The winding, heated, and absurdly technical oral history of the ginger emoji
In November 2014, a tech-industry consortium announced a new set of emoji that would diversify the physical appearance of the pictograms. “I checked and saw that redheads were just not on there,” says Emma Kelly, editor and founder of the site Ginger Parrot. “I wondered, has no one brought this up? Is there no one at Apple with red hair? Has everyone forgotten about Ed Sheeran?” Kelly fired off a post on her blog, launched a petition on change.org, and fed quotes to The Guardian and other media outlets. But she soon discovered it would take much more than an online protest to get her way.
Emoji are subject to a complex technical bureaucracy. The type and number of new pictograms released each year are strictly controlled by the Unicode Consortium, an international nonprofit organization of companies—including, most notably, representatives from Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Adobe. Unicode’s core mission is to convert the world’s alphabets and symbols into code that all smartphones, desktops, laptops, and computers can read. The dollar sign, no matter the phone or font, is U+0024. The taco: U+1F32E. Websites, email clients, word processors, and other interfaces then transform that code into words and icons—and vice versa. For most of its 27-year history, Unicode was concerned with simple characters—musical and mathematical notations, currency signs, punctuation marks.
Starting a decade ago, this group of accomplished linguists, font designers, and software developers began including the smileys that had become popular across several Japanese telecom companies. Thereafter, these technical overlords were tasked with debating such matters as the prevalence of unicorns and the cultural import of a pile of poop. A deeper look at Kelly’s campaign for ginger representation reveals that they do not accept their responsibility blithely.
Adopting pixelated cuteness
Emoji began in 1999 in Japan, a country with a long history of pictographic language. In 2007, Unicode members started seriously debating how to include stylized picture characters to make it easier to exchange them across platforms. By 2010, the updated Unicode standard, version 6.0, had some 722 emoji.
Michael Everson, linguist; Irish national representative to the International Organization for Standardization, which helps develop Unicode: Emoji were originally these little pixelated images that people could send along with their text messages in order to augment them with cuteness. A lot of people thought all of this stuff was, shall we say, unsuitable for encoding.
Doug Ewell, emeritus member, Unicode Consortium: Are people going to be sending each other face-palm emoji in 10 or 20 years? It’s like encoding a shag carpet.
Everson: We said, OK, if it has to be done, it has to be done.
Ewell: What Unicode ended up doing was to add these emoji to the standard in such a way that it would be possible to interchange them as if they’re characters.
Paul Hunt, font and typeface designer, Adobe Systems; member, Unicode Consortium emoji subcommittee: To your computer, it’s just the same as a letter A or a Greek Alpha. Your computer sees a code that maps to a particular concept. For alphabets and other writing systems, the code matches to letters. For emoji, it maps to a particular little picture.
Everson: We added a whole bunch of emoji and moved on. Nobody knew what was going to happen.
Ewell: We assumed it was not going to grow out of control, and, over the years, it did.
Fred Benenson, author of Emoji Dick, a version of the novel translated into emoji: Integrating emoji into Unicode turned them into a standard that was easy for hardware vendors to implement. Before that, it was just this mess of glyphs—things like hearts, arrows, and cat faces.
Jennifer 8. Lee, co-founder, Emojination, a diversity advocacy group; vice chair, Unicode Consortium emoji subcommittee: The fact that they are not infinitely variable, that there is a very controlled set, makes them a common vocabulary across people and cultures.
Jennifer Daniel, creative director for Google emoji, Google: At first people used them as nouns. Now they’re being used more as punctuation to indicate intent, the way an exclamation point signals enthusiasm. Emoji allow people to text the way they talk, with tone and emotion.
Diversifying the emojiverse
Each year, Unicode approves more emoji, but the organization doesn’t determine their final appearance. That’s up to vendors such as Apple and Google. As these companies began to render their versions, user expectations changed.
Marcel Danesi, anthropological linguist, University of Toronto: Early emoji removed issues of gender, race, and class completely. They were abstract symbols devoid of any of those connotations.
