The Great Emoji Controversy

First we had emoticons, those smiles, winks, and other usually sideways image created using standard keyboard keys. :-) And then came emoji, those tiny colorful expressive faces, animals, modes of transportation, food, buildings, and so much more. And now they have come under attack.

Emoji History

The first emoji were developed in Japan by Shigetaka Kurita for use on a mobile messaging platform. Kurita created 172 images, each 12 pixels square, that could be used with regular text.

Being Japanese in origin, some of those original emoji are specific to Japanese culture, such as a bowing businessman to denote apology, a white flower to celebrate excellent homework, and a variety of Japanese foods.

As the world discovered emoji, the character set expanded. C-HTML 4.0 supports 252 emoji, and Unicode 6.0 included 722 when it was released in late 2010. And now that doesn’t appear to be diverse enough.

Emoji people

Macs have supported emoji since OS X 10.7 Lion shipped, and it’s also been part of iOS 5 and later – and Apple has done a great job making them very attractive.

The Controversy

emoji facesIt seems that the current range of emoji isn’t ethnically diverse enough. And, no, we’re not talking about all those round yellow smiles and winks and so on. There is a small range of people characters in the emoji library, and they are seriously lacking in color.

Caucasians are well represented, and the second one on the top row looks to be from India. Fifth on the top row looks like someone with a Russian hat. In the second row, person four could be Hispanic.

Asian? African? Native American? Australian Aborigine? Polynesian? All conspicuously missing. And that’s something Apple hopes to address in the future, working with the appropriate standards body to expand beyond this narrow range.

But where do you stop? Should we add multiracial to the mix? How about a wider range of hair colors and styles for the men and women? Maybe a guy who is totally bald. And why don’t any of them wear glasses?

emoji couplesThe emoji character set has been expanded to include gay couples. You’ve got emoji for a hetero couple, a family with one child, a gay couple, and a lesbian couple. I wonder, should they expand that for cultures that practice polygamy as well?

And looking at the nail polish emoji, why not red – or black for goths? More room for expansion, as well as with all those wild hair colors available today!

emoji nature

In the dog department, there are so many breeds out there, yet so few dog emoji. Where’s my tan chihuahua? Where is the orchid? How come there’s no tornado in the weather section?

You get the idea. What began as a neat hack to add 176 images for texting could soon grow well past the 1,000 mark with no end in sight.

emoji things

In the above section, who decides which holidays make the cut? I don’t see a Festivus pole. There is an hour glass that’s just starting and one that’s done, but why not one halfway? Why vanilla ice cream but not chocolate or, better yet, chocolate mint? Two beer options, but how about a nice dark stout along with the lighter brews?

buildings and transportation emoji

Then come buildings, transportation, and a limited range of national flags. One two-story house, but no ranch or side-split. Lots of office type buildings, but no skyscraper. One of those signs looks suspiciously like the old Pepsi logo. Canada certainly deserves to have its flag represented, as do dozens upon dozens of other countries.

emoji characters

I’m not sure what to think about this set. The first three rows seem to be buttons, like on a calculator or phone or remote control. The Kanji ones have me stumped, but that’s no reason to leave them out.


Speaking of Kanji, I remember learning in school what a big step up the alphabet was compared with hieroglyphics. You know, those characters in the Egyptian tombs or on the Rosetta stone, not to mention Japanese and Chinese.

Once upon a time, just developing a keyboard for a language like Chinese was a nightmare, and technology like this makes it much easier to deal with an extended image-based vocabulary than phonetic transliteration and other schemes used to improve the typing experience for non-alphabetic languages.

Interesting, isn’t it, that we’ve now come full circle – and with color thrown in for good measure.

Keywords: #emoji #hieroglyphics

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2 thoughts on “The Great Emoji Controversy

  1. This article seemed to have a bit of subtext to it. The old slippery (and apparently scary) slope of—where do we stop?! Next thing you know people will want to marry animals!

    It would take little effort to add a bit more diversity to emoji. A vast portion of the world is not Caucasian. With Apple entering ever more international markets and economic backgrounds, it makes perfect sense to represent a more accurate depiction of the world.

    Emoji may have started as a Japanese curiosity but it has swelled way beyond that and certainly past Caucasians only.

  2. I have a different opinion: Less is better.

    As is pointed out in the article, one COULD expand the concept to encompase even more and more, but never all. And already it is so large as to make it not-too-terribly useful.

    I prefer my emoticons to be yellow or or colorless, to be abstractions of the most common emotions, feelings, items, and ideas. If I have to page through screens of pictures, then I might as well have just typed a few words instead. Excessive realism and greater variety is a negative in this case, IMHO. Wouldn’t if be better if we find them easily and perhaps put them together in combinations to make others (I choose “happy” immediately followed by “female” I get a “happy female”. The basics, male/female, baby/child/tween/teen/YA/MA/SR/Elderly, common emotions, useful items. Done.

    But I think people-cons should be line art or cartoon yellow or something else generic. My message is that a person is a person regardless of their race or cultural heritage. Why would I need any emoji other than raceless ones UNLESS my goal is to visually discriminate or highlight racial differences? In fact, having different races emoji causes me to consider race, even when there would otherwise not have been a reason to. And this is good why?

    Not all change is progress. Not all mutation is evolution.

    Instead of more races, I suggest raceless emoji.

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