The iconic history of Emojis

Picture of By Rita Alves

By Rita Alves

“An image is worth a thousand words” is a sentiment that has been echoed for many years, and since the late 90s, it has gained a whole new significance. Whether as social media reactions, pillows, or characters from a film that many have desperately tried to forget, one cannot escape emojis. As inoffensive as they may seem, the creation of these small pictograms has led to numerous controversies. But what exactly is the history behind these iconic icons?

The birth of a new language

The origin of emojis is often traced back to Shigetaka Kurita. Kurita is a Japanese interface designer who, in 1999, was part of a development team for an internet platform for NTT DoCoMo, one of Japan’s largest telecommunications companies. As a member of this team, Kurita worked on and supervised the creation of 176 emojis as a new way to communicate information appealingly and concisely.

Despite this, the credit of creating emojis is mostly now given to SoftBank (or J-Phone at the time), who released a mobile phone with an emoji set in 1997.

Nonetheless, Kurita’s 12×12 pixel icons are unanimously believed to have sparked the popularization of this new form of communication. It has been deemed a work of art by many, including MoMA, which added Kurita’s original emoji set to its collection in 2016.

Unicode Unites!

Shortly after the 176-emoji set, rival companies in Japan adopted this novel concept, and soon these characters began taking over the country. Slowly throughout the early 2000s, emojis started making their way across the globe.

Finally, in 2010, the Unicode Consortium, a California-based non-profit organization,  became an official player in the icons’ globalization by standardizing emojis. Unicode aims to maintain the Unicode standard, which essentially ensures that characters and symbols are displayed in the same or closely similar way across all platforms and devices. This system laid the foundation for the development of emojis into the globally understood language it is today.

Since it is a global language, anyone can suggest a new emoji with a single proposal.

In addition to ensuring the compatibility of emojis, Unicode is responsible for the approval of new characters. Since it is a global language, anyone can suggest a new emoji with a single proposal. However, before you get all excited about the prospects of contributing to the next big thing after the poop emoji, you should know that a proposal for a new emoji requires about 10 pages. This proposal must include details about its design, an explanation of its meaning, and actual data justifying its existence. Even after this arduous process, it can then take up to 2 years to determine the verdict of your creation.

The emoji craze

Today, emojis not only have made their way into our mobile devices but into the hearts of many.

In 2013, Jeremy Burge, now known as an Emoji historian, created Emojipedia, an online encyclopedia dedicated to documenting changes to emojis and clarifying their meanings. A year later, Burge would also declare July 17th, based on the IOS calendar icon, as the official World Emoji Day.

To further solidify the significance of the pictographs in our society, the word of the year in 2015, as elected by Oxford Dictionaries, was the cry-laughing emoji, deemed one of the most popular emojis used worldwide.

If this wasn’t enough to prove the prominence of these small icons, in 2016, the first Emojicon took place in San Francisco. The 3-day convention provides hardcore fans with all sorts of fun-inducing events, including notable guest speakers from organizations like Unicode, emoji themed parties, art exhibitions, and emoji karaoke.

Emojis even made their way into the theatre and the big screen, with the infamous 2017 film the Emoji movie and the 2018 off-broadway musical Emojiland.

The emoji controversies

Although they have contributed to numerous and debatably fun events and creations, emojis have faced numerous controversies.

From the lack of variety of skin tones, only having male versions of emojis depicting certain jobs, to the lack of cultural inclusivity, and of family units’ diversity, many issues have been rightfully raised against these seemingly harmless icons.

Since 2014, some of these concerns have been corrected, as emojis are increasingly becoming more gender-neutral, culturally inclusive, and representative of disabled people. However, the controversies drag on as various new icons crucial for social inclusion, such as the bi-flag, are rejected.

The role of emojis

Whether you are an emoji fanatic or not, emojis have become a crucial aspect of our society. Not only have they inspired a series of global events and artistic creations, but they have truly become a uniquely global and increasingly inclusive language. 

They certainly aren’t perfect, but they have in many ways achieved what often feels impossible: A single and united society. 

Not too bad for an icon.


Cover: Polina Tankilevitch

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