”

Colour change

Tafadzwa Tarumba is a Zimbabwean animator. Finding few emojis that reflected his life in Southern Africa, he decided to create his own graphics, known as stickers, that can be sent online. He included images such as Zimbabwean hand gestures and foods.

“It’s not just a case of taking a yellow emoji and changing the colour on it. It’s a whole range of social dynamics that possibly don’t even exist in the communities where the current emojis come from,” he said.

Perhaps then, the days of patiently petitioning Unicode for new emoji are coming to an end. Five years from now, our fingers may not reach so readily for a static cartoony image.

While more designers are creating their own online sticker sets, many tech users are now choosing animated clips or Gifs to add personality to their messages.

For now though, Unicode retains its position of power, and hopeful emoji proposers like Amy and Rachel are not giving up.

“As silly as an emoji may be, it’s something that should be taken very seriously,” says Rachel.

“If we’re not ready for the drone emoji, DroneUp will keep applying until it’s time,” says Amy.

Find out more about the world of emojis in this six-part podcast Two Smiley Faces, part of the World Service’s Documentary series.