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Can you make money off of emoji?


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More than 150 new emoji have been approved by the emoji standards body called Unicode. A redheaded person, a llama, toilet paper and bagels are just some of the new symbols. It’s a big deal if you happen to be a redheaded llama farmer, but also because the release of new emoji is a carefully coordinated situation that requires approval from an emoji standards body called Unicode. And a design process that’s specific to every operating system and, at least so far, no money changing hands. Jeremy Burge is Chief Emoji Officer for Emojipedia — which is kind of like Merriam-Webster for emoji. Burge spoke with Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood about whether anybody makes money off emoji. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Jeremy Burge: There are companies out there that do make money, but the emojis you see on the phone they’re not really a money-making product. The companies make them and support them to sell devices really.

Molly Wood: People don’t necessarily make money off of creating a letter, but they might make money off of creating an entire font. Do you see a time when someone might create an emoji typeface?

Burge: Yeah, I mean that is a real thing. That’s how they’re implemented on phones. I guess we think of them as pictures, but on most phones today they are sitting there in a font that looks different on every phone. They’re not yet interchangeable on your phone. You can’t yet say, “I want to use this emoji font or that emoji font,” but that could be potentially a huge market if people wanted to go down that path.

Wood: There are examples of companies interpreting emoji in different ways for sort of their own marketing purposes, right?

Burge: Every company, they try and do it their own way. So, I guess Google recently decided this week that they’re going to take the egg out of the salad. They’ve got a green salad emoji and it currently has an egg. And they’re saying, we’re going to get rid of that and make it vegan friendly. So, I guess it’s a way of companies expressing their own values in emoji form. Apple a few years ago changed the gun emoji to look like a water pistol or a squirt gun. And now other the companies are doing that too. So, it’s kind of an interesting area where a company gets to express some thoughts about what they think about the world in the little picture format.

Wood: Right now, there are only the two big players I guess, there’s basically Android and iOS. But is it weird that they’re not cross compatible?

Burge: Yeah, a lot of people wonder, “why if I send an emoji of this smiley face when I send it to another type of phone does it look different.” And people often ask me, “why don’t we just have one set?” But whose set would that be? Would Apple be happy to just use Google’s set, or would Apple be happy to let Google their set? I don’t think so. They’re competitors. So, they want any edge that they can have. And if it just comes down to a design, if they think that’s an edge that they have, then they’re going to take advantage of that. But, who knows? Maybe if there’s money to be made in the future there could be an app store for emojis where you can have your own look and feel. Disney potentially could have all the emojis look like Disney characters. I could see that being huge and could work with the current standard.

Wood: Yeah, see that’s going to happen now just because we’ve talked about it. Emoji are unbelievably popular, they’re kind of developing into their own language, tell me why emoji are important? In the grand scheme of everything that’s happening in the world, why is this thing so important to people?

Burge: You know, it seems frivolous on the outside. Sometimes in my job documenting what the emojis look like and how they’re used, people sort of think of it as a frivolous topic. But in a way, it’s like [how] the dictionary is keeping up with trends in language and how we are communicating. I think it is interesting to document how people use the emojis over time. The fact is that the emoji keyboard is the most installed keyboard in the world. So, I think that alone makes it an important factor, that if a company does change — even if it is the egg in the salad —one small thing, that’s affecting billions of phones around the world. That’s what gives it power over, say a downloadable app or something that only some people have. This is affecting everybody when you make a change.

Wood: Well and when you look at it, kind of just as a language, you know as sort of a pictographic language, I mean is it the new sort of Esperanto? Anybody can communicate.

Burge: I love the idea of communicating only in emoji. I mean, I’ve tried it before and it’s a horrific task if you take away all aspects of language and you’re just left with emoji, it’s a mess. It’s a great complement to existing languages, but I don’t really see the day when we can just send emojis back and forth and have a meaningful conversation about our families or our lives or “What do you want to do this weekend?” I think it would end up being pretty basic conversations if we took the letters off the keyboard anyway.

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