You’ve crafted the perfect Instagram caption. It’s clever, funny, and encompasses the photograph’s sentiment oh-so-perfectly. All it needs is that final touch; a digital cherry on top to make it all your own.
In the digital age, this final flourish is the emoji, whose global usage has resulted in milestones like World Emoji Day, the Oxford Dictionary announcing that the “Face with Tears of Joy emoji” was the word of the year in 2015, and Apple’s acknowledgment that iOS 12.1’s 70 new offerings better represented people’s physical traits and religions.
But it’s much deeper than corny holidays, pop culture idioms, and technology. In today’s world, emoji speak to our very sense of self.
“Emoji can be considered a form of self expression,” explains Dr Linda Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University (UK), who has studied emoji and human behavior. “It is one of the ways online we may be able to out ourselves across in a way we wish other people to judge us favorably.”
Emoji are integral to our digital language because we take immense thought—and pride—in how we represent ourselves in the digital ether. It’s understandable then, as our world becomes increasingly diverse, emoji need to keep up.
As a result, the hunt for the perfect emoji is one of the most stressful — but important — parts of digital life.
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Emoji have made leaps and bounds since their humble beginnings. A successor to crude emoticons created with punctuation (think: a colon and parenthesis to create a smiley face :)), the first emoji as we know them today were invented in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita.
According to Wired, Kurita wanted to use design to convey information in a simple way. The original l 176 emoji rudimentarily displayed ideas like weather (sun, clouds), hearts, shoes, and hamburgers. In 2010 and onwards, Unicode, a standard system for indexing characters, began to recognize emoji so that they could be used on various operating systems. There are 2,823 emojis in the Unicode Standard as of June 2018, from country flags to various sports and occupations.
Initially, emoji all had a standard yellow tone. Although it wasn’t explicitly stated that this The Simpsons “yellow” represented white people, many took it to mean just that. Unsurprisingly, there was significant backlash and calls for more inclusivity.
In 2015, special modifier codes were introduced to expand skin tones and to give emoji some diversity.
“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone,” shared a report by Unicode Consortium in 2014. “Diversity in emoji is important because if we assume that emoji are a form of self expression then clearly a lack of diversity in these may restrict some people’s ability for expression,” says Kaye.
Yellow is still standard, but five more realistic skin tones are available. These five symbol modifier characters were released in Unicode Version 8.0 (mid-2015) and are based on the six tones of the Fitzpatrick scale, a standard for dermatology. Now, a thumbs-up emoji, for instance, has six possible shades to choose from (FITZ 1-2 are combined for the lightest emoji). It’s an improvement for sure, but not a perfect system by any means. The Fitzpatrick Scale was developed to measure the amount of melanin in skin and how different skin types react to sunlight. A person’s unique skin tone and undertones are hard to translate into an emoji. Additionally, not every emoji can be modified by race. For instance, emoji with non-yellow default colors (like the vampire with gray skin) cannot be modified.
But people are actively gravitating towards the skin tone modifiers. In Self-Representation on Twitter Using Emoji Skin Color Modifiers, Alexander Robertson from the University of Edinburgh took a quantitative look at emoji and representation. They found that people of color tend to use emoji that reflect their own skin tone, noting, “users take advantage of emoji skin tone modifiers to represent an important aspect of their identity, and do so differentially depending on their own skin tone.”
In other words, a “higher proportion of dark-skinned users use skin tone modifiers, and they use them more frequently.”
Personally, I always search for FITZ-4 (moderate brown) and use it when possible. Using the default yellow or any other color just seems… well, off. I believe that it decreases the personal connection to whatever I’m writing; almost like signing someone else’s name.
“It isn’t surprising that people may be more likely to use facial or people emoji which represent their own race than that of a different race,” explains Kaye.
Race is only one part of the conversation; inclusivity is more than skin deep. Jennifer Lee, co-founder of Emojination, actively takes on ideas to expand diversity in emoji. Her organization has helped get the hijab emoji, among others, approved.
“Emoji take a long time to get approved and onto phones. But the approval process can be short,” says Lee. Emojination is always looking for new emoji to propose. Unicode announced 179 draft emojis in August, including those to represent disabilities, mixed-race relationships, and deaf people.
“I do anticipate this will move in the right direction in which more options will be available to represent race but also other forms of personal expression such as disability (physical or hidden),” says Kaye.
When it comes to emoji, options are a good thing. “Diversity does seem to be a priority for software companies in emoji development which is good to see,” agrees Kaye. The same way we meticulously select photo filters, Twitter profile photos, and perfect our Instagram bios, emoji are integral to how we speak to each other digitally. And as we continue to self-identify in more diverse, complex, and nuanced ways, emoji need to keep up. It’s a living language that must grow, shape, and be flexible to its users. Kaye predicts more inclusivity down the line. This is just the beginning.
“Emoji seem to be a powerful tool in 21st century communication,” says Kaye. “This would be a great way forward.”
Next up, check out the 10 best music videos of 2018.