Tech

The Origin of Emojis Is Way More Mysterious Than You'd Think

Published On 09/30/2016 Published On 09/30/2016
stork dropping bundle of emoji
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

Nothing punctuates a witty text message quite like the perfect emoji. As we all know, the best part of any OS update is checking to see what shiny new emojis will spring forth, and the iOS 10 drop was no different. But why did it take so damn long to get a taco emoji? And why is it that so many seemingly obvious pictorial options remain unavailable? Where on God's green Earth is the BACON emoji?!?!

Turns out, how emojis are conceived, approved, and ultimately birthed onto your keyboard is actually quite a complex endeavor. It requires public petitions, a long list of highly specific criteria, a series of votes from mysterious international committees, and a hell of a lot of time. The new emojis you just got with iOS 10 -- plus the highly anticipated bacon and avocado emojis, which are soon to be released -- were over a year and a half in the making. Here's a look into the process.

Emojis have been around since the '90s

The emoji keyboard we know and love today evolved from a small set of vaguely detailed "faces" created by a Japanese dude named Shigetaka Kurita in the mid-'90s. They were introduced in an effort to help people better communicate emotion and tone in the then-burgeoning medium of email. Since then, they've been adopted into what's known as Unicode – the computer-industry standard for how individual characters are encoded, so that all fonts, scripts, and even that smiling poop emoji are recognizable no matter what device or platform they're sent and received from.

These days, the emoji gatekeeper is the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organization made up of reps from major computer hardware companies, software developers, government ministries, and research institutions who meet several times a year to discuss updates to the Unicode standard, and vote on which new emojis should be added to our ever-expanding pictographic lexicon. 

Decisions aren't made in smoke-filled rooms

Since the Unicode Consortium needs to maintain standards internationally, its members represent diverse industries and backgrounds. For instance, unsurprisingly multinational tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook have representatives, but there are also members from less-obvious stakeholders like the Indian government, the Lithuanian Standards Board, and UC Berkeley. Like the UN, not all members have the same level of voting power (with the exception of the Malaysian government, the only "full"-voting members are huge companies), but their participation is important just the same to maintain a level of inclusivity.

Oren Aks/Thrillist

Anyone can submit ideas for new emojis

In all likelihood, the idea to add an avocado came from someone like you or me. If you're desperate to get a new emoji added to your arsenal, you're welcome to submit a proposal to the Consortium as a civilian. However, in order for a petition to even be considered, it must adhere to a strict and incredibly specific rubric created by the gatekeepers that addresses 10 different selection factors. How frequently will it be used? How necessary is it? Is there a measurable demand for it?

You can't just BS your way through it, either -- the Consortium demands real evidence that people want your emoji. Of course, you'll also need to submit prototypical imagery matching your proposed emoji, and it must adhere to a specific dimensional format and style. Every emoji on your keyboard, and the avocado, had to at one time pass muster. 

You don't necessarily have to do all the work yourself, though. The site Emoji Request lets anyone vote on potential new emojis, then mercifully submits formal proposals to the Unicode Consortium for the winners.

But beware, the guidelines are insanely strict

Beyond the litany of factors that must be met to even be considered, emoji proposals may be swiftly dismissed if they violate certain criteria. If it's too specific, it won't make it through (e.g., a specific type of sushi or color of gummy bear). It can't be representative of a company or brand (that means no logos or brand iconography), a specific person alive or dead, or a deity. It will also be denied if it can easily be constructed using existing emojis (e.g., you won't see a crying baby emoji anytime soon, since you can easily communicate that with the existing cry face + baby emojis). You'll also need to prove that it isn't representing something with a short shelf life (basically, it shouldn't be symbolic of a fad or meme, or anything that'd risk being irrelevant sometime in the near future). 

And it takes foreeeever to get one approved

According to the Unicode Consortium's sample timeline, it takes roughly a year and a half from the time a successful emoji is proposed to its implementation because of the UC's strict meeting schedule and bureaucratic process. Even though the deadline for new emoji proposals is October 1st, they will not be considered until the following year, and even then, only by the UC's emoji subcommittee. If the emoji in question makes it through that round, it's then taken up by what's known as the Unicode Technical Committee, which'll likely discuss it over the course of an entire year (it only meets once per quarter). If the consensus is positive, it will then be considered a full-fledged "candidate," and put to a final vote during the last meeting of the year.

However, approved emojis don't end up on your keyboard right away. As you've undoubtedly noticed, several exciting additions in the latest Unicode 9 release still haven't made it to iOS. This is because "vendors" (i.e., Apple, Google, and other software developers that support emojis) require time to prep their versions of the new batch before deploying them.

So just remember, take a moment to appreciate when you finally fire off that long-awaited bacon emoji for the first time -- it's a moment that's been in the making since 2014.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist. His favorite emoji is... none of your damn business.

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