The second occurred in 2016 when Apple replaced nearly all emoji at 1090 code points, with a more detailed, 3D-like design. Some emoji stayed true to their earlier versions, while others were transformed; designers remade the wolf face that looked like a dog to resemble a mouse, a sparkling comet became a fiery vagina, and the bus stop is now just as much of an eyesore as a real bus stop.

Apple’s running woman emoji.
Apple’s running woman emoji.

Unicode’s zero width joiner (ZWJ)—a code point that facilitates the combination of emoji sequences—is where Benenson’s theories really start to play out. ZWJ allows software companies to render sequenced emoji as unique: what was once 🏃♀, now appears as a woman running emoji pictured here. This applies to skin tone variation, giving users the ability to pick the skin tone of the emoji people they share. Unsurprisingly, people care about the ability to represent themselves accurately.

Few among us would consider the ability to streamline emoji and build identity a loss, though with one set of solutions, a new set of problems arises. “The yellow default for smiley faces or human emoji is a huge issue because it makes the default light skin,” Solomon told me over email. “That’s a huge loss of representation that emoji had before skin tones were introduced.” This bears out in the family emoji options, which only come in yellow, whereas other human emoji come in different skin tone options. In the Netflix series The StandUps Comedian Aparna Nancherla refers to the family options as an “Aryan nation starter kit.”

“There is a fundamental tension between what people want and what the Unicode consortium and the companies are able to pass on a regular basis,” said Founder of Emojination, Jennifer 8 Lee in the documentary Picture Character. The combination of race, sex, religion, and physical attributes could be almost limitless. “At a certain point you’re looking at tens of thousands of new characters. This is a system that might implode under the huge demand.” Jennifer Daniel, Google’s creative director of emoji expressed similar concerns over email, wondering if adding more emoji and details to these emoji each year created “zones of exclusion”—as representation reaches new levels of specificity, additional groups of people would be left out.  

“One of the motivations behind the gender inclusive initiative was to bring back what was successful about emoji in the first place—their universality,” wrote Daniel. Google’s now retired emoji blobs provide one of the more profound examples of emoji loss, according to Solomon, who extolled the expressive virtues woman dancing [emoji has been retired]. “I feel like I can relate to it,” she said.

Most software companies currently use a sexy or athletic rendering of the 💃 woman dancing that aims to capture an action more than an expression. From 2014-2016, Google’s dancer used a blob playfully pirouetting to communicate a silly expression lacking in self-consciousness. But because no other software company used the blobs, exchange across platforms led to what Solomon describes as “extreme loss of meaning from sender to receiver.” The dancing blob you could imagine tripping over itself with a rose in its mouth does not communicate the same message as a sexy dancer.

“Blobs were this really good answer to how to have a gender fluid and gender inclusive emoji,” Solomon said. “Because it doesn’t look overly gendered, you can put more [meaning] on it.” Solomon cited Google’s Person Tipping Hand (often referred to as 💁Information Help Desk Girl)—a blob in a pillbox hat—as an example how quirky the designs could get. Like the dancer, this blob has a very identifiable personality—nice white-gloved service lady.

Solomon lamented the loss of the blobs for their ridiculous joyous designs, and connected the limited number of emoji to the concept of forced creativity. Limitations force ingenuity wherein a 🌵cactus connotes the 🖕middle finger (this occurred up until the introduction of the middle finger in 2014); verbatim aping leads to the advent of creepy AR emojis and memoji.

New emoji don’t wash away these limitations. Pretty much everyone under the age of 40 can name emoji they use to mean something else—🍆💦; (ejaculating penis), 🍁🔥 (weed), and 💅 (I’d rather be painting my nails than talking to you). Meanwhile, faceless clocks and images of safety pins and flashlights few of us will ever use occupy precious keyboard real estate. Understanding what emoji people want and will use requires a thoughtful approach, vendor support, and usage data that up until last year wasn’t available to the public.

What isn’t required are more code points. Unicode has space for roughly a million characters (1,114,112 to be exact), only about a quarter of which are in use. (Chinese, Japanese, Korean characters alone occupy approximately 25,000 code points; mathematical arrows use nearly 300—more than double the characters encoded for Basic Latin.) “We don’t know how much space will eventually be used,” Roozbeh Pournader, a member of Unicode’s Technical Committee told me over DM. (He spoke in an unofficial capacity.) “But we don’t expect the space to fill up unless we make contact with alien civilizations and want to encode their writing systems in Unicode too.”

While making changes in the existing Unicode standard isn’t possible, the losses incurred in design aren’t always permanent. When I spoke to Daniel over email, she wrote extensively about Google’s efforts to bring back or alter emoji in a way that adds to users vocabulary of expression. This includes submitting a 16-page paper in 2018 recommending the use of gender-neutral emoji and a follow-up proposal suggesting transformations for all but seven gendered emoji. The recommendations came as a response to the host of issues caused by software vendors interpreting characters differently enough to cause messaging confusion, not to mention reinforcing stereotypes.

Apple’s construction worker emoji.
Apple’s construction worker emoji.

Daniel specifically identifies the default 👷 male construction worker as problematic and describes compelling mechanical solutions to these issues. The designer argues that rather than offering scores of construction worker variations, a few more generalized representations could do the work of hundreds, thus saving valuable keyboard real estate. “In a way, Google had it right from the start with its non-gendered ‘blob’ emoji,” Daniel wrote. “Sometimes progress is reversing legacy decisions.”

Outside these larger initiatives, the designer has co-submitted several proposals that do just this. In one, she recommends reintroducing face holding back tears, a design once used for 😖 confounded face and discontinued. In another, she recommends adding a code point for a new emoji called knocked-out face (an emoji that uses x’s for eyes) to address the problem of design variance between platforms. Currently, about half of all software vendors use the version of she calls knocked-out face for 😵 dizzy face creating enough confusion that Emojipedia cautions the use of this emoji.

Proposed additions to the standard such as these typically take about two years to implement. Not only does the process include reviewing and voting prospective emoji, but encoding the chosen ones. Like democracy, change occurs incrementally, but can affect our lives in big ways.

Within a digital environment that essentially casts language in resin, perhaps the semi-chameleon-like quality of emoji most reflects the era into which they were born. Net-native languages evolve no matter how rigid the system we create to preserve them. But those systems are not without vulnerabilities. Vendors with profit motives do not have the same responsibility to the public as a non-profit. When small groups of people make decisions for millions, it takes less time and effort to compromise the integrity of the decision making process. Constant redesign of the web encourages a kind of collective amnesia that discourages reflection.

That last point arguably feels the least urgent, but the most significant. It’s important to look forward too, but if we don’t start examining the means in which emoji can hemorrhage creative and expressive loss, we won’t understand what we’re protecting.