If one picture is worth 1,000 words, then texters, tweeters, and Facebook users are a wordy bunch of people. Emojis dominate the digital landscape, giving greater flexibility to written communication. With a winking face, you can indicate sarcasm. A smiley is good for softening criticism. And a thumbs up lets the person on the other end of the conversation know that you’ve gotten the message, but don’t have anything to add. When words fail you, emojis are ready to step in and rescue you.
Typographical Art in the 1880s
Believe it or not, emojis have roots going back to long before computers were a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ eye. Puck magazine made its debut in the 1870s. It wasn’t long before it established itself as the foremost humor magazines in the U.S. Puck had a strong focus on satire, particularly political cartoons. In 1881, the magazine published a tongue-in-cheek article on what it called “typographical art.” The magazine introduced the typographical art with this statement:
“For fear of startling the public we will only give a small specimen of the artistic achievements within our grasp, by way of a first installment.”
Below this text, punctuation marks were used to depict four faces with expressions of joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment. Today, we know typographical art by its modern name: emoticons.
The Birth of the Emoticon
The modern emoticon was conceived in 1982. A professor of computer science, Scott Fahlman, and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University used online bulletin boards for announcements, information swaps, and chatting. Many of the people using the bulletin boards enjoyed making humorous posts, but sometimes, it was hard for readers to determine if a post was supposed to be serious or sarcastic.
Fahlman noted that one of the downsides of text-based online communication was the lack of nonverbal cues such as body language and facial expressions. In a message posted on the bulletin board, he proposed that future posts be accompanied by either a 🙂 for sarcastic posts or a 🙁 for serious ones. It took a mere matter of months for the smiley and frowning faces to catch on and spread to other university bulletin boards. Today, Fahlman is widely credited as being the father of the modern emoticon. Ironically, in a later interview, Fahlman admitted that he doesn’t much care for emojis.
The First Emojis and the Weather Forecast
It’s used by people of all ages—from toddlers to octogenarians. In 2015, it was the Word of the Year for Oxford Dictionary. It’s been used to adorn everything from an economic report released by the White House (yes, that really happened) to the World Wildlife Fund’s #EndangeredEmoji Twitter campaign to save endangered animals. But how exactly did the beloved emoji evolve from the primitive emoticon? And why did it get that name? For the answer, we’ll have to go to Japan—the birthplace of the modern emoji.
In 1999, an artist, Shigetaka Kurita, was working on the development team for “i-mode.” It was an early mobile Internet platform. Given space constraints, Kurita needed a way to depict information without the need for lengthy words. Instead of saying that the weather forecast was “cloudy with a chance of rain,” Kurita decided that a small picture could provide the information just as well. His original collection consisted of 176 emojis. Today, you can find it at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It includes emojis like an umbrella, clouds, a car, and a cellphone.
For the record, it’s only coincidence that the words “emoji” and “emoticon” are so similar. The word “emoji” is what you get when you combine the Japanese words for “picture” and “character.” Essentially, it’s a pictograph.
The Modern Emojis Take Over the World
Kurita’s idea was a smashing success. Rival companies in Japan copied the idea, and it wasn’t long before American businesses like Apple got in on the trend. In 2007, Google took charge, as it so often does, and submitted a petition to the Unicode Consortium to have emojis officially recognized. The Unicode Consortium is a nonprofit group that works to maintain uniform coding standards so that text appears the same regardless of which server or computer it’s on.
In 2009, Google’s team of petitioners was joined by a couple of Apple engineers, who submitted their own petition to recognize 625 emojis. And in 2010, the Unicode Consortium accepted the idea, paving the way for emojis to become a standard form of communication.
The Continuing Evolution of Emojis
The Unicode Consortium continues to add new emojis each year. In recent years, there has been a heightened focus on multiculturalism and diversity, with good reason. The original emojis depicted white men as doctors, chefs, and police officers—no women or people of other ethnic origins. In fact, all of the original emojis that depicted people were Caucasian. Family units have fallen under similar scrutiny, with emoji users questioning why there were no single parents or same-sex parents. And, given that emojis were born in Japan, there were about half a dozen of them for sushi dishes, but none at all for traditional African food like fufu or Mexican food like enchiladas.
The debate over multiculturalism in emojis goes beyond questions of political correctness. If emojis are supposed to be a universal language—and what person from which culture wouldn’t recognize a cloud emoji?—then shouldn’t this universal language be universally inclusive? And if a female surfer wants to use an emoji to depict her favorite sport, why can’t there be a female surfer emoji?
The Unicode Consortium has responded to these legitimate concerns by diversifying the collection of official emoji considerably. There are now plenty of female emojis, gender-neutral emojis, emojis for people of color, and yes, even emojis for mermaids, elves, and vampires. The nonprofit group continues to meet every year to expand the official collection.
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