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  • 11.18.14

The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)

Everyone’s favorite emoji began in Japan. But without Google, it may have stayed there.

The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)
[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company]

If the story of the poop emoji’s rise were told in emojis, it would look like this:

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poop
poop-with-eye
thumbs-up

And that’s where our story picks up . . .

CHAPTER ONE: RESISTANCE TO THE poop

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.

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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.

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CHAPTER 2: THE ORIGIN OF THE poop

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Dr. SlumpIllustration: Deviant Art user VICDBZ
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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.

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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 poop

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The Google team had an important decision to make: What would its poop 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 poop 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.

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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.

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CHAPTER FOUR: WHY ONE poop JUST WASN’T ENOUGH

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CHAPTER FIVE: poop GOES MAINSTREAM

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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. poop 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.

poop

A note about the poop emoji: You might think the more modern poop-with-eye 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.”

About the author

Lauren Schwartzberg writes frequently for Fast Company.

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