You probably know them, even if you don’t love them.
They pop up on social media and in text messages — how else would you share your Wordle score without giving away the solution? — and have even infiltrated advertisements and work emails. In 2015, the Oxford Dictionary chose one as its “word” of the year.
We’re talking, of course, about emojis.
The colorful pictographs are superb substitutes for those things that are sometimes lost in text-based communication: emotions, body language, tone of voice. And with more than 3,600 to choose from in the Unicode Standard, emojis have somewhat become a language of their own.
How, then, did we get here? As it turns out, there’s a bit of a debate surrounding the creation of the first emojis.
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Emoticons vs. Emojis
In the beginning, emoticons reigned supreme.
These digital facial expressions are crafted from the characters already found on a typical keyboard; type out a colon, hyphen and close parenthesis, for example, and a smiley face will stare back at you.
Scott Fahlman, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is considered the first to string these characters together. On the school’s online bulletin board in 1982, he advocated for the use of smiley and sad face emoticons in emails to add emotional context and prevent miscommunication.
Little did Fahlman know, however, that similar emoticons would later explode in online chat rooms — and eventually serve as a precursor to the emojis we know today.
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Who Invented Emojis?
A quick web search will confirm that the Japanese phone carrier Docomo is usually credited for the first known set of emojis. Created by the designer Shigetaka Kurita in 1999, these 176 images each comprised a 12-by-12 grid of pixels.
Kurita’s goal was to make communication on Docomo’s new mobile internet platform easier and more stylish. Therefore, he focused on colorful, information-rich symbols: weather phenomena, hobbies, modes of transportation and numbers.
But another Japanese carrier known as SoftBank (J-Phone at the time) actually beat Kurita by two years. In November 1997, SoftBank released their SkyWalker DP-211SW mobile phone — complete with the world’s first-ever emoji set built in.
Though this set offered 90 distinct emojis, including an early iteration of the “pile of poo” emoji later popularized by Apple, it never reached the level of fame that Kurita’s set achieved.
For one, these 12-bit predecessors only came in one color — black — and perhaps left users wanting more. Ultimately, however, the emojis were tied to a high-priced phone that ended up being a flop itself.
The Unicode Standard
Over the next decade, emojis gained traction among companies outside of Japan, too. But when it came to adoption across a range of different platforms, one large hurdle stood in the way.
Because computers deal with numbers, every character in every language must also be "encoded," or represented by a specific numerical code. There used to be hundreds of different encoding systems, leading to a lot of translation issues between different computers and servers — and suddenly emojis had run into the same issue all over again.
So, in 2007, Google petitioned the Unicode Consortium, a Silicon Valley nonprofit devoted to standardizing the text in all modern software products, to recognize emojis, too. Two years later, Apple engineers Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg jumped on the bandwagon, submitting their own proposal for Unicode to adopt 625 new emojis into its library.
That proposal was accepted in 2010, paving the way for any company — from Google and Microsoft to Facebook and Twitter — to create its own version of emojis without the fear that it would be unrecognizable to another operating system. Emoji had officially gone mainstream.
Of course, we’ve come a long way from that initial 625-emoji proposal. If you’re searching for a troll, an empty jar or three kidney beans, you’re in luck. The Unicode Consortium adds new ones to its library each year, with the next expected release currently scheduled for September 2023.
Although there is a distinct lack of celebrities, deities and brand logos in the Unicode Standard, that’s not for lack of corporate backing. Taco Bell lobbied for the taco emoji while Tinder pushed for the interracial couple emoji. The boots? Thank Timberland. The beaker and microbe? GE.
Ford spent upward of $100,000 lobbying for the truck emoji, and Bill and Melinda Gates advocated for the mosquito emoji as a way to encourage discussion on mosquito-borne diseases. In truth, anyone can submit a proposal, so long as they come prepared with a prototype of the emoji and an explanation of its potential use.
But before you hit the drawing board, remember that you can’t please everyone. In a 2012 interview with The Independent, emoticon pioneer Scott Fahlman dismissed our modern emojis as ugly, adding that they “ruin the challenge of trying to come up with a clever way to express emotions using standard keyboard characters.”
To that, we say :-(.
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