The first thing to greet me is a half-deflated poop emoji, hunched over and glaring into my soul.
Its wide, glistening pupils remind me of a veteran raver who hasn’t slept for days. A few feet away, emoji balloons line the stage in a crooked arch. I recognize most of the decorations from aisles 3 and 4 at the Party City in NYC’s Union Square, where I spend far too much time.
I’m at Emojicon, which I pictured in the previous days as a cousin to Comic-con—a lavish event thrown by BIG EMOJI, packed with vendor halls and costumed emoji fanatics. The type of place where you might find booths by Tinder and Bumble, staffed by eager twenty-somethings handing out 🍆 and 🍑 emoji hats, ushering in a world where sponsored sexts have come to life.
These assumptions start to shift in the Lyft ride to Brooklyn, as I think more about the fact that the second-ever Emojicon isn’t being held at a gigantic convention center, but The Bell House, a gritty music venue in industrial Gowanus, nestled between the lumber yards and warehouses that line the neighborhood’s unnaturally swampy canals.
Instead of a corporate bacchanalia, I enter a DIY affair. Just a few rows of cold, black metal chairs and a projector that would consistently show the wrong slides. All of the presentations had been converted to Google Slides at the last minute, which—hilariously and tragically—meant that emoji often showed up on-screen as strange silhouettes or empty boxes. The only lunch option is a single sushi truck, which feels highly questionable in the scorching July heat.
I got the Emojicon assignment by surprise, just two days earlier. The Observer tasked me with writing the kind of rollicking gonzo essay taught in freshman non-fiction seminars (or at least that’s how I interpreted it, while rolling around on a bed of dog-eared David Foster Wallace paperbacks). It was a flattering and terrifying assignment, and I had to stop myself from pointing out that I’m just a bro from New Jersey who listens to way too much Drake. I considered buying emoji swag to fit in—I’ve always been partial to 🔥. But I decided against it. After all, wouldn’t showing preference for one emoji over another constitute a breach of journalistic ethics?
Emoji are serious business, and one of the biggest cultural phenomena of the past decade. Ten years ago, few people in North America knew about emoji, let alone texted them to their mom. Today, over 5 billion emoji are sent on Facebook Messenger each day, and Facebook’s platform constitutes just a small percentage of all time spent on emoji-enabled platforms. Ninety-two percent of online users use emoji. By some measures, emoji is the fastest-growing language in history.
As a neophyte of hardcore emoji culture, Emojicon conjured all sorts of questions. Where do emoji come from? And who gives up a sunny July Saturday to celebrate them? As a writer who recently published a book without a single emoji, would I be considered the enemy? And in a world where the percentage of adults who actually read has been declining sharply, do we really want more emoji?
The first Emojicon session kicks off in ten minutes, but the only people in the hall are a contingency from Argentina, who rush at me holding glasses of mate, a classic South American caffeine drink. They’re there to build support for a mate emoji, and save us from the white-washed emoji duopoly of the ☕ and 🍵.
By 20 minutes after the scheduled start time, though, the small room is full of about 80 emoji enthusiasts—a motley crew of millennial internet academics, tech nerds, and designers. Emojicon feels much more like a grassroots political gathering than a polished convention. This becomes even more apparent when Emojicon’s ringleaders, Jeanne Brooks and Jennifer 8. Lee (“8.” is “good luck” in Chinese), take the stage. They ask who’s heard of Emojination, the group they founded, and is throwing the event. Only a dozen hands go up.
Emojination began two years ago when Lee, a former New York Times reporter and cofounder of a literary studio called Plympton, wondered why there wasn’t a dumpling emoji. It was a damn good question. And so, she looked into how to bring one to life.
Lee soon discovered all official emoji are controlled by the Unicode Consortium, which sounds like a government agency from an Orwell novel, but is actually a 501(c)(3) founded to bring together different tech companies to create a standard code for language. The goal: to ensure that text and symbols appear the same across devices.
The Consortium was shrouded in mystery, but Lee soon found a form online that would let her join as a non-voting member for $75.
The Consortium has been been described as the “shadowy overlords” of emoji by the LA Times. But in reality, they’re just a group of 20-ish Silicon Valley-ers. They’re mostly white, mostly male, and they meet in a sterile conference room once a week. They were surprised and excited to see Lee, a young, funny journalist. “They were like, ‘Who are you? Where are you from?’” Lee explains. “It was like showing up to church for the first time.”
