Re: Coding the Lobster

The importance of emoji for marketing and cultural identity continues to rise. (And why not Zoidberg?)

The Unicode Consortium administers how every script in the world — including ones for dead languages — wind up represented as specific slots in a list of characters to which operating systems refer. This list, a mapping, allows someone in Katmandu to type a character on a Windows machine that, after it winds its way through the æther around the globe, appears the same on an Android display in Hoboken.

Unicode incorporates scripts, which are the representation of languages as letters, logograms, and other kinds of writing elements, which are referred to generally in digital typefaces as glyphs. Thousands of languages are represented in hundreds of scripts. (Not every glyph exists in every font—sometimes in any font. Google’s Noto typeface project will ultimately encompass every glyph in a single set of fonts.)

Beyond the simple western European Latin set of A through Z, numerals, punctuation, and other characters (like ł or Þ), and beyond related alphabets Cyrllic and Greek, Unicode also represents the Han logograms of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other languages of the region; Tibetan and Arabic scripts; and cuneiform and other historic and ancient languages—and musical notation, mathematical symbols, dingbats, and game symbols.

Hooray! People like me!

All things to all people

Unicode also has dominion over emoji, the graphical depiction of things, ideas, and emotions first developed in Japan by Shigetaka Kurita for NTT DoCoMo. Emoji expanded in dribs and drabs as usage spread, but have exploded from hundreds to thousands (counting skin-tone and other combinatiosn) over the last few years when mobile operating systems fully embraced them and wanted a unified way to push forward. The Unicode Consortium has become largely the place where that happened.

Over 11 major releases and many minor ones, we’ve gotten more occupations, better gender representation, more ranges of facial expressions (although I’ll be damned if I can tell grimace from grin in some emoji renditions), and more controversy (like Apple depicting a revolver as a water pistol).

Emoji are a specification within Unicode, like all glyphs representing, and each operating system and even some apps and ecosystems (like Slack and Facebook) have their own drawings. As Unicode updates emoji, they don’t magically appear instantly in each OS, or even at the same time across multiple OSes from the same company—looking at you, Apple [imagine emoji of eyes looking left at Apple]. For instance, if you need a merman, a vampire, a soda cup with a straw in it, or a stylized face barfing, you can use the upcoming iOS 11.1, but it’s not clear when you can in macOS.

Emoji coming to iOS 11.1 (via the Emojipedia)

The consortium runs on bureaucracy, and it moves slowly and with a lot of deliberation. Unicode’s primary mission is the inclusion of glyphs that allow better representation of language and the symbols used in academic fields.

Creating proposals is an involved process, and changes (emoji and otherwise) come mostly from companies with people who have the time and knowhow to manage the paperwork. Outside groups do sometimes take advocacy roles. The Script Encoding Initiative, for instance, works to add less-used languages’ representations to Unicode. It’s helped about 100 scripts make their way into Unicode, and more remain on its list.

But the general public has never had—nor ever before needed—a direct conduit. Then came Jennifer 8. Lee, the head of the Plympton interactive literary agency and a former New York Times reporter, and Yiying Lu, illustrator of the legendary Twitter fail whale. They decided Unicode needed a dumpling, which evolved into a symbol that could represent the pocket-style boiled and baked foods that are part of many cultures. Lee became involved in the Unicode Consortium as a non-voting member, and ultimately the Lee/Lu dumpling made its way into the approved set. (I met Jennifer just this last weekend and heard her give a talk about this initial effort and her ongoing emoji work.)

This led in turn to Emojicon, an event in December 2016 that gathered emoji aficionados together, and Emojination, a group that eases the path forward for people with ideas for emoji turning them into formal proposals. They’re responsible for helping shepherd through sauna, hijab, Chinese food takeout container, and yum!—broccoli!

So why a lobster?

Enter the lobster. With the success of countries and cultures getting emoji introduced, it’s no wonder that regional cuisine backers want in, too. You can argue that the lobster is found in many different waters, and that it’s not just for eating. But it’s also a big industry, and a backbone of Maine’s maritime culture. I lived in Maine, and the lobster is not a product, but part of a nurtured and cultivated cycle of life. And delicious, if you like that sort of thing (like Lego Batman).

A senator from Maine, Angus King—also its former governor—advocates for the inclusion of a lobster as a bit of local boosterism in a recent letter to the consortium.

And why not Zoidberg?

I don’t know if the lobster will make the cut. It may not be universal enough in one regard, but emoji foods continue to expand in strange directions, including items that seem awfully specific. The lobster may have a fighting chance to join coconut, pretzel, and “cut of meat.”

A sketch of the lobster emoji submitted with the Unicode proposal (Aphelandra Messer).

While emoji are seen as a bit of fun and color, and often inexplicable to the olds, they have become a cross-cultural and cross-linguistic communications means that opens itself up to the same pressures and needs of peoples worldwide as the broader Unicode set is for representing languages by their scripts.

Things as simple as including a non-gender-binary set of young, adult, and elder faces—coming in a Unicode update—can have a huge impact on the way in which people feel themselves including in technology, society, and conversation.

And Maine fishers want to see their catch in a tweet, too. Bring on the lobster!

The formal lobster proposal