Emojis: love them or hate them, you can’t seem to get away from them. 🙂 The smiley face, the thumbs-up, the smiling pile of poop, and the hundreds of other little symbols and pictograms that get used in text messages, tweets, and the like. And tomorrow, June 21, we will have 71 new emojis to play with. Why will there be new emojis tomorrow? And what does this have to do with international law? Read on…
First, a bit of background: while the smiley face is very much an iconic 1970’s symbol (“Have a Nice Day!’), the use of what we would call emoji in electronic communications started in the 1990’s in Japan, for use in cellphone texts. Each little frowny face or thumbs-up, though, needs to be mapped using a common standard, or else it would only be able to be seen on certain platforms (say, an Android smartphone) but not on others (such as a Mac).
Consequently, there is actually an approved set of “official” emojis that can work across multiple software and hardware platforms and that new emojis are released once a year by a standard-setting organization called the Unicode Consortium, “a non-profit corporation devoted to developing, maintaining, and promoting software internationalization standards and data, particularly the Unicode Standard, which specifies the representation of text in all modern software products and standards.” The Consortium’s membership includes Apple, Adobe, Google, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo, among others. By providing cross-platform standards, the Consortium is essentially making the soft law of the interoperability of symbols across different programs and devices. 😎
Proposals for new emojis are made to the Unicode Consortium, which then reviews and decides which symbols should become standard and how they should be encoded. There are currently about 1,300 emojis, with about 70 added each year. (By way of perspective the total “Unicode Standard is mammoth in size, covering over 110,000 characters. “) The list of new emojis being released on June 21 is here. Can’t wait to use the team handball emoji!
But, besides this being an unexpected story of industry standard-making bodies and funny little symbols, one must keep in mind that the Unicode Consortium’s responsibilities go well beyond encoding the broken heart glyph. As NPR reported last year:
The Unicode Consortium’s job has always been to make basic symbols work across all computers and other devices, but the emoji has put the group at the center of pop culture.
“Our goal is to make sure that all of the text on computers for every language in the world is represented,”
getting characters added to the Unicode Standard is a long, drawn-out process. In addition to the original Japanese emoji characters, the Unicode additions included other new characters — such as country maps and European symbols.
What this means is that there is a data file that maps every individual emoji symbol to a Unicode code point or sequence.
But this is just the standardization of the symbols. Supporting emoji, as well as the specific design of the emoji characters, is up to software makers.
Thus, the administrative scaffolding that makes emojis ubiquitous is based on a non-governmental standard-setting body using soft law to allocate Unicode points or sequences to symbols (be they emojis, letters, mathematical symbols, etc.) that are approved by the Consortium. The approval of emojis is simply one example of a set of responsibilities with much broader implications than just whether “nauseated face” deserves its own encoding. (According to the Consortium, it does.)
Besides interest in the process of institutional decision-making in standard-setting bodies such as the Consortium, there is also a question of whether the Consortium’s overall goal of ensuring that the script of every language in the world is represented digitally is in tension the current focus on encoding more and more emoji. Some have expressed concern that this focus on emojis may divert time and resources away from the protection of endangered languages. Peoples who are trying to preserve endangered languages (such as, for example, Native American and First Nation languages) would be greatly helped if the alphabet of that language would be as easy to read across a variety of computer platforms and digital devices as a smiley-face. Consider this an issue of resource allocation. Letterjuice, a Brighton and Barcelona-based type foundry, posted a thoughtful essay on Unicode and language rights, which stated: (more…)