Last month, Apple added 158 new emojis to iOS, but the emoji keyboard on iPhone — the primary means of accessing each of these characters — remains almost identical to the one we used nearly a decade ago.
Meanwhile, people push for competing interests. Some want more emojis to better represent the diverse world we live in while others are frustrated by the ever-increasing list of characters to scroll past when new emojis push old favorites to the side.
“Just make it stop!” my friend Elle remarked after the most recent update, clearly falling in the latter camp of emoji traditionalists.
The two problems have something in common: An ever-increasing library of emojis has started to push our gadgets to the limit. Too many new emojis make it harder to find what you actually want to use on the keyboard, and the keyboard itself can’t accommodate diverse options.
Some want more emojis to represent things like bagels, some don’t want a single new emoji unless the keyboard improves first.
All these issues need to be considered by the Unicode Consortium, the group responsible for approving new emoji characters each year. Unicode acts as the liaison between users and vendors when it comes to managing which new emojis come out when. (Full disclosure: My site, Emojipedia, is a voting Unicode member, and I participate with the emoji subcommittee.)
With a potential onslaught of new emojis on the way in coming years, is the emoji keyboard up to the challenge?
There are three main groups involved in approving, releasing, and using emojis. First, there’s Unicode, which approves and encodes emojis that will be supported by all major vendors — Apple, Google, and Samsung, for example. There’s no point in Unicode approving new emojis if vendors aren’t going to support them on their platforms.
Meanwhile, those vendors want emojis that address the needs of their customers while remaining in line with their corporate values. They have a clear incentive to address user demand while also juggling how new additions fit on the keyboard and within the memory constraints of a mobile operating system.
Finally, people who use emojis on products like iOS or WhatsApp want, well, a mix of everything. Some want more emojis to represent things like bagels; some don’t want a single new emoji unless the keyboard improves.
Proposals for new emojis, both from companies and the general public, are assessed by the Unicode Consortium to see if they’ll be included in the Unicode Standard. But Unicode doesn’t handle the art direction for emojis; companies are responsible for how any emoji looks on their platform — which is why a smiley face looks different on an iPhone than a Galaxy — and that can make things complicated. Innovation can only go so far: Should any company stray too far from the rest of the pack, they risk drawing ire from their users. Plus, one company changing an emoji’s appearance won’t determine how it is seen by recipients with phones from different vendors.
For example, one of the biggest issues with Apple unilaterally changing its gun emoji to look like a toy in 2016 wasn’t so much the change itself but the fact that Apple was the only company doing it. The result was cross-platform confusion where a toy water pistol could be sent from an iPhone and arrive as a lethal weapon on a Samsung Galaxy. (All major vendors eventually changed their gun emojis to toys in 2018.)
Consider the wine glass emoji: It depicts red wine, not white, which could reasonably arouse the suspicions of a picky sommelier. If Unicode were to approve a new “white wine” character, it would raise other questions: What about rosé? What about stout or pale ale instead of a general beer? This might seem like nitpicking, but when you have a text-encoding standard that is deployed across billions of devices around the world, being thorough isn’t optional.
No one wants to scroll past 52,000 family emojis to get to the lion or baseball.
To take a real example from the latest emoji update: Redheads, it seems, aren’t all that happy that they have been relegated to a single woman or man with red hair (plus skin tones) on the emoji keyboard. The bride emoji wasn’t given a red hair option, though she can have blond or brown hair. That problem extends to all the new hair-based emojis introduced this year. Though there are individual emojis depicting a person with curly hair, white hair, and no hair, you can’t mix and match them with other existing emojis, making it so that there are no options for a curly-haired runner, a red-haired surfer, or a bald police officer.
Things become substantially more complicated when you add skin tones to the mix.
The superhero emoji currently has 12 variants for gender and skin tone (six women, six men). Adding each hair type to those options of tones would take that 12 and make it 60 possible variants. Suddenly, choosing an emoji is like creating a character in The Sims — hardly feasible on a standard emoji keyboard.
While accommodating all the different hairstyles would be a challenge, you could imagine how it would be possible — if Unicode and vendors decided to prioritize it. The emoji keyboard could probably handle four rows of hair types for each emoji if that was deemed a priority. But what if you wanted to mix all of this into the emojis that show more than one person — say, to create a diverse family? Well, it’s all about the numbers.
As of 2018, most vendors don’t permit any emoji with multiple people in it to change skin tones. You can’t create a mixed-race family, and there would be two main design challenges if you could:
- If you “press and hold” to change the skin tone of an entire family, so that every family member gets the same skin tone, it would take 125 new emojis.
