THE CALIFORNIA SUN was shining brightly on the Kendall Jackson Wine Estate. Maggie Curry, the director of marketing for the biggest white wine producer in California, and a colleague were practicing their presentation in the boardroom close to the chateaux. Even though they’d been preparing for months, they were still a bit nervous; the big presentation, which they’d be giving on behalf white wine growers — and white wine lovers — was a mere week away.
Imagine you’re a woman texting a girlfriend to meet up at the pool, Curry told me. And imagine that your favorite varietal is chardonnay. If you text your friend the red wine emoji “it’s basically a lie,” she reasoned.
If you use emojis — and if you do any electronic communication, chances are, you do — you may be aware that there is currently no white wine emoji; only red. For white wine lovers, this is a big deal.
It can cramp your style. And when you’re left out of the conversation, it may even affect sales.
“It’s not just fun and games, emojis are serious,” Curry says. “They have the ability to have real global impact.”
Used by 2.9 billion people across the globe, these little pictograms have the ability to communicate across countries, cultures, and languages. If you were to consider emoji a language, it would be by far the most popular in the world. Seven billion Facebook private messages a day are solely emoji. And 72 percent of people ages 18 to 25 say they find it easier to express their emotions with emojis than with words.
But the reason that Curry was practicing a presentation might surprise you: This emerging language used by so many is controlled by just a handful of people — the powerful and mysterious emoji committee.
The committee decides which emoji characters are added to almost every device and platform that we use around the world. That means that a handful of people select who and what is included — whether it’s a skin color, a national flag, a woman wearing a hijab, or even a glass of white wine.
Who are the people behind this committee? How did they come to be the gatekeepers to the world’s first genuinely universal language? What kind of emoji discussions are they having? And why do so few people know about this mysterious cabal?
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THE EMOJI SUBCOMMITTEE, as it’s properly called, is part of the Unicode Consortium, the organization responsible for standardizing languages into codes useable for computers.
“Unicode has sort of a reputation like a mysterious lord of the global keyboard in Silicon Valley,” Curry says.
Besides being the high council in the emoji universe, the Unicode Consortium has the much larger task of translating all the world languages into codes that computers understand. Computers do not speak languages, they speak code. And in order for all computer systems to understand each other, you need someone to standardize these codes.
So who’s in the Unicode Consortium? As you might suspect, it’s corporate tech giants such as Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Huawei. Companies that normally are each others’ biggest rivals are forced into one room to cooperate. Each tech giant sends one representative to sit at the table of this Supreme Court of our digital communication. They have to agree on standardization to keep miscommunication between the different carriers in check.
Think of it as solving the digital tower of Babel problem, says Lisa Moore, who has chaired the Unicode Technical Committee for the past 20 years.
“So say you’re texting your boyfriend and you want to say ‘I love you’ and you send him a heart, but what comes out on his phone is something completely different. You don’t want that,” Moore says. “That’s why all the main mobile carriers decided in the mid-2000’s that it was urgent to start standardizing emoji. And that’s where Unicode comes in.”
This also explains is why there’s one universal emoji keyboard. Different carriers might have their own emoji designers, but the meaning of the emoji is always the same.
“Even though Unicode is the foundation of all text on modern mobile devices and computers — so all your Android phones, iPhones, Windows, everything — people still are not very much aware of it,” says Moore. Think of Unicode like plumbing, she explains. “You never talk about the pipes in your house unless something breaks.”
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THE MICROSOFT CAMPUS in Seattle doesn’t look hip or vibrant like other, newer tech campuses. The tapestry lining the halls has a retro ’90s pattern, and the computers would look old even at even a non-computer company. Here, behind closed doors, members of the emoji committee met in July. The committee meets four times a year and the different companies share hosting duties. This time it’s Microsoft’s turn.
At each meeting, the committee considers petitions from all over the world. (Proposals for new emoji can be made electronically.) The criteria for a new emoji appears inscrutable to some, but most proposals constitute several pages with data on the would-be emoji’s importance, its potential to be widely used, and its distinctiveness. Then, after about four days of debate, decisions are made.
