Have you ever felt an urge to add an emoji mid work email, essay or even mid conversation? I definitely have (insert lady with hand up emoji here). In a world where conversations are increasingly influenced by digital media, it’s no wonder that the way we communicate has become intrinsically linked with things like gifs and emoji. In fact, thanks to a body called The Unicode Consortium, an organization that governs the standards for things like emoji (yes, that’s really a thing), they now seem almost to act as both mirror and microphone for the social and political issues that are stirring the world outside of our screens.
On August 9th, 2015 18-year-old African-American Michael Brown was shot dead by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. This shooting lead to the Ferguson unrest; riots and protests shook both the state and the rest of the United States and the Black Lives Matter movement picked up new steam in the country. It was on the winds of this movement that The Unicode Consortium proposed an emoji update to address the diversity issue. By February 2016, Apple had introduced its first emoji with different skin tones and so the standard was set – these little images used to describe celebrations, woes, anecdotes and emotions among friends would also describe the state of the outside world and our reaction to it. Emoji had popularised the diversity debate and made communication more real and relevant to people of colour.
By spring of the same year, a new emoji revolution was taking place. In a New York Times piece, journalist Amy Butcher wrote about her disappointment in the emoji system. Wanting to congratulate a friend who had received a tenure she realised that the only professional female emoji were archetypes: the flamenco dancer, the bride and a woman getting a haircut, playboy bunny dancers and of course, a princess with her golden crown. Meanwhile, male emoji were serving on the police force, working construction and even being Father Christmas. Thankfully, campaigners at Google were on it. ‘More than 90 percent of the world's online population use emoji. But while there's a huge range of emoji, there aren't a lot that highlight the diversity of women's careers, or empower young girls,’ they said in a bid to bring the conversation on gender equality to people’s mobile phones. And by summer of that year, they’d got their wish. New emoji were introduced showing women as painters, factory workers, firewomen, judges and scientists. Plus in the name of equality, there is also now a pair of male dancers complete with bunny ears.
There are now more than 1500 emoji and these tiny images are part of a global language. This is why using them as part of the diversity dialogue is so important. Emoji reflect not only what we want to say to our friends in a message but also what we want to say about the wider world. By adding female welders and black astronauts we are allowing people to self-define and aspire to be anything they want. These changes worked to undermine the subliminal messages telling certain groups that they are not allowed to be a part of any particular professional or social space – messages that are still so prevalent in the real world. And while emoji are helping to foster an atmosphere of acceptance and are helping to redefine the conversation on both racial and gender equality, there is still more work to be done.
Disabled charity Scope has been working since 2016 to bring disability visibility into the emoji conversation. Currently, the only disabled emoji image is a wheelchair symbol. However, Scope have come up with brilliant emoji icons that include Paralympic athletes, saying that there is more to disability than an image that is used as a universal disabled toilets sign. The icons include a female flamenco dancer in a red dress with a prosthetic leg, a guide dog and both men and women speaking sign language. In a Twitter poll of 4000 people, Scope found that 65 percent of people felt that one emoji to represent disability is not enough. Perhaps this shows the increasing importance we are placing on the icons. If we want true equality and inclusivity, disabled emoji need to be a part of the conversation too.
A Guardian article has gone so far as to suggest that emoji are the first truly global language. What started as a cute appendix to a text message has morphed into a way of speaking, often without needing any actual words. Images have the power to say so much more than text - it’s crucial that as this global method of communication evolves, we continue to make it as inclusive as possible in the hope that it won’t just improve our chats online but that it might improve the world too.