Earlier this month, Unicode — the California-based consortium that, among other things I’m sure, approves the annual addition of new emoji characters, and which I imagine as a clandestine tribunal of really stern-looking elder smiley faces — announced 230 new entries to the emoji ecosystem.
Because I am me, the first thing I noticed in this new bundle was the waffle (so buttery!), but immediately following that, what struck me was how big an update 12.0 really is. On a quantitative level, it represents a larger deployment than usual (Unicode 11.0 introduced 66 new emoji, 10.0 had 56). But the nature of the symbols themselves speaks to something more significant.
As the emoji-tracking site Emojipedia breaks down, the new release “is comprised of 59 distinct new emojis; 75 when gender variations are taken into account; and 230 new emojis when all skin tone options are also included.”
While a good deal of this (and every) year’s incoming haul of emoji is the kind of noun-based clutter that would make Marie Kondo sweat bullets (a diving mask and a kite both seem perfectly emblematic of the real ones you’ll never use, while briefs, swimsuits, and shorts just amount to more virtual laundry to sift through), the majority of the new symbols represent the increased importance of representation within (and among) emoji.
There are dozens of new emoji designed to represent people with various disabilities. Motorized and manual wheelchairs have been added, as well as a variety of people operating them. Deaf men and women are pictured signing, visually impaired people are represented by figures with probing canes, and service and guide dogs are being very good boys among the new menagerie of flamingos, sloths, and (thank heavens) skunks. Objects directly related to disabilities — like hearing aids, mechanical limbs, and canes — are also newly available.
Additionally, while same-sex pairs of emoji men and women have been holding hands since 2012, a new sequence allows for gender-neutral couples to be represented. “People Holding Hands” may seem like a step toward the general, but really it’s a signal that emoji have evolved past clever ways to encode butts and into a democratic vista of sorts — a site where representation quite literally determines who gets to be in the conversation.
Indeed, if you look at the history of Unicode updates, you see a graph that charts right alongside longer-game pursuits for civil rights and representation: Version 2.0 introduced skin tone support in 2015; 4.0 brought increased representation of women in 2016 (it also introduced facepalming and shrugging, which did not exactly help relations between the sexes); and 5.0 expanded the parameters of the village, introducing emoji representative of various religions.
Each of these vectors continue in version 12.0: Couples of mixed skin tone can now hold hands; a “period emoji” (codename: Drop of Blood) has already been heralded by women’s groups as key to destigmatizing menstruation; and Hindu temples, kneeling figures, and a diya lamp signal a continued pursuit to represent more spiritualities. (For me, it’s the waffle.)
Emoji don’t get a whole lot of respect — often regarded by fans of fancy-pants “language” as the polar opposite of the stuff, devoid of any of the former’s shade or nuance. Emoji devotees who’ve been waiting 12 version for a “pinching finger” gesture know that nothing could be further from the truth, but emoji’s reputation as a kind of barbaric virtual hieroglyphy is understandably hard to shake.
But as that auxiliary keyboard becomes more and more the default way to quickly respond across digital space (and you’ll notice more and more single-tap emoji “smart” responses popping up across most of your social media messaging platforms) the mission of inclusion becomes more urgent.
Much like words, the meanings of emoji may shift over time (I see you, eggplant), but once emoji enter the vocabulary (or in Unicode terms, the standard), they’re here to stay. Emoji don’t get removed. This can help explain why a perfunctory survey of the emoji kitchen — stocked with narutomaki, sake supplies, and dango — seems imported from Japan.
It’s important (refreshing, even) not to think of emoji as a glorified rebus, but for what it actually is: a globally realized language, sans text, that most of the world has acquired through their phones over the blink of 10 years. Our place in language is our place at the table, and the symbolic value of that is hard to overstate.
But if you still don’t get why it’s important to include everything, consider that there’s still no emoji for syrup.Michael Andor Brodeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MBrodeur.