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New emoji are about to drop, but where do they come from anyway?
Sep 23, 2021

New emoji are about to drop, but where do they come from anyway?

Jeremy Burge of Emojipedia talks about how emoji get approved and what happens when companies lobby for emoji of their products.

Emoji users: Your vocabulary is about to grow. The Unicode Consortium, a group that approves emoji, has added 112 new ones, including a melting smiley face, a coral reef, an X-ray and more skin tone and gender options, like both a pregnant man and pregnant person. The icons will appear on your phones later this year.

Jeremy Burge is chief emoji officer for Emojipedia — an encyclopedia for emoji. He’s also a member of the Unicode Consortium. Marketplace’s Marielle Segarra talked with him about how emoji get approved, and in particular, do companies ever lobby for an emoji of one of their products? The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Jeremy Burge: It does happen from time to time, and there’s nothing stopping a company proposing an emoji as long as it stands up on its own, right? If you want, or I want, to propose an emoji, we need to prove that it would be well used and that it’s distinctive, and a company has to prove the same thing. What I often see is companies using it as a sort of a marketing campaign, and it’s win-win for them.

Marielle Segarra: What do you think is the value of becoming an emoji, like having a pickup truck emoji or whatever? Is there value there for whatever brand?

Burge: I think there’s a real pragmatic value for having an emoji, even if it’s not of your brand. Let’s say the pickup truck. If you want to discuss it on social media, it’s eye catching, having a little color emoji. Sometimes it makes it [so] you can discuss it in a more playful way, that you have an emoji you can play with and put it with other ones. Just having something that describes your category, if you’re selling something, does make sense. And then obviously, for brands themselves, they get to talk about the journey they’ve been through as well. Perhaps it’s a mark of approval, that if it gets approved, it maybe looks like you’re getting validation from the world that you’re on the emoji keyboard that everyone has. Perhaps that’s validation.

Melting Face Emoji (courtesy of Emojipedia)

Segarra: I mean, I saw some of the new ones. And the one that I thought I might use a lot is the melting face.

Burge: Love that one.

Segarra: Yeah, it’s so funny. It’s like, everything is terrible, like, but I’m still trying to smile through it or something. That’s kind of what it is signals to me.

Burge: That was some of the logic for the proposal of that emoji. The proposal documents for new emojis are public, and it does sort of say it could be used for being a bit hot, but it could also be used for “This is fine, but it’s not really,” or smiling through the pain. It’s very versatile. Some of the new emojis in this set this year show some extra creativity. The smileys in the past have maybe been a bit boring, dare I say, a bit staid. Whereas this year, I have to credit, there’s a new chair of the emoji subcommittee, Jennifer Daniel, who works at Google, and she has been very proactive in trying to get some of these more obscure emojis approved where they don’t have just one meaning, you can use them in lots of different ways. And that’s the appeal.

Segarra: You mentioned that some brands get good publicity from their effort to become an emoji. Can you give me any examples of any campaigns like that?

Burge: This year, we had Tourism New Zealand. They would like a kiwi emoji, the bird, that is, not the kiwi fruit. And I’m not sure if they submitted a proposal themselves. There’s definitely been proposals for a kiwi [bird] before. And yeah, that drives people to say, “Yeah, I love a kiwi, too,” or “I love New Zealand. Why won’t this be added?”

Segarra: OK, so yeah, not just brands, but countries, too.

Burge: I guess. White wine — there’s some company that’s been pushing to have a white wine emoji. And that seems simple to users. I’m not even sure of what the company is. I think a few have [petitioned] over the years. But that’s another thing where it’s a common idea. People often say, “Oh, ‘Why’s the wine red? Why can’t we have a white wine?'” So if a company gets on board with that, again, there’s no downside for them. Either they get what they want, or they get a fun campaign to run on social media.

Segarra: There are a whole bunch of new emojis. Which do you think prompted the most interesting conversations in this round?

Burge: Depends on how you define interesting, doesn’t it? I would say, I guess negative and arguments in the comments-style feedback, it’s definitely got to be the pregnancy options, where there is a new option for a pregnant person, which doesn’t have any gender specified, or a pregnant man. And that tends to draw out the whole works — of people being very supportive, people deliberately trolling and being upset and people being confused and unsure of why that’s been added.

Segarra: How was it received at the Unicode Consortium?

Burge: Unicode’s had, for a few years now, a publicly stated goal of trying to make the emoji keyboard more consistent when it comes to genders in the past. You’d be aware that some emojis only had men doing the jobs or women doing passive roles, and then that was sort of balanced out a few years ago, where there are a lot more women added to the keyboard. But it really enforced the gender-binary way that now there was a woman or a man. And if you just wanted to refer to “I went to the doctor today,” you had to pick the gender of the emoji, which is a little bit absurd, I’d say, if you’re just trying to convey the concept of a doctor. It really was a few years ago that Unicode again, like most things, unanimously decided that it was happy to work towards this goal of making the keyboard consistent for gender, and nearly every emoji now has an inclusive option when no gender is really visible or specified, and then a man and a woman.

Segarra: So there have been reports that Gen Z, which includes people born after 1997, I think, don’t like to use the laughing-crying face emoji. Like, that’s kind of an old millennial thing. I wonder, are emoji ever retired if they aren’t used enough?

Burge: I love the whole “Gen Z hate this emoji” thing, and to some degree it might be true. There’s statistics that show that the laughing-crying emoji is dropping in use over time — whether or not that’s Gen Z’s doing that, it’s kind of hard to quantify. But yeah, emojis aren’t retired. There was a proposal years and years ago to perhaps rank them into sort of a priority list and a lesser list. But I don’t think there was agreement on “Well, which ones would you put in which list?” You know, it’s easy to decide the worst 10 or 20 or 50 emojis, but at some stage, people are gonna get annoyed, right? If you cut off their favorite emoji, what’s the value in it for these companies if they start cutting these off before their competitors do?

Segarra: Yeah. It’s funny, when I heard that Gen Z folks don’t use the laughing-crying face, then I stopped using it. Because I was, like, “Oh, I don’t want to be old.”

Burge: I’ve had so many people get mad at me for covering this topic about Gen Z and this emoji. And I haven’t particularly weighed in. I’m not saying you can or you can’t use it. I think it’s fine. If you want to use it, it’s a popular emoji. But merely just me reporting that Gen Z don’t think it’s a cool emoji and think it’s overused, I’ve had so many people come up to me day to day and be like, “Oh, you’ve ruined this emoji for me now. I can’t use it now. You know, I’m thinking I’m uncool if I use it now. So now I don’t know what to do.”

Segarra: Yeah, that’s me.

Burge: What do you use instead? Have you found an alternative?

Segarra: Sometimes I just use the crying face and mean it as laughing-crying.

Burge: The new No. 1. That’s now the top emoji, the actual crying face.

Segarra: Is it?

Burge: People get very upset. Yeah, people get very mad when we define it this way. It’s the whole prescriptive definition. People want to say, “This emoji. That’s meant to be the sad one.” And sometimes they get kind of upset when we say, “No, no, it can be both. It can be sad, or if you want to use it as laughing, that’s fine, too. Whereas some people like to see the emoji set in black and white. Therefore, it has a set meaning; you have to use it that way. And that’s just not how they work.

A collage of new emojis from Unicode 14. These include from left to right a glass pouring liquid, a slide, a lotus, bubbles, x-ray, disco ball, pregnant person, melting face, biting lip, heart hands in a dark skin tone, bleached coral, a troll, a life raft, and a robin's nest filled with eggs on a branch.
A collage of new emojis from Unicode 14. (Collage by Sasