If the story of the poop emoji’s rise were told in emojis, it would look like this:
…which is to say, it is an international tale of drama, cultural differences, and near-disasters. This is that tale, told for the first time by the unsung heroes who brought to life. But to understand them, you first need to understand how emoji works.
An emoji is not a photo. That may sound obvious, but it’s also an important technical distinction. When you text a photo to a friend, you are sending the data of that specific image. But when you pull up an emoji on your iPhone, for example, you are looking at a library of images designed by Apple. When you select the smiling and send it to a friend’s Android, the iPhone sends data called a “code point” to the Android, and the Android understands that you’ve sent a code point for . Then the Android displays the emoji that its own developers designed. This is the case on every platform: Designers create their own versions of the same emoji, and an organization called the Unicode Consortium ensures that the code points are the same and recognized among all devices and services. That’s why, today, the data for is the same everywhere. But that wasn’t always the case.
Emoji began in 1999 in Japan. That’s when Japan’s three major telecom carriers—KDDI AU, SoftBank, and NTT-DoCoMo—created their first series of little graphics. But the system was rudimentary. Users could only text emoji to each other or send them through a specific email platform that only worked on mobile phones. And the telecom carriers hadn’t coordinated their code points, which left Japanese users on the constant brink of a social meltdown: sending a , say, could result in a on a different carrier’s phone. And so it went with minimal improvement until 2007, when Google partnered with one of the telecom carriers, KDDI AU, and decided to adopt emoji for Gmail. To make things simple, it volunteered to fix the code point confusion for all three Japanese telecom companies once and for all.
And that’s where our story picks up . . .
CHAPTER ONE: RESISTANCE TO THE
Darick Tong, Google software engineer and American lead of its emoji project: The internal project name was “Mojo.” The motivation was to expand Google’s presence in Japan and Asia. The one thing that was missing from the Gmail experience was a good handling of emoji, which is very engrained in the culture of Japan.
Darren Lewis, Google software engineer: It was a bigger undertaking than we thought. People internally were like, “Why is it taking so long? It’s just a bunch of stupid animated emoticons.” The Google marketing people didn’t even want us to call it emoji because it was this weird foreign Japanese thing.
Takeshi Kishimoto, then-Google’s Japanese product manager: In Japanese, “E” means image and “Moji” means character.
Katsuhiko “Kat” Momoi, Google test engineer and internationalization expert: I’ve looked at some studies about how people [in Japan] feel about emoji and one of the things that they said is that it’s the easiest way to apologize—words can’t express enough. Or there’s another typical thing that female users say that if they receive mail that’s just letters and no symbols or emoji it feels like dry, dry, dry mail. If you include a few emojis suddenly it becomes personal. It brings a smile to your eyes. It softens the mood. It makes you feel like you received something with some emotional content.
Darren: I went over to Japan right around the time Takeshi was deciding which emoji were going to make it into the first cut of Gmail emoji. The
was absolutely one of the necessary emoji that Takeshi said we have to have. There was actually conflict because there were people back at headquarters who had no idea what emoji were, and thought that having an animated in their Gmail was offensive.
Darick: There were a lot of purists who felt like emoji was invading the purity of email. We pushed hard for the emoji.
Darren: I thought it was a joke that they were pushing for the to be in the first cut, but I quickly learned that it was not a joke at all. It’s basically like having all of the letters in the English alphabet, but getting rid of random ones. Like, “Let’s take out ‘B’ because ‘B’ kind of offends me.” In Japanese, emoji are more like characters than random animated emoticons, so we pushed back really hard. We said, “We can’t launch emoji without the .” Not only is it extremely popular in Japan—like extremely popular—you can’t just arbitrarily take letters out of the alphabet.
Takeshi: I used some external power. I went to the product manager of Gmail, who manages everything about Gmail, and got [him to agree] that this is the most useful emoji.
Darren: At some point there was a sort of larger-scale data analysis. We basically counted which emoji were statistically most popular, and was way up there. It was a slightly harder sell to allow the emoji outside of Japan. We argued that this would add complication to the system and take longer—that’s usually a good way to get a feature in.
I can’t even imagine what the meeting would be like with Takeshi and KDDI if they had to go back [to their users] and say, “I’m sorry, we decided we didn’t want to offend our foreign Gmail users so we got rid of .”
CHAPTER 2: THE ORIGIN OF THE
Takeshi: got very popular when a comic called “Dr. Slump” was broadcast in Japan back to the ’80s. Such was not an object to be disliked, but it had a funny meaning. This was a very popular comedy animation where a girl played a trick on other people using the . The was this funny object to play with. It was never serious.
Kat: In Japanese that’s called “unchi.” It’s a child word with a benign meaning. Once we bring outside of the Japanese community, we have all of these acquired meanings, so you’ve got a problem. Well, this is insulting. Of course somebody will say, Did the Unicode Consortium sink this low as to support this kind of character?
Ryan Germick, lead of Google Doodle team: I would reject the notion that it has one meaning. It’s a symbol in context, sort of like memes. You can do all kinds of funny things with it and use it with skill, but I guess the most common use is probably “that’s unfortunate, and I would like to punctuate my comment with a reiteration that I am displeased at what has just been expressed.” It’s the anti-like.
Takeshi: It says “I don’t like that,” but softly.
Kat: The is the kind of thing where you’re at work and your wife or husband is at home with your children for the day and you want to find out if the little one ‘d that today. There’s an insulting sense to it in English, I think. That wasn’t the original intent for the Japanese one.
Darick: It struck me as a particularly flexible and effective emoji. It provides a way to say shit or crap in an email without explicitly typing the words, and it catches the reader’s attention in a way that smiley faces don’t. Most importantly, it always elicits a smile from the reader and the writer, which is ultimately the purest purpose of emoji: to add emotional expressiveness to written communication.