The fact that the approval of emoji was being controlled by this small, homogenous group troubled Lee. She reached out to Brooks, whom she was working with on a journalism project called Hacks/Hackers, to help. They wanted to build public awareness of the bizarre way emoji are regulated and approved, and wrestle control away from a group that was less diverse than a Dave Matthews concert.
After all, it’s not hard to draw a line between homogeneity of Unicode and the limited number of cultures represented in the 2,823 emoji the organization has approved. Save for sushi, food emoji are western. Until recently, you could often only choose a human emoji character who came across as white. There are eight different kinds of trains—because old white guys are weirdly obsessed with trains?—but no period emoji or birth control emoji. And in emoji world, interracial couples don’t exist. (Although, as Lee assures the crowd during a session devoted to the topic, the Consortium is working on that one. Because there are five different skin tones on the Fitzpatrick scale and two genders in emoji world, there are 55 possible couple combinations, which creates a lot of UX complexities.)
“If you want an emoji passed, we will show you the way,” Lee tells the crowd to kick off the event. But as I’ll discover throughout the day, that’s easier said than done.
Gretchen McCulloch is a classically trained linguist, but when she was supposed to be writing her dissertation, she spent a lot of time screwing around on the internet.
It’s a field that’s served her well. She’s become a go-to source for brands and media companies when they’re looking for a source on internet culture. She even won a book deal with Penguin, Because Internet, that’ll come out sometime next year (and hopefully won’t be confused with the much-maligned Childish Gambino album, which the ever-hip editors at Penguin are either throwing shade on, or just missed completely.)
McCulloch is the rockstar of Emojicon—by far the best speaker and the biggest expert at the event. I meet her backstage, hoping to make the most #woke impression possible. Why are emoji controlled by this mysterious group of white tech bros? I ask.
“They didn’t set themselves up to be the smiley face people,” she explains.
In the simplest terms, it’s a bizarre accident that the Unicode Consortium serves as the gatekeepers for emoji—one that’s made emoji creation and approval one of the most illogical and inefficient processes in tech.
The Unicode Consortium launched in 1987 to create a code that would ensure that text characters translated across devices. It began with text alphabets (English, Cyrillic, etc.) and mathematical symbols. This is the type of work the Unicode engineers loved—ensuring that all languages, even ones only spoken by a couple thousand people, would work across devices.
But then Shigetaka Kurita came along.
In 1999, Kurita, a designer and engineer for Japanese phone operator DoCoMo, saw that people were sending pictures to each other via text. He had a simple idea. What if you could assign a code to little pictures, just like text? Users would select a heart, but the phone would see it as a code, and thus, it could easily send that code to another device and tell it to display a heart.
People loved it. DoCoMo soon designed and programmed 176 different symbols, which Kurita called emoji, a combination of the Japanese e (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”). It gave DoCoMo a huge advantage over competitors like Softbank. And so other Japanese carriers started adopting emoji, too.
Initially, the Unicode Consortium ignored emoji. “At first Unicode said no one gives a crap about these little pictures,” explains McCulloch. “They were like, ‘we have more and more obscure writing systems to code.’ Why are we doing smiley faces?’”
But by the late 2000s, developers from Apple and Google started to apply pressure. In 2007, Google petitioned the Unicode Consortium to recognize emoji as a writing system. In 2009, two Apple engineers, Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, followed with a proposal of 625 emoji that should be adopted. In 2010, Unicode relented. The next year, Apple introduced an emoji keyboard, and Android followed in 2013. The emoji craze was on.
For the 12 tech companies with voting rights on the Unicode Consortium, this should have been Christmas. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft, SAP—go to any of their conferences, and they’ll brag about innovation and disruption until you want to throw your phone in a vat of acid and join an Amish community. And suddenly, these tech giants were given an insane opportunity—instead of just being responsible for encoding existing languages, they had the power to create an entirely new one.
For an industry that’s addicted to telling people they’re making the world a better place, the opportunity to create a universal sign language seems like a gift from heaven.
And yet, the process for adding emoji remains in the stone age. Anyone can propose an emoji, but they have to fill out a long Word file that resembles a mortgage application. Voting representatives from the company show up haphazardly, and most proposals take two years before they’re approved.
