‘Emoji may seem trivial, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem,’ says researcher Kate Miltner.
‘Emoji may seem trivial, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem,’ says researcher Kate Miltner. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

When Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge sent his fiancee to the wrong side of London for dinner, he sent an apologetic text message. He received an emoji-less reply: “It’s fine.”

“We all know that’s not what it means at all. That means ‘it’s not fine’,” he said, pointing out that emoji have infiltrated language so deeply that their absence from that message carries a meaning that we all understand. Once considered a nerd topic, emoji have now become a mainstream medium, Burge says – and San Francisco’s first Emojicon conference seems to agree.

Hundreds of adults (and surprisingly few children) turned up for sessions including Emoji Karaoke, where participants had to translate the lyrics of pop songs such as Call Me Maybe into strings of emoji; emoji spellcasting, which revealed how modern witches have embraced technology; and a specialist emoji balloon artist whose biggest request was the poop symbol. There was even a stall selling Emojibator, a vibrator in the shape of the aubergine/eggplant emoji. Something for everyone.

Eggplant emoji vibrator known as the emojibator on show at Emojicon in San Francisco
The emojibator on show at Emojicon in San Francisco. Photograph: Olivia Solon

Emoji users feel a significant ownership over these tiny digital symbols, as evidenced by the reaction when Apple swapped the gun emoji for a water pistol and changed the peach emoji to look less like a butt, or when a Saudi teen designed her own headscarf-wearing emoji.

Emoji have also been recognized as art, with New York’s Museum of Mordern Art (MoMA) acquiring the original 176 emoji designed by a Japanese phone company in 1999. Not everyone agrees with putting emoji on this lofty cultural pedestal, said Paul Galloway, MoMA’s architecture and design collection specialist, but there was similar pushback when MoMA introduced photography, cubist artworks and video games to its collection.

“People think we should be sticking to beautiful oil paintings by dead European guys, but this is part of a broader range of creativity,” he said.

Yet there are more serious cultural problems highlighted by the rise of emoji, particularly how to make them more inclusive to people of different races, genders and physical abilities. Until a range of skintones were introduced for emoji in 2015, there were no options for making emoji anything other than white (or cartoon yellow) – and even the new set of modifiers were only introduced after public outrage about lack of diversity.

This photo provided by The Museum of Modern Art in New York shows the original set of 176 emojis, which the museum has acquired.
This photo provided by MoMA in New York shows the original set of 176 emoji, which the museum has acquired. Photograph: Shigetaka Kurita/AP

‘Technology neutrality is a myth’

Researcher Kate Miltner has spent two years researching why emoji were developed with such a limited worldview. She concluded that there was no intention to actively exclude people, but that the icons did align with a belief that inadvertently marginalizes people – the belief that technology is neutral.

“Emoji may seem trivial, just silly little faces, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem. The values either intentionally – or unintentionally – baked into the systems we use on a daily basis can deeply impact people and how they navigate their world,” said Miltner, a PhD student at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, who conducted extensive interviews with, and analyzed hundreds of emails from, the Unicode Consortium, the official body which standardizes emoji.

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