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Smirking Cat Face, Bento Box, Tornado. Where Do Emoji Come From?

The tiny symbols that are so integral to digital culture undergo a strict vetting process by Unicode.

Smirking Cat Face, Bento Box, Tornado. Where Do Emoji Come From?
[Photo Illustration: Joel Arbaje for Fast Company, Source: The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo]

Before that taco, poop, or eggplant emoji found its way on to your phone, a group of people in a boardroom voted on it.

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The world’s emoji are the responsibility of Unicode, a nonprofit group founded in the early ’90s with the goal of making sure that all of the characters in the world can be represented on computers.

“It actually started, like a lot of things, because the alternative was so very painful,” Mark David, cofounder and president of Unicode, tells Fast Company. “At the time we started, different countries and different companies had their own system of representing text and these systems were incredibly painful to read and to support. So what we came up with was a mechanism where we could support all the languages at one time.”

That means that characters look somewhat similar on your iPhone, Mac, Windows PC, Android phone, and Chromebook, and all those devices can understand each other. It’s not something many of us ever think about, but it’s exceptionally important. In the decade that followed Unicode’s inception, computers switched over to using Unicode, which became even more necessary with the rise of the internet.

Most of what Unicode does today is collect information about the world’s languages and writing systems and figures out how they can be displayed on computers. Emoji are just a small part of that.

“We added emoji because of the need to inner-operate with systems in Japan originally,” says David. Of course, now emoji have grown into so much more. From football to jack-o-lantern, each new emoji starts with a simple pitch.

“Basically, people submit proposals and there’s a subcommittee that’s set up to just to look at proposals that people make,” David says.

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The subcommittee meets via phone each week and discusses not so much whether the world really needs a particular new emoji, but rather whether that particular emoji meets the group’s standards. There are a number of reasons an emoji might get the ax at this stage. For instance, Unicode doesn’t accept any emoji that represent brands. So if a bottle of Coke or a pint of Guinness were submitted, they would be rejected here. However, a generic-looking soda or beer might make the cut.

The subcommittee vets proposals before they’re brought before the technical committee, which meets quarterly. That group considers factors such as whether an emoji would be used by a large group of people and is necessary to the language of emoji. For instance, is a cat symbol vital to the emoji lexicon or would a dog work for both animals? Those considered viable choices are added to a candidate list.

“What we are doing at this point is, in November of each year, we take all of the candidates that we’ve gotten and we prioritize those and come up with a list of what will be added to Unicode in June of the following year,” David says.

The people who make the final decision are members of Unicode, typically representatives from larger companies and governments. Since Unicode is about much more than emoji, voting members are deeply concerned and involved with the internationalization of software. Final decisions are made in a boardroom with somewhere between 20 and 40 people.

Unicode currently supports more than 128,000 characters, covering all modern languages and some historic ones.

Unicode does more than just deal with characters like the letter R or a graphic of a heart. It’s also responsible for maintaining the infrastructure that your phone or laptop uses to read those languages. When you check the date or the time on your smartphone, for example, you can read it in part thanks to software that Unicode has helped develop.

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“Our principal goal is to make sure that all of the characters in the world can be represented on computers,” David says. That’s an enormous job—and Unicode could use your help.

Unicode has a program called Adopt a Character, which allows people to donate money to develop additional resources for fiscally disadvantaged languages like Egyptian hieroglyphs and Mayan script, which were both supported by donations.

“If you look at the languages in the world, there are literally thousands of modern languages, but a lot of languages really aren’t supported well on computers,” David says. “Nowadays it’s really important for people to be able to use their own language on cell phones and other computing devices… We do a lot of work to support languages around the world and we welcome anyone’s contributions to that.”

About the author

Emily is a journalist based in San Francisco.

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