On stage at Emojicon, Lee—vice-chair of the non-voting sub-committee—reveals that we won’t see many new smiley face emoji this year because the guy in charge of that started a new company and just “ghosted.” And according to McCulloch, Instead of implementing more diverse representation on the committee, the tech cos have continued to appoint the same white-bread engineers. “[Unicode] has a diversity problem because Silicon Valley has a diversity problem,” she explains.
And until Emojination came along, no one really cared. “They were toiling around merrily in obscurity,” McColloch explains. “No one gave a crap about unicode.”
But if Emojicon has its way, that’s going to change. It ushered through over 100 emoji last year, including the dumpling and the hijab, broccoli and DNA. Their mission is to push through as many worthy proposals as possible by bringing more emoji activists into the fold.
But are more emoji actually a good thing?
Every time I read a new story about how “post-millennials”—the generation born between 1997 and today—use emoji more than the Kardashians use lip filler, the same worry creeps into my head. Are emoji bad for us?
This is a seductive viewpoint, no matter how old you are. I’m a 30-year-old (millennial!), but I’m also a writer. I love language. The idea that my (theoretical) kids will grow up writing in pictographs instead of sentences makes me cringe. Am I going to have to sit them down one day, and have a talk about the eggplant emoji?
Cultural diversity and representation for all cultures, sexualities, and genders in emoji is a no-brainer. But if the emoji revolution picks up and we end up with an emoji for every word, will we usher in a post-literate world?
Plus, if emoji wipe out words, what are whiteboy English majors like me left with, especially when we’ve already passed our ultimate frisbee peak?
Paul Hunt has a message for people like me.
Hunt is a designer at Adobe and a rep on the Unicode sub-committee. In 2016, Hunt helped bring more gender-inclusive emoji to Unicode 10. He takes the stage and begins by addressing skeptics, showing an article from the Guardian, “Emoji is dragging us back to the dark ages, and all we can do is smile”.
The piece argues that “after millennia of painful improvement, from illiteracy to Shakespeare and beyond, humanity is rushing to throw it all away. We’re heading back to ancient Egyptian times, next stop the Stone Age, with a big yellow smiley grin on our faces.”
And Hunt thinks that’s BS.
“The people who made these arguments wanted to put themselves in a privileged status and paint themselves as more educated and literate. Their arguments boil down to orderly is good, and the use of emoji is chaotic and destructive,” he says.
The argument is something that McColloch hits me with backstage as well. I’m defensive of the proper written word because I grew up coddled by English teachers who told me I was special for my ability to write eloquently in proper English. But in fact, that’s not the purpose of language at all.
“This is a false dichotomy,” Hunt argues. “The very nature of language is all about transcendence. It allows us as a human species to cooperate, to share our own personal experiences with each other so we can as a people learn and grow.”
As Hunt continues his presentation, I start to convert. The most compelling argument for emoji boils down to this: 70 percent of our IRL communication as humans is non-verbal. Facial cues, hand gestures, body language, that sort of thing. But as we continue to talk to each other less in person and more via text, non-verbal communication gets lost. And that’s where emoji come in. They add context to our speech, adding a descriptor that clarifies if we’re saying something seriously or playfully. This is why, according to Emojipedia, the most-used emoji are gesture emoji, used to add context to text. And over half of the top 200 emoji strings (such as 😂😂😂 ) are gestures as well.
Anyone with a smartphone and a dating life knows this phenomenon. When I text my girlfriend with news that, say, I can no longer go to the beach on Saturday as planned because I decided to take a last-minute assignment covering an emoji convention, those three ellipses bubbles that pop up in response send a pit in my stomach, as if I’m playing a slot machine that has the power to ruin my week.
An “ok” response on its own is just about the worst thing a neurotic Jewish boy like me can get. Ok can mean ok … but it just as likely means, “Ugh, screw you, we had plans.” An ok with 😀 though? That’s a jackpot winner, meaning you’re in the clear. An ok and a 😡 or 🙄? I’m going to have to do some serious work to dig myself out of the doghouse.
As Hunt explains, emoji is not a replacement for language; it’s a supplement to it. When McCulloch takes the stage, she hammers home this point as well: “If I came up here and said grinning face winking face eggplant thumbs up, that wouldn’t be a very good talk,” she says.
This is something that a lot of brands and public figures, who overthink emoji or have social media managers who aren’t fluent in emoji, struggle with when trying to integrate emoji into their social media strategy. The most classic example is when Hillary Clinton came under fire during the Democratic Primaries in 2015 for tweeting, “How does your student debt make you feel? Tell us in 3 emoji or less.”
