The Emoji Story Recap: Exploring the Power of Emoji and Other Visual Communication Tools

January 20, 2021

The new documentary, The Emoji Story, was released on AppleTV at the end of 2020. It’s an in-depth look at the complex world of emoji - from the spark of an idea to implementation of a new set of the conversational characters. Our CEO Travis spoke with two women featured in the film - Jennifer 8. Lee and Rayouf Alhumedhi - about their thoughts and experiences being involved in the world of emoji creation. You can check out that chat here.

The film made clear the strong impact visual communication tools - like emojis, Stickers and GIFs - have not only on a conversation, but on personal identity. Many people feel that self-expression through the use of emoji is made easier if their culture is represented through these visuals, which is why people like Jennifer and Rayouf fought so hard to have their own cultures represented within the keyboard.

In this blog, we’re discussing our thoughts on The Emoji Story and the importance of visual tools as a whole - in shaping conversations and representing diverse cultures.

The Importance of Representation in Visual Tools

When emojis first hit the mainstream around 2010, they were seen as cute little characters that could jazz up a regular text message. Smiley faces, hand gestures, and even a ghost were among the first emojis offered. But, around 2015, Jennifer Lee took a cold hard look at the emojis available to her and noticed something striking. Females were represented as dancers, princesses, and Playboy bunnies, while men were taking on roles of police officers, doctors, and construction workers. Clearly, there was a striking difference between how these genders were portrayed, which sparked Jennifer’s interest in advocating for wider representation in keyboards. This is just one example of how something that might seem miniscule to some can actually mean a lot to another, depending on who’s looking at the screen.

Take the Mate example from The Emoji Story documentary. A group of people in Argentina fought hard for several years for the inclusion of a Mate emoji in the emoji keyboard. Mate is a traditional South American drink enjoyed often in social gatherings and as part of daily routines. For some, it might seem silly to advocate for an emoji of a cup of tea, but for this group, Mate is an integral part of their unique culture and daily life. The inclusion of this Mate emoji would make Argentinians (and other South Americans alike) feel more represented on a grand scale in our digital world.

It’s quite obvious that the addition of new culturally relevant emojis are helping more and more people from all different cultures feel seen and understood. Because of Rayouf’s work in getting a hijab emoji into the keyboard in 2017, hundreds of thousands of women who wear the headscarf can now use a symbol that represents them in chat. And Jennifer’s advocacy for the dumpling emoji is relevant for Asian cultures across the globe who see the stuffed dough delight as an integral representation of their culture and cuisine. 

Spoiler Alert: The Mate emoji was accepted by the Unicode Consortium. Their efforts were worth it!

At Holler, we’ve thought long and hard about representation in our Sticker and GIF content. And overtime we’ve established what we like to call a rule of three. With every topic of content created, we make sure that there are at least three stickers covering representation of “many, all, and some.” This way, no matter the type of content being shared, we are confident that we’ve given fair representation of people within those categories.

Take a look at this example that illustrates our rule of threes:

It’s important to note that “some” can represent millions of people,  and “many” can represent hundreds of millions, even billions, of people. 

When creating content that’s going to be used by the masses, representation is a key element to consider. If content is going to be adapted and used by many people, it needs to represent a diverse group of individuals - from different genders, ages, locations, and cultural backgrounds. 

The Pros and Cons of Standardization

The Unicode Consortium is the organization that controls the entire process of getting emoji submissions vetted and created. They review emoji proposals and vote on new additions to expand the keyboard. When the Unicode Consortium started overseeing the process, a new level of standardization of emoji was put in place.

Emojis, although they look like graphically illustrated characters and symbols, are actually powered by Unicode. Each emoji is assigned its own Unicode code point, which exists forever. This enables the emoji to be seen by everyone - across the globe, across languages, and across operating systems. This way, no matter what language or system you’re communicating on, you are able to.

For example, let’s say the dog emoji is assigned to Unicode code point X. Due to this standardization and code point assignment, if a person in Brazil was texting from an Android phone to someone on iOS in America, both people would be able to see the dog emoji.

Not to mention, the Unicode Consortium’s method of standardization makes it easier for data scientists to analyze emoji for usage and trends than it is free form images.

Standardization of emojis makes it easier for this content to be available, shared, and analyzed at scale, but it also comes with its own set of challenges. With standardization, there is not much room for creativity. According to Sanjaya Wijeratne, the Unicode Consortium had a difficult time bringing interracial couples into emoji because of some design decisions taken during the standardization. As explained above, the emoji works on a Unicode code point system, so altering the 💑 (couple with heart) emoji, for example, to let users choose between 5 skin tones requires gluing one of five skin tone emoji characters with the couple with heart emoji character using a special character called Zero Width Joiner (ZWJ). This results in a series of 25 different interracial couples emojis. When you consider man-man, woman-woman, and woman-man combinations with skin tone variations, that adds another 75 interracial couples emojis, bringing the total number of new emoji to support this request to 100. These interracial couples emojis were approved in September last year

Due to their standard nature, the Unicode Consortium makes sure each new emoji can withstand the test of time. Remember, that code point exists forever, and although designers are able to update or alter the artwork of a certain emoji, changing its character entirely could prove to be detrimental.

For example, let’s say they replaced the knife emoji and reassigned that code point to be a heart. If one person in a text exchange didn’t update their software, the sender could send what they see as a heart, but the receiver would see a knife instead. Yikes!

At Holler, because we are a Sticker and GIF platform that doesn’t depend on code points, we have a lot of freedom when it comes to character creation and customization. Our Stickers and GIFs are not tied to any specific code point that is there for life.

Instead, we expand our library of content based on cultural trends and inclusions, tentpoles, and general interests. Users can then explore the library and find which pieces speak to them or are relevant to the conversation. 

Using Visual Tools to Form a New Language of Understanding 

Emojis and other types of visual content haven’t completely replaced standard text, and we don’t think they ever will. Instead, these content types act as vehicles to make digital communication more easily understood, more entertaining, and more expressive. Because of the nature of this content, over time these symbols have taken on new meanings, adapted differently by certain cultures, generations, and groups.

For example, on the surface the peach emoji looks like just that - a piece of fruit. But, in today’s culture, it also doubles as a flirty double entendre fit for dating chat. The fire emoji represents a literal fire, but can also be used to give a compliment by letting someone know they’re “lit.”

These double meanings of emojis have been recognized, used, and adopted by the masses over time and are now understood and utilized at scale (especially by Millennials and Gen Z). A lot of emojis are even understood when used on their own without any supporting text (think of the thumbs up emoji or the wink face). 

Emojis are being used at high velocity in text, on social media, and beyond. They are highly recognizable and as a result, have become part of the Zeitgeist of language today, revolutionizing how we think about communication on a broader scale. It’s kind of amazing that one pictorial symbol has the ability to play off societal trends and take on a deeper meaning understood across age groups, locations, cultures, and languages.

We believe that emojis and their plethora of symbolic meanings will continue to evolve over time as new emojis are introduced, and will continue to influence how people communicate. 

What’s Next?

When it comes to visual communication tools, the possibilities are endless. Of course, getting a new set of emojis passed is a long and arduous process, but there are plenty of submissions happening each year to help expand the keyboard.

The Emoji Story did a great job of giving us a glimpse into the process of ideating and creating new emojis, shined a light on the importance of representation, and solidified the importance of visual tools in a digital world. We’re looking forward to seeing what’s next in the world of visuals. Until then,

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