Everson: When Apple released a version of iOS with emoji in 2011, everyone thought it was cute and fun. Except Apple had screwed up skin color, because they hadn’t made all the people blue Smurfs or yellow Simpsons. They made them white people.
Danesi: If you’re using these a lot, one day you’re going to say, I’m tired of using the basic yellow smiley face. It doesn’t reflect my own skin.
Daniel: People don’t want to go to the emoji keyboard and not recognize themselves.
Everson: I proposed a fix that if we needed five grandfather emoji, let’s just encode five grandfather emoji. What Unicode ended up doing was encoding five skin-tone patches that relate to the Fitzpatrick skin-burning scale.
Thomas B. Fitzpatrick, dermatologist (1919–2003), “The validity and practicality of sun-reactive skin types I through VI”: A simple working classification was proposed, based not on hair or eye color, but on what patients say their responses are to an initial sun exposure.
Unicode Technical Standard #51: Five symbol modifier characters that provide for a range of skin tones for human emoji were released in Unicode Version 8.0. (Ed. note: Fitzpatrick’s two fairest tones, I and II, share a modifier.)] ED-11 emoji modifier: a character that can be used to modify the appearance of a preceding emoji in an emoji-modifier sequence.
Hunt: These things happen below the level of user interaction. The user just uses their emoji keyboard, and it will spit out the corresponding Unicode sequence for “princess with medium skin tone” or “woman runner with dark skin tone.”
Everson: It was a way of dividing this thing up reasonably. There was a problem, and Unicode fixed it. It works, and people seem to be happy using it.
Great, but what about the hair?
With the release of version 8.0 in June 2015, Kelly and other redheads were fuming. Modern Family actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson tweeted his disappointment, and comedian Scott “Carrot Top” Thompson wrote a think piece for Time. As far as Unicode was concerned, dye jobs weren’t part of their job description.
UTS #51: It is beyond the scope of Unicode to provide an encoding-based mechanism to represent every aspect of human-appearance diversity that emoji users might want to indicate…. No particular hair color is required; however, dark hair is generally regarded as more neutral because people of every skin tone can have black (or very dark brown) hair.
Kelly: I was quite angry at the time, so I fairly hurriedly created a change.org petition. Eventually we gathered more than 20,000 signatures. Unicode originally told me that what these images look like wasn’t actually up to them, that it was up to Apple and Google and the others.
Daniel: There are differences in how we render them. Apple’s emoji are highly rendered and realistic. Google’s are more illustrative and playful. The circles, for example, aren’t perfect circles. They’re kind of squishy and soft. But that softness helps because it makes the illustrations friendlier.
Kelly: We wanted to physically go down there. We put out a call for redheads. A group of them went to Apple headquarters and delivered the signatures in a carrot-shaped USB drive.
Apple Inc.: Did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Kelly: Of course, Apple being Apple, we have not heard anything from them. Someone has got it somewhere there.
Daniel: Ultimately, vendors like Google are at the mercy of what Unicode passes and fails. The amount of emoji being added every year, and which are added, is really up to them.
Lee: We want to slowly ratchet it up as opposed to dumping them all at the same time. Fifty to 70 per year is a good target.
Hunt: The process starts with a proposal. If you want a new emoji to go into the Unicode standard so everyone in the world can use it, you need to create a report. Unicode provides a template, which is on its website.
Benenson: I think it’s kind of a bar for people who care about submitting emoji that shows they’re putting thought into whether it should really be an emoji. Adding that little bit of process helps weed out unserious people.
Lee: It’s really not that hard to create a good proposal. If you did reasonably well in high school, you could figure this out. It’s the level of a high school lab report.
Benenson: If it’s a food-related emoji like the oyster, you have to take screenshots of Google search results on oyster versus hamburger to show that it’s popular.
Kelly: I thought it was crazy that I had to do a proposal. It was so obvious that the ginger emoji should be there. So, as a form of protest, I refused to do the proposal.
Lee: It’s not like the emoji subcommittee is rejecting proposals willy-nilly.
Everson: The committee did delete the frowning pile of poo as a candidate. I made a lot of noise about that. Proponents cited reasons such as, “We need this because what if you had digestive issues and wanted to text your proctologist.” Can you not use words? Do you have to send your doctor a picture? What is wrong with you people?