It came across as condescending, contrived, and tone-deaf, in part because it misunderstood how people use emoji completely.
In other words, if I want to continue to grow and adapt as a writer, grow my Twitter following past 10,000, and write pieces that are 🔥🔥🔥, I better start viewing emoji as a weapon ⚔, not the enemy.
Lunch brings an opportunity to see the sun again, but also to embrace a new, emoji-friendly me. My photographer, Giacomo, and I play with an AR exhibit that gives us a disturbingly large emoji head.
I check out stunning celebrity portraits by Yung Jake made entirely of emoji.
And at the face-painting station, I throw journalist ethics out the window and show off my love for the fire emoji.
And most emphatically, I eat a cupcake that is literally an anthropomorphized piece of poop.
As I wander around chatting with people, wearing my flame emoji and a shit-eating grin, it dawns on me just how little people understood about the emoji world. Just by being there, the attendees probably constituted the most emoji-obsessed people on earth. But few even knew Emojination existed, or opaque way these characters that dominate our lives get made.
Take Nora Hamada. Two months ago, she got an event newsletter highlighting an emoji workshop led by Lee, and dropped by on a whim.
“I learned about the process of pushing forward emoji that are more inclusive for everyone,” she explained, “and I thought what do I want to see in the world that doesn’t exist? There’s no condom emoji, nothing to represent feminine hygiene.”
Inspired, Hamada submitted a proposal for a birth control emoji with the help of her friend, Megan Giller, as well as Emojination. For her, the need was clear. “People talk about reproductive health. Couples talk about birth control. People set birth control alarms on their phone. Emoji is meant to represent language. Some of it might be taboo in certain parts of the world, but we shouldn’t be censored from expressing it.”
For Brooks and Lee, proposals like Hamada’s are the whole point. The Unicode Consortium may be a weird, patriarchal oligarchy, but that’s mostly by accident. The system may be opaque and archaic, but new perspectives get involved, who knows what this colorful language could become.
“There’s a real disconnect [on Unicode], but we have an opportunity to put some real pressure on them,” says Brooks, Emojination’s cofounder. “The grassroots nature means that people have all the tools to move it forward themselves.”
To end the day, I join the Emoji Spelling Bee. I’m excited. I love games, to an exhausting degree. My girlfriend nicknamed me Mr. Peanut Butter, because I’m a Golden Retriever but also gainfully employed, for reasons people can’t totally understand. And as you can imagine—since I’m the type of person who spends his Sunday writing a 3,000 word essay about Emojicon—I was really into Spelling Bees as a kid, irrationally sure that my dominant victory would make whichever girl I had a crush on that year see the light.
The game is basically reverse Pictionary: everyone gets a prompt, and you have to tweet the best emoji translation. The prompts are fun, liberal, and full of pop culture references—“I only love my bed and my mama, sorry,” (Drake), “I’m in a boss bitch mood,” (Cardi B), “Make America Gay Again,” (definitely not Mike Pence). I’ve never been worse at a game in my life, and I am very aware that I only use the nine emoji in my most frequently used section.
As I desperately scroll through a bunch of blonde white dudes looking for a decent facsimile for “boss bitch mood”, I realize that we could definitely use more emoji. For boss, the professional emoji with jobs (construction worker, detective, chef, teacher, painter, pilot, princess) seem straight out of Pleastantville. And there aren’t nearly enough sassy emoji to get the “boss bitch mood” quite right. Sure, we have “person tipping hand” (💁♀️💁♂️), but he/she isn’t nearly enough to capture all the different ways we sass.
But I am also totally certain the Unicode Consortium has never tried to capture “Bad Boss Bitch” in emoji. Ten hours into Emojicon, I finally get it: that’s the whole point.
Epiphany aside, I really do suck at this game. But then there’s a prompt, For “War on the Media”, I tweet 💂♀️⚔📝. I’m certain the judges will love my concise, clever answer.
I do not win.
On Twitter, my friend Jay sees my tweet and replies. “Culture has died.”
I have to disagree. Inside Emojicon, a new resistance is just being born 👶—a movement that might seem completely trivial, but could impact the future of the fastest-growing language in history. Emojination is going to keep pushing forward. As for their detractors? I don’t think the Emojicon faithful really give a 💩