World Emoji Day: what's next for the cast of characters?

More than 100 new symbols are due out this year but a top emoji expert says there may be fewer additions in future

Founder of World Emoji Day Jeremy Burge, right. AFP
Founder of World Emoji Day Jeremy Burge, right. AFP

A boomerang, a ninja and a set of lungs are among 13 symbols previewed for the first time on Thursday as part of US technology giant Apple's contribution to the annual World Emoji Day festivities.

The previewed emojis are among a cohort of 117 new symbols due to arrive this year, joining the thousands already found on the keyboard of almost every smartphone on the planet. They will sit alongside well-used favourites known officially as Smiling Face with Heart-Eyes and Face With Tears of Joy, as well as some lesser-known options like Busts in Silhouette or Closed Umbrella.

But a leading expert on the ubiquitous smiling, frowning and now mask-wearing symbols told The National on the eve of Friday's international day of celebration that the emoji keyboard had arrived “at a crossroads”.

Jeremy Burge, the chief emoji officer at Emojipedia, an online dictionary for more than 3,300 characters, said the flow of additional new symbols was likely to slow markedly.

Mr Burge said he believed that instead of greater quantity there would be a continual refinement of the existing characters as a way of increasing representation.

“The emoji keyboard has broadened in recent years,” he said, in reference to several campaigns for the symbols to better reflect the diversity of their legion of users. “It’s had skin tones added, nearly every emoji has a consistent set of three options for gender now, including a neutral option.”

Emojis are the one thing we actually all share on the internet

Jeremy Burge

The 36-year-old, who divides his time between Britain and Australia, said it was unlikely that the keyboard would continue to grow as it has in the past. “I don’t think anyone wants a keyboard that dramatically expands to tens of thousands of emojis,” he said. “I think the value comes from the fact that they are a limited set.”

From their relatively obscure origins on Japanese mobile phones in the late 1990s, emojis have risen to become some of the most recognisable symbols of the smartphone age.

For Mr Burge, emojis provide people around the world with a unique form of communication capable of transcending language barriers and connecting different cultures.

“Emojis are the one thing we actually all share on the internet,” he said. “We are able to use this same set of symbols in so many different ways.”

The Microbe emoji was a contender for Emojipedia's Most 2020 Emoji
The Microbe emoji was a contender for Emojipedia's Most 2020 Emoji

The ubiquitous nature of the characters is key to understanding their popularity, Mr Burge said. “It’s a cultural reference – these 3,000 or-so emojis that we all share – and they work on every phone in the world.”

In the past, sets of emoticons could only be used within the same program or application. But the widespread adoption of the same group of characters – all the world’s biggest technology companies including Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Google have their own versions of the emoji keyboard – has helped create a phenomenon.

Emoji creators strive for better representation

Coronavirus lockdowns coincided with a sharp rise in the numbers of people wanting to learn more about emojis
Coronavirus lockdowns coincided with a sharp rise in the numbers of people wanting to learn more about emojis

The explosion in popularity of the pictograms meant that representing different cultures and religions has always been a key issue for the Unicode Consortium, a group of technology firms that decides which new emojis to add each year.

Characters representing the world’s religions were among the first to be added to the keyboard, Mr Burge pointed out, after an image designed to depict a chapel in Japan was wrongly, but perhaps understandably, misinterpreted as a Christian symbol.

“It seemed odd to have a Christian church there and not the other religions,” he said.

Despite early moves to represent cultures fairly, Mr Burge concedes that there remains some bias in the keyboard, which is still dominated by characters associated with its creation in Japan. The US, he said, is also well represented because many of the technology companies involved in implementing the emoji updates are located there.

For a great many people, seeing and using images that represent them is important, he said. “I get emails from people saying: ‘Look, there’s an adult in a wheelchair but there’s no child in a wheelchair, why can’t we have that?’”

Flags in particular have become a significant issue for those in charge of deciding which potential new characters make it on to the keyboard, Mr Burge said, and added there had been recent calls for greater diversity. “It’s a sign of importance to be on the emoji keyboard. It’s a sign that you’ve made it,” he said.

As part of the celebrations on Friday, people from around the world were able to vote in the 2020 World Emoji Awards, with several prizes up for grabs including for the most popular new emoji, the most anticipated emoji and the emoji that best sums up the year so far. Two finalists were due to face off for the last prize on Friday.

In the coronavirus corner was the Microbe, which saw off stiff competition from the Skull and Crossbones symbol and the Facepalm. Representing the Black Lives Matter protests that swept the globe after the death in May of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis, was the Raised Fist.

As coronavirus lockdown measures began to confine people in unprecedented numbers to their homes around the world a few months ago, Mr Burge noticed a drastic increase in the numbers of people coming to his website looking for information about the emoji keyboard.

“At Emojipedia, we saw a massive spike in traffic at the same time that global lockdowns were happening,” he said. “It’s hard to tell why, but I wonder if it was because people were working remotely and away from each other and might have turned to emojis.

“Maybe people who wouldn’t ordinarily use them were using them to make their conversations more like their real conversations, which was exciting to see.”

Acceptance of emojis on the rise

Despite the booming popularity of the characters, which in 2017 were made into an animated film starring actors including James Corden and Anna Faris, there have always been some who have rejected emojis as a malign influence on communication culture.

During the first four or five years of the website’s existence, Mr Burge said people would complain that emojis looked childish, were ruining language or were simply unnecessary. But he said the naysayers were dwindling.

“I’m seeing far less of the pushback like we used to see, so maybe that’s a good sign,” he said.

“Obviously, I don’t think they are hindering our communication – they are helpful, they add context to what you’re saying.”

Updated: July 17, 2020 08:59 PM

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