In June 2016, an armed shooter opened fire in a gay nightclub in Florida, bringing international prominence to two words. The first was ‘Orlando’. The second was the Rainbow Pride Flag emoji: 🏳️🌈, which rapidly joined its geographic peers on phone keyboards everywhere. However, despite proposals by LGBTQ+ activists in the years since, there is still no Trans Pride flag emoji. For that matter, you won’t find an emoji flag for Kurdistan or Tibet. Decisions over whose identities find representation in this global language are overtly political, but these decisions are made according to standards that Western Liberal Democracies would never tolerate in other political matters.
The Unicode Consortium is the body responsible for developing Unicode, the character encoding system that ensures that any text sent from an Android contains the same words when received by an iPhone. The Consortium, specifically the dozen or so members of the Emoji Subcommittee, selects which emoji will make their debut in any given year. This selection process lacks democratic accountability and is ripe for reform. The committee should be replaced with a more representative structure.
The Consortium maintains an image of legitimacy in two ways: anyone can submit a proposal for a new emoji, and a six-month comment period is granted before release. However, barriers to representation arise immediately. The requirements are lengthy and include a color and greyscale image of the proposed symbol. Board members then evaluate the hundred-odd proposals they received that year.
Though their decisions affect the whole world, the committee members are predominantly White Silicon Valley men. Their top picks go to the Consortium’s Technical Committee for a final vote at a meeting usually hosted on the campus of a giant tech firm. Consortium members are chosen on a pay-to-play basis, so these hosting firms are the same ones whose interests are represented. Even when a decision is reached, it can take years for the final product to reach people’s screens.
These committees’ decisions have global reach; if emoji were a language, it would be the world’s most spoken. Though “vendors” like Apple and Google reserve discretion over the exact art corresponding to a specific emoji, they are unlikely to ever refrain from adopting a new emoji thanks to market pressures. You might remember the frustration of eagerly whipping out your buzzing flip phone in 2010, only to see a series of black boxes where text should have been. Apple doesn’t want this fate for you. If their competitors are supporting new and exciting emoji that show up as black boxes on iPhones, Apple is going to lose customers.
As an example of this market mechanism, Russia protested Apple’s introduction of same-sex couple emoji in 2012. However, Russia’s threat to reduce consumption of iPhones was not credible, and the emoji stayed. As a current example, in 2016 Windows introduced 52,000 new emoji to improve racial diversity among emoji families. As soon as Windows develops a feasible way to present these choices to users, Apple will face pressure to catch up: desisting from adopting new emoji simply is not a viable strategy.
This market mechanism is only triggered once the Consortium deems an emoji worthy of entering our global language. One reason the Consortium faces little scrutiny regarding these decisions is that emoji feel different from written language. Linguist Charles Hockett notably stipulated a series of “design features” common to all languages. Among these, he pointed out that human languages exhibit “duality of patterning.” That is, there is a sound system containing the kind of rules that tell English speakers they cannot begin a word with the “ng” sound or end one with the “h” sound, and there is a separate system containing rules about words and phrases, which have meaning. This design feature is one that emoji don’t exhibit because they lack the former level of patterning, though all emoji, like words, do have meaning. In fact, the most popular emoji, Tears of Joy 😂, was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2015. However, while words can be broken down into sounds, then rearranged into novel combinations to create new meaningful words, emoji can only be broken down into pixels, whose patterns are the exclusive domain of tech people. This is to say, those who want to create new emoji are entirely at the mercy of the Emoji Committee’s unprecedented linguistic control.
The Unicode Consortium and its trillion dollar constituents have exploited their technocracy to monopolize a powerful global communication tool. Dominant groups have always sought to control marginalized means of communication, but rarely has the level of control been so absolute. People don’t realize that their resources for communicating are the results of deliberate choices made by the Powers That Be in Silicon Valley. Moreover, emoji are not seen as a legitimate form of communication comparable to written language, so there’s less pressure for democratization. Despite its neglectedness, the current state of affairs is a clear affront to values that support a culture of free speech.
Some political pushes for emoji representation have been successful, including for people with disabilities, nonbinary gender identities, and even red hair. Apple, Google, Samsung, and Twitter replaced their pistol emoji with water guns 🔫 between 2016 and 2018, presumably in response to debates concerning gun violence. In response to media coverage of the Hijab Emoji Project, a graphic was added to depict a woman wearing a headscarf in 2017.
Emoji are also ripe for creative subversions. For example, despite the lack of progress on a transgender pride flag, the Trans community embraced the lobster emoji as a pride symbol, a testament to the human capacity to create meaning out of symbolic odds and ends (and to the androgeny of lobsters). The eggplant and peach emoji are now ubiquitous salacious phenomena. Other efforts at overtly political communication have given up on an emoji solution and turned instead to digital stickers, essentially images (think Bitmoji), rather than text supported by Unicode.
If Western Liberal Democracies removed their emoji shades and confronted the plutocracy behind their screens, they would have to contend with the system’s desperate need for reform. Wresting the levers of power from the grips of Silicon Valley suits will require devolving considerable authority over the selection process to regular people, ideally all over the world, who deserve a seat at the table. 🌏
Image via Flickr