Emojis have become an integral part of our daily communication. So much so that it’s hard to imagine a time before the characters graced our screens. But they do have an origin story, and it’s underpinned by a fascinating journey across the globe (Spoiler Alert: Apple didn’t invent emojis). Join me as we uncover where emojis originated and why they were created.
But, before exploring the birth of emojis, we need to acknowledge their predecessors. I’m not talking about hieroglyphs (though you could make the argument that emojis are just a re-birth of the ancient Egyptian writing system). I’m talking about emoticons. If you grew up in the 90s — talking late into the night with your friends on AIM, you may also remember formulating character combinations to make these creative smiley faces. For that you can thank Scott Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon.
In 1982, Professor Fahlman proposed the adoption of joke markers on user posts to an internal online bulletin board (a.k.a. bboard) after noticing that multiple joke posts were being misinterpreted. Text doesn’t effectively convey the context you get from other forms of communication. You can’t experience another person’s vocal tonality, hand gestures, or facial expressions. So, he suggested that :-) be added to joking posts, and :-( be added to serious posts. The trend spread throughout Carnegie Mellon like wildfire, however the emoticons began to take on a different, arguably more evident meaning — pleasure and displeasure. Within months, Carnegie Mellon students were coming up with their own creative emoticons to express a wider range of emotions.
Soon after, emoticons began spreading across the internet. As adoption hit critical mass, Japan gave rise to the next emoticon evolution: the kaomoji (顔文字) in 1986. Translating literally to “face character,” kaomojis were constructed with heavy influence from Japanese anime and manga. The characters focus on conveying more emotion through expressive eyes and mouths. Each character is crafted with letters, characters, and punctuations from multiple languages to extend the range of possibilities — allowing for the world’s first upright emoticons:
But, being the land of innovation, Japan didn’t stop there. In 1999, Shigetaka Kurita, a Japanese interface designer, set out to create a better way to convey complex meaning over text. Being inspired by local road signs and Kanji, (the Japanese character set borrowed from Chinese) he created the first collection of 176 emojis for a popular Japanese internet platform i-mode, operating under the mobile carrier NTT DoCoMo. After witnessing the success of emojis on DoCoMo, Japanese mobile carriers Au and Softbank designed their own set of emojis. However, each carrier’s emojis were proprietary, so there was no inter-carrier compatibility — a problem that would later be solved by an American company.
In 2007, a team at Google requested that the Unicode Consortium recognize and create universal standards around emojis to unify the pictograms cross-platform. Fortunately, that’s exactly why the Unicode Consortium exists. As a non-profit organization, the Unicode Consortium was founded to create a universal character encoding scheme called Unicode in 1987. The text you’re reading on your screen right now is comprised of Unicode characters — and it appears the same regardless of whether you’re reading on a Mac, PC, iPhone, or Android. All modern devices adhere to Unicode standards, so an “a” on my screen will come across as an “a” on your screen. Before Unicode, there were hundreds of competing standards for text encoding — not unlike the problem emojis were facing. After acknowledging the similarities, and with some careful consideration, the original proposal was accepted in May of 2007, and 114 emojis were added to Unicode 5.2.
At this point, emojis remained an entirely Japanese phenomenon, but with the expansion of the iPhone into the Japanese market, Apple took notice. In 2008, Apple released an emoji keyboard to Japanese market with iOS 2.2. One year later, two engineers at Apple (Yasuo Kida, Peter Edberg) proposed the addition of 608 new emojis into the Unicode Standard. The proposal was accepted in 2010, bringing the official emoji count to a staggering 722 with the release of Unicode 6.0.
It’s around this time that the west was exposed to these fun new pictograms. However, it was an arduous process to get emoji keyboards added to an iPhone outside of Japan. Despite the hurdles, it was impossible to ignore the rising popularity of emojis on the internet. So in 2011, Apple added an official emoji keyboard to iOS for non-Japanese markets, with Android following suit two years later.
Given the multiple platforms that have their own emoji implementations, it’s important to note that the Unicode Standard only provides guidelines and a general “core” shape for how an emoji should look. The final implementation is left up to the designers. This is the reason an emoji on an Apple device can look so different from the same one on an Android device. Due to licensing reasons, each company has resolved to design their own brand of emojis, which can have some rather humorous outcomes. In one infamous instance, Google released Android 4.4 which included a unique interpretation for the yellow heart emoji which could only be described as a “hairy heart.” This type of deviation is precisely why the Unicode Standard dictates that emojis remain consistent to their core implementation to allow for clear inter-platform communication. Google later updated their design in Android 4.4.1, and the world rejoiced.
Surprisingly, the direction an emoji faces is another important facet of emoji design. A change of direction can significantly change the meaning of emoji combinations. Take the following example: 🤖🔫👮♂️ — You’d be safe to interpret this as “the policeman shot the robot.” However, if the gun were facing the opposite direction it would make it seem that the robot shot the policeman.
Despite best efforts to create consistent designs and meanings, some emojis have still been lost in translation — or taken on additional meanings. I’ve personally received the eye roll emoji (🙄) to mean the other person was looking at the link/picture/message I’d just sent. The first time I saw it, I (understandably) thought they were annoyed. Another commonly misunderstood emoji is the “hands pressed together” emoji (🙏). It can be interpreted as a high-five, or hands joined in prayer. And, I’m sure you know the alternate meanings behind the eggplant (🍆) and peach (🍑) emojis — if not, don’t Google it at work.
However you interpret an emoji, it’s hard to ignore their cultural impact. Marketers have long understood the impact of emojis and have even begun including them in advertisements aimed towards younger generations. Doing so shows off the brand’s creativity, and can help the company appear more relatable. They’re effectively speaking the consumer’s language. The strategy is undeniably similar to the the localization efforts put forth by companies to translate their message into spoken and written languages of local cultures.
At this point, we’ve navigated through the winding history of emojis, but what about the future? Where do we go from here? You’ll be happy to know that like other languages, emojis are ever-evolving. New emojis are still being added to the Unicode Standard, and it’s not an exclusive process. Anyone can submit a proposal. All it requires is a detailed justification on why the emoji should be added, and four images showing how it should be depicted. Okay... there are some additional considerations and requirements (it can’t further any specific cause, for example), but it’s an absolutely attainable goal. Who knows, maybe you could create an emoji that’ll be used for generations to come.
So I leave you, dear reader, with a question — if you could add any new emoji to the Unicode Standard, what would it be?
Edit: E M pointed out in the comments that after publication, an even older set of emojis has been discovered than those created by Shigetaka Kurita. They appear to be two years older than those created for DoCoMo, though the artist remains unknown. They were designed for the “J-Phone” Pioneer DP-211SW.