The Tale Of The Emoji Mafia

Emojis walk a long and winding path before ending up on your phone...

Since the very first text-based emoticons to today’s rich coloured emojis, the phone-toting world has fallen in love with the little happy faces and flags. The most used emoticon in the world is the “face with tears of joy” emoji, followed by the “red heart” emoji (both added in 2015). That’s a pleasant list of top emojis, but it all started with text-based “emoticons” which were just little text representations of things. The most popular emoticon, which I still encounter daily, is the ol’ smiley face :-) and, less frequently these days, the sad face :-( In the early days, there was no consistency between mobile devices and sending an emoji to someone would not necessarily ensure that it would show up on the receiver’s end. These days, the selection and modification process of emojis is handled by a shadowy* group named the Emoji Mafia, but some people call it the Unicode Consortium.

*Shadowy may not, in fact, be shadowy.

Emotion, emoticon, emoji, and smileys

Let’s get some basic terminology out of the way here. The colourful icons that we’re familiar with today are emojis. The word emoji is a portmanteau of the Japanese words ‘e’ and ‘moji’ meaning picture character. Emojis are discreet characters in themselves, they are not created by using existing characters on the keyboard.

Emoticons are the early text-based characters that are created by using standard characters already on the keyboard. It is a portmanteau of the English words ‘emotion’ and ‘icon’. This group of characters is also frequently referred to as ‘smileys’.

Emotion is…well, the word emotion. The only reason I mention it at all is that it forms part of the word "‘emoticon’. Another interesting thing about it in this context is that despite the linguistic similarities, the words emotion and emoticon did not contribute in any way to the word emoji. Which, we’ve already learned, is a happy coincidence involving the words ‘picture’ and ‘character’ in Japanese.

Who is the Emoji Mafia?

To understand this, first, we need to understand a little bit about scripts in general. A script is an alphabet; it is a series of characters that allow us to write things. Scripts are closely related to language because we use scripts to communicate in our language, but they are not the same thing.

For example, I am using the Latin script to write this blog post, and I am writing it in the English language. However, the same Latin script is used to write different languages such as French and German.

Many languages do not use the Latin script such as Arabic, Cyrillic, and Chinese. In fact, there are many scripts in use around the globe today. In the early days, we used only 127 ASCII characters to represent all of our ideas.

Seven-bit ASCII improved over prior five- and six-bit codes. Of the 27=128 codes, 33 were used for controls, and 95 carefully selected printable characters (94 glyphs and one space), which include the English alphabet (uppercase and lowercase), digits, and 31 punctuation marks and symbols: all of the symbols on a standard US typewriter plus a few selected for programming tasks. 

ASCII was extended to, you guessed it, Extended ASCII (sometimes called High ASCII) to add more characters, but it still was not enough. Unicode was born of that frustration and it supports many more characters which means any computer device can now type in any script, living or dead.

When you get down to brass tacks, emojis are just another script. Therefore, the Unicode Consortium manages emojis just like it manages any other script.

Where do emojis come from?

Well, when a mommy emoji and a..no, wait. That’s not right at all.

Emojis are tightly controlled. There is a lengthy process involved from the suggestion of a new emoji until the day it appears on our phones for use. Anyone can suggest a new emoji, but certain guidelines have to be met in order for it to even be considered by the Emoji Mafia:

  • Compatibility with existing high-use emojis in popular systems like Instagram and Snap Chat

  • Is expected usage high enough, or is it a niche-emoji not many people will understand and use?

  • Does it have multiple uses? For example, a shark is a shark, but can also be used to indicate a con man or huckster.

  • Does it break new ground? That’s a point in its favour, if so.

  • And more…

The guidelines and submission criteria are surprisingly complicated and must include an image of the proposed emoji.

Once an emoji has been properly submitted, the consortium reviews and decides whether the application is well-formed and ensures that it makes a relatively strong case for the emoji. The submission is then sent to the Emoji Subcommittee for review. The documentation falls apart at this point and starts referring to the Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) as well, so it’s not clear which committee makes the final call. Regardless, possible outcomes are:

  • acceptance as a candidate,

  • the proposal is declined,

  • or it is returned to the submitter for more work.

For proposals that are accepted, they go into the hopper to be added to the Unicode spec in the following year.

Why do emojis look different on different platforms?

This is the most confusing thing about emojis from my perspective. So much work goes into the very formal process of submitting and approving an emoji. The submission process even requires an image of what the emoji should look like. But even with all that work, emojis can look different on Android compared to iOS, and other platforms as well.

The reason for this goes back to the fact that emojis are just a script like any other, and scripts have different fonts. For example, this part of the sentence is typed in the same script as this part of the sentence. But, I’ve applied different fonts to the script so one part of it is bold and the other is italicized. The same thing applies to emojis - a smiley face emoji will be smiling on all platforms, but the particular way it looks depends on the font. The Unicode Consortium does not dictate precisely what each emoji should look like, and device manufacturers are free to use whatever “version” or “font” they want.

A good example is the handgun, or pistol, emoji. The pistol emoji has been through a few variations and Android, iOS, and Microsoft have each displayed it as a pistol, a ray gun, or water pistol over time. That is acceptable to the Unicode Consortium because it just specifies that it has to be a pistol.

How can I help?

The Unicode Consortium is a US-based non-profit corporation and like most non-profits, the best way to help is money. Adopting a character is the easiest way to push money at the Consortium, and for your troubles, you will be listed as a sponsor in various places and get a nice badge you can put in your profile, website, or wherever you’d like.

There is a long list of people and organizations who have already sponsored characters. It is interesting to see the emoji that some people and organizations have chosen. There are lots of recognizable names from Vincent Cerf to the Ford Motor Company on the list.

So there you have it. There is a very long and winding trail an emoji has to travel before you will find it on your phone. Nothing is ever simple in technology, but the Unicode Consortium has done a good job of hiding that complexity from us and has also shown itself to be a very effective curator of the global script in general.