“The simple answer to how you decide is: You get a diverse set of people discussing it,” says Greg Welsch, a member of the Unicode board of directors. “So the Emoji Sub Committee has linguists, designers, and software developers. Because you really need to look at this from all different vantage points.”
But diversity is in the eye of the beholder. When I looked through the small window of the closed door at the Seattle meeting in July, I saw mostly white male engineers from California.
It is these men whom Curry hoped to convince about the importance of the white wine emoji. Which is why she waited in the Hyatt hotel next to the campus, with several cases of wine, ready to give away.
From the other side of the door, I could only guess at what the committee discussed. But it must have been wildly fascinating. Should the black cat have its own emoji, next to the white cat? And what to do with the request for a character with an afro? Is it an essential addition or the beginning of an endless stream of requests for specific hairstyles? And how about an emoji for the flag of Kurdistan — it does not now exist, but there’s been a request for this flag emoji for years. Do the Kurds deserve to have their flag on the global keyboard with other nations?
“Flags have been a challenge for us to figure out, because flags are so closely associated with self identity. It’s explosive,” Moore says. “Sometimes it is politically very challenging, because do you want to pick sides? We would prefer not to.”
After the nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016, Unicode responded hastily to the request to add an emoji for the LGBTQ+ flag. It was the first non-geographical flag in the keyboard and in hindsight became a Trojan horse. The floodgate to representation through flag emojis was open. Because if the gay community is included in the emoji dictionary, why should other communities not be?
“I can’t understate how important that dictionary is . . . to have no way of saying ‘this is me,’ it is very frustrating,” says Tea Uglow, who has been advocating for the inclusion of a transgender flag emoji for four years. Each time she has proposed it, it has been rejected. In July, she again proposed the blue/pink/white-striped flag. Uglow, a transgender woman, believes a transgender flag emoji it is an effective way to communicate to teenagers who are struggling with their gender identity.
“I got annoyed that I have no way of signaling to a generation of kids . . . who might feel like they are on their own, that they are not on their own,” Uglow says. “They have family all around the world who will look out for them.”
When Unicode added the lobster emoji in 2018, the trans community claimed it as their temporary emoji representation, because lobsters have both male and female reproductive organs. But the fact that Unicode responded to crustacean lovers — who, frustrated and confused by having only a choice between a crab or a shrimp lobbied for a lobster emoji — and not to Uglow’s request for a transgender flag emoji hurt feelings in the trans community.
“Rejecting the emoji is in a way saying that there are not enough of us to be represented. And if you don’t even exist in a language, that is in fact a way to erase a minority from existence,” Uglow says.
Uglow waited anxiously to hear whether her most recent proposal would be approved. If not this time, she’ll try again, and again, for as many times it takes. “It seems silly [to say] that some pixels would save lives, but to suicidal, depressed, trans kids, it makes an enormous difference,” she said. “It makes all the difference.”
Meanwhile, Curry and her colleague waited in the Hyatt hotel next to where the emoji vote was taking place. They received a text message that the white wine emoji might not make it to a vote this time — the emoji agenda was too full. Also the committee decided not to receive them for their presentation. But the women tried to remain in good spirits and raised their glasses to a good outcome — glasses of chardonnay, of course.
About 60 new emojis are added each year. Because emojis are never removed, there are now 3,019 emojis in the Unicode Standard. The committee must weigh carefully which new proposals are the most important. Are there enough white wine lovers to justify an addition? And how to weigh the significance of the transgender flag emoji?
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BUT THERE’S A larger question that needs to be asked: Whether a small group of people, mainly white American men from the West Coast, should be the gatekeepers of this emerging universal digital language.
“Imagine if you wanted to send somebody a letter and you had to pick a greeting card from the store but you couldn’t add any other text to it. And imagine that the list of greeting cards is chosen by the very best plumbers of Cleveland, Ohio,” says Keith Winstein, a professor of computer science at Stanford. “That’s kind of what we have with the Unicode Committee.”