- If each individual family member is permitted a different skin tone, the number of emojis required increases to 4,225 families.
Microsoft has some technology on Windows that makes emoji combinations more practical to implement than the pre-rendered designs used by Apple and Samsung. As such, Windows already allows thousands of family combinations in emoji format. But there’s a catch: There’s no interface to add them on the Windows emoji keyboard — which is lucky, actually, because no one wants to scroll past 52,000 family emojis to get to the lion or baseball.
Those who don’t identify with the two current gender options that make up the bulk of the emoji choices have access to three gender-inclusive emojis for a child, adult, and older adult. These were approved in 2017 and effectively serve as a third unspecified gender for nonbinary folk (or anyone who happens to feel these emoji more closely resemble their personal style). These can’t currently be added to a family grouping on any platform nor are they given options for any of the new hairstyles. You can send an emoji of a mechanic, pilot, artist, or student who is a woman or a man but there’s not a gender-neutral emoji option for any of them.
Diversity and representation are incredibly important, but there are real-world constraints that make unlimited diversity practically impossible given how emojis work today. The “press and hold” keyboard couldn’t support so many options, and even if it could, things would get extremely messy if some vendors adopted the diverse options and others didn’t.
But there is good news on the horizon for diversity. An option to allow 55 new emojis for people holding hands is drafted for the 2019 emoji release. Being that there are only two people in this emoji, there are thousands fewer combinations than multi-person families would require.
This might be the nudge vendors need to add new functionality to the trusty emoji keyboard, which could help down the line.
Problems with Solutions
The emoji keyboard is the most visible aspect of the emoji character set because it’s where we can see them all in one place. Apple’s emoji keyboard back in 2008 had just 471 emojis on it, yet it looked almost identical to the iOS keyboard today — which supports 2,776 emojis.
Each new addition to the emoji keyboard is carefully inserted in the place it is deemed most logical, but users sometimes can’t find them. It’s easy enough to find the bagel among the food items, but what about the lab coat, ball of yarn, or abacus?
Diversity and representation are incredibly important, but there are real-world constraints that make unlimited diversity practically impossible given how emojis work today.
And why do we need any of these new objects, anyway? It’s one thing to note that representation is important when it comes to people, but when it comes to objects, perhaps we’d manage fine without the new compass emoji added in 2018.
Unicode has a wide variety of selection factors that go into determining which emoji proposals to approve. These mostly do a good job of filtering out emojis that aren’t likely to be popular or that really can’t be identified at tiny text sizes. The trouble is, an emoji that is superfluous to me might be considered essential to you. Just because I don’t have much use for a petri dish emoji doesn’t mean that no one does. For this reason, Unicode considers many new emojis every year, and it implements many of them.
One feature would really help users sort through them all: search. Google has offered a search option on their Gboard emoji keyboard (that comes installed on stock Android devices) for years, and Apple has emoji search on the Mac.
When it comes to the two most popular phone vendors on the planet — Apple and Samsung — there’s another alternative to scrolling for that perfect emoji, and that is autosuggest. When autosuggest works, it’s great. There’s no need to even open the emoji keyboard. I type “cocktail” and up comes a choice of two cocktail glasses. I type “monocle” and there is the monocle-wearing guy smiling smugly back at me. To get the finger pointing to the left, I type — well, I’m not sure, actually. “Pointing” gives me the single digit raised up; “finger” gives me no choices, and “left” suggests the word “leftovers” in the third segment of the screen where emojis generally appear.
So go on, Apple, let us search.
Another fix would be to let users hide emojis from the keyboard. Unicode doesn’t remove emojis from the Unicode Standard, but there’s nothing saying that every emoji must be shown on every emoji keyboard.
It’s clear that when it comes to emojis for diverse families, couples, or other groupings, the “press-and-hold” function isn’t going to scale for hundreds or thousands of combinations. If diverse families are added to the mix in future years, the emoji keyboard will have to undergo substantial changes.
Increased representation on our personal devices is important, and companies have recognized this by offering alternatives to the Unicode emoji set in recent years. Apple has Memoji, Samsung has AR Emoji, and Google has Minis, which all allow far more customization of individual people than Unicode could ever offer. These can’t be sent inline with text (one of the true reasons standard emojis are so popular), but they do fill a role that Unicode may never be able to.
As Google’s head of emoji Jennifer Daniel puts it, “Sometimes you just really need a pink-haired monocle speckled giant hair bow wearing zombie with a goatee.” That level of detail is not likely in Unicode’s emoji future, but who knows what else might be?