Let there be gingers!
On January 17, 2017, emoji subcommittee vice chair Jeremy Burge, citing social-media and online buzz, submitted a proposal summarizing the group’s options for adding redhead emoji. Gingers were still far from official. Unicode would spend more than a year debating how to implement the hair-color change.
Hunt: We have quarterly Unicode technical committee meetings. That’s where we’ll decide which emoji will progress, how they will be implemented, and what the mechanisms will be.
Lee: The meetings are so long—it’s like C-SPAN but with emoji. It’s four weeklong meetings, and emoji are between one and two hours a day for the first four days. With the ginger, we had to go back to the drawing board three or four times.
Hunt: Part of why it was a difficult problem was that there were many ways this thing could be handled.
Lee: You want a bagel emoji? OK, let’s make an emoji that looks like a bagel. But the ginger—it’s not straightforward. What are we coding? Redheads could be old, babies, boys, girls. How do you approach that? Modifier characters are used in only one situation: skin tone.
Mark Davis, lead internationalization architect, Google; president and co-founder, Unicode Consortium: Changing the architecture by adding more modifiers typically requires code changes that might be difficult to retrofit to older devices.
Hunt: It was going to be easier if the hair colors were treated as Zero Width Joiner (ZWJ) sequences—the sequence that involves several emoji glued together.
Davis: Existing and older systems know how to handle ZWJ sequences without code changes.
Unicode Technical Report #51: The U+200D Zero Width Joiner can be used between the elements of a sequence of characters to indicate that a single glyph should be presented if available.
Lee: If you don’t have the underlying emoji to glue together, then you still need to create the atomic-level ones—say, the happy woman on her own. One concern was, what does it look like when one piece of the puzzle is missing?
UTR #51: When an emoji ZWJ sequence is sent to a system that does not have a corresponding single glyph, the ZWJ characters are ignored, and a fallback sequence of separate emoji is displayed.
Everson: At one point, they suggested combining the person with a separate red-hair glyph. Basically, they were suggesting encoding scalps, which I thought was offensive. We got that changed to a dotted face with the hair on top—a way of showing that it’s a control character if the sequence unravels, so you’re not sending someone a disembodied scalp.
Bagels, lobsters, super-villains, and redheads
Unicode announced on February 7, 2018, it would add 157 new emoji, including superheroes, the infinity sign, and red, white, curly, and bald hairstyles. As Kelly awaits Apple’s digital gingers, Unicode members and designers ready their keyboard updates and ponder the future of emoji.
Hunt: The process isn’t completely finished at that point. Once the Unicode standard becomes official, then Apple and Google and the other vendors will take that information and do their own renditions.
Daniel: We consider a range of questions when designing an emoji. Is it abstract enough for you to relate to? Or is it overly specific? If it’s a person, did we get the expression right? Some emoji are really difficult and require lots of back and forth.
Hunt: Once the vendors update their operating systems with the new characters, people can start using them on their smartphones.
Daniel: Some you just kind of nail. The redhead is fairly straightforward from a design standpoint: You just change the hair color to red or orange.
Kelly: I felt relieved, mostly because it had been going on for so long, and I was very happy that all the work we’d done had finally paid off. It was long and confusing, but hey, we got there in the end.
Benenson: I want people to sympathize a little with Unicode. This is a standards body of software developers, and due to a fluke in corporate history, it ended up in charge of this extremely salient cultural touchpoint and creative expression.
Hunt: It’s a lot of work, but it’s still fun. That’s part of the reason why people love emoji. They’re fun, and it will be interesting to see how this does evolve and how it changes the way we think and talk and communicate.
Everson: I don’t think 70 years from now people will be sending each other pictures of eggplants to discuss certain matters. I don’t think 70 years from now people will be sending each other colorful emoji at all.
Daniel: Really, I’m interested in finding a way to mix and match these emoji to create something new. In the same way language and slang evolve, I hope there’s a way for emoji to evolve.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2018 Tiny issue of Popular Science.