Winstein points out that a proposed menstruation emoji was rejected by the committee, while an emoji for mate tea made the cut. “If you believe emoji is an emerging world language, it shouldn’t be decided upon by a bunch of predominantly white, male, American text encoding engineers in California. That’s just not a good way to run a language.”
(While the original menstruation emoji was rejected, an emoji of a drop of blood was approved this summer.)
Unicode board member Welsch pushes back against the notion that the emoji library must be all-inclusive.
“If you want a send a depiction of your family down to hair color, eye color, skin tone, in a text you can easily do it,” he says, sounding annoyed. “It’s called a photograph.”
Welsch also emphasizes that if it hadn’t been for Unicode, emojis would have never taken off like they did. “Emoji would not be as widely used if 50 percent of the time the recipient got an empty box,” he says. “Why it works is because of Unicode.” Which is true, but doesn’t override the concerns over those who believe that the emoji committee should be more transparent and that the approval process shouldn’t be in the hands of so few.
So what if we don’t want our universal pictorial dictionary in the hands of these white, male, American engineers? Then who do we give this power to? Should it be a libertarian system? Perhaps an informal commons? Should there be something like an emoji United Nations in which many people with different interests are represented?
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EMOJIS HAVE THE ability to shift a conversation. When Apple released the gay couple emojis in 2012, it did not sit well with the Russian government. Since “promotion” of non-heterosexual relationships is prohibited in Russia, the government threatened to ban the emojis and the devices that supported them. That didn’t happen; the emojis remain, and are in use in other countries not considered to be gay-friendly. And Unicode even just approved gender neutral couple emojis. An emoji UN would never have allowed this to happen.
But the tech companies don’t always resist outside pressure. There is no Tibetan flag emoji and there are no signs of it being approved any time soon. The most probable reason is that the emoji would anger the Chinese government, which is not something that is in the interest of any of the big tech companies behind Unicode.
“You have to remember that emoji, like many things on the Internet, is this new thing born out of nothing,” Uglow said. “I’m not sure if I’d want governments running this. I’m not sure whether I would want any particular one nationality running it. I certainly wouldn’t want it to be a popular vote. Because honestly . . . The Internet can be a scary place and there should be some guardrails.”
While the emoji committee and the resulting gridlock might be news to you, guardrailing and gatekeeping are already top of mind when we talk about the big tech companies. With the dangers of fake news on one hand, and the dangers of limiting freedom of speech on the other, it is a difficult discussion that doesn’t seem to have an easy answer. Facebook recently declared it would not limit any political campaigning on its platform under the guise of freedom of speech, while Twitter just announced it will ban all political advertising, saying misleading messages can damage civic discourse.
“I think we have to reckon with the fact that the libertarian idea of regulating the Internet that was the dream in the early ’90’s hasn’t turned out so great, in all respects,” Winstein says. The fact that anyone, including hostile foreign governments, can create content that looks like news, but is actually designed to create confusion and polarize communities, has indeed not turned out so great. So what to do?
“The idea that there may need to be moderation or that someone has responsibility for this medium is definitely growing in cultural consciousness,” Winstein says. “Whether the people that control the medium should be the world’s largest corporations? Probably not. But should it be the world’s largest governments? That doesn’t sound so great either.”
Will any governments fall or rise because of emojis? Probably not. But looking deeper into the world of yellow smileys does give us another way of entering the important discussion about who and how we should regulate speech in the digital common.
Meanwhile, the transgender flag finally made it to the final list of proposals. Whether it will make the final cut for Unicode 14.0, we will have to wait and see. The white wine emoji was rejected. The committee told Curry that it thought approving a white wine emoji would open the floodgates for all different types of beverages. Curry was frustrated and disappointed, but assured me that in the end, she remains a glass half full kind of person.
Mea Dols de Jong is a documentary filmmaker based in Amsterdam and was a 2019 Nieman Fellow at Harvard. Her documentary “Beyond Emoji” can be found on the VPRO Documentary YouTube channel. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.