CHAPTER THREE: DESIGNING GMAIL’S
The Google team had an important decision to make: What would its emoji look like? Each of the three Japanese telecom companies had their own design, and there was also “Dr. Slump” to draw inspiration from. But this would be the first emoji that most Americans would see, and it had to be stylistically in line with Google’s existing visuals. The Google Doodle team, the designers who create Google’s website logo each day, took control.
Ryan Germick: Myself and Susie Sahim were the two designers from Google who designed the emojis. For the historical record, Susie did most of the faces and I did most of the objects. We thought long and hard about how we could have a Google spin on all the emojis. We did a ton of research because we were obsessed with trying to do something new and original.
We were determined to be this off-tier and unique emoji set. We made an extremely strict system. There was an extraordinarily restricted color palate. There are only four or five different shades of each color and we only used the Google colors—red, blue, green, and yellow. We only used one color per emoji because different colors will add to the file size. We wanted something that would be really really fast and really really small. We settled on 15 x 15 pixels because it’s roughly what the average line height would be. Maybe we were geniuses. It’s all a blur. I only of course vividly remember the emoji. I remember being so excited that I worked at a company that was huge and I was going to be able to make .
Darren: When I first saw the emoji I laughed—it was awesome.
Ryan: When you’re working in a really tiny space, building a communication tool and trying to express an idea for people who are going to look at it for fractions of a second, you’ve got to be really ruthless with how clear you are. My greatest contribution is probably the little flies flying around the . It brings it to life. It’s timeless. You could smell it. It’s in this moment.
Darick: Gmail’s version with the circling flies is, in my opinion, an excellent use of animation.
Ryan: How powerful is it that this language just takes a few marks and all of a sudden a completely new experience is read? It’s not surprising that that comes from languages that have a basis in graphic symbols—from Japan or from China. Those languages are constructed with similar types of images. A tree looks like a tree in Chinese (木), and a forest is multiple trees (森林). It’s very appropriate that we’re following the lead of languages that are more or less graphic. It’s actually really, really powerful. This was not a way to communicate 10 years ago, but now there’s nary an email that I don’t send out without a smiley face or something on it.
Chaplin, the movie, has a scene when Charlie Chaplin is recalling the magical moment in which he constructed the tramp costume. The cane, the hat, the walk, the moustache just came together magically in what would be one of the most iconic characters of all time. In my own mythology of myself, designing of the would’ve been like that.
CHAPTER FOUR: WHY ONE JUST WASN’T ENOUGH
Darren: After we launched emoji I decided that it would be awesome to get the in Gchat, but it was going to be an Easter egg—a hidden feature. By this time, Google was a very big company and you couldn’t just slip features into products. But I asked Ryan if he could design an animated for Gchat and he came up with one.
Ryan: I have often said that the Gmail emoticon is my proudest achievement. I knew that for years to come I could go to shopping malls and sign autographs. If times really got tough I could probably get, like, four people in a local library to be impressed.
Darren: Usually, one engineer writes the code and then sends it to another engineer to review, but this process is public so everyone on the team sees all of the work that’s being done. I wrote the code and sent it to one of my colleagues who I had told before. I said, “I’m sneaking an animated into Gchat. I want you to review it. The title of the review is going be something really boring so no one will want to look at it.” The was submitted. I decided to wait until it went live all across the world before telling my manager. I watched and waited for it to reach 100%, praying that I didn’t break Gmail. If I broke Gmail for animated , people would be super mad.
There were no problems! The first thing I did was send my product manager a like, “Hey, check this out. What do you think?” He thought it was hilarious. I think that was probably one of the last real Easter eggs in Google products. It’s not so secret anymore but if you type ~@~ it swirls into the and the flies go away.
CHAPTER FIVE: GOES MAINSTREAM
Google’s first emoji debuted in October, 2008. A month later, Apple embraced them as well, though at the time American Apple users could only use them if they downloaded an app. In 2010, emoji was officially approved by the Unicode Consortium, which meant that it was accepted industry-wide as a real language. As of 2014, every mobile and desktop operating system supports emoji, including Twitter and Facebook. remains a mainstay, even as the emoji options become more numerous: This June, 250 more emojis were added to the Unicode standard, meaning that they could be transmitted across all devices, once designers create their own versions. And on November 5th, the Unicode Standard announced that its 2015 update would include a spectrum of diverse skin tones, rather than the largely homogenous faces currently available.
Ryan: It would be fascinating to see how many times in a day somebody processes an icon’s meaning. To be literate in modern culture you’re familiar with dozens, hundreds of icons—this thing to eject, this means low batteries, this means I have Wi-Fi. It’s not a language that’s taught in school, but it’s a language you have to know to survive. There’s a continuum of this whole visual way of comprehending the world and emoji are very much a part of that.
Darren: We never expected that it would turn into the worldwide sensation that it is now.
Ryan: How many millions of occasions are there when [the ] is the perfect response to whatever anybody says? In a world where you can only like, star, or plus-one something, don’t you just wish that you could put a pile of on things? Sometimes it feels so right.
A note about the poop emoji: You might think the more modern emoji with the smiling face–similar to Dr. Slump–is more charming. We are sympathetic to that argument, but used Gmail’s original poop emoji throughout the majority of this story for historical consistency.
A note about sources: Sources were identified by the jobs they held during the time discussed. Tong, Momoi, and Germick still work in similar roles for Google. Kishimoto is now a product manager for Android. Lewis left to create the video game startup FutureRetro—where, he says, “no joke, the first game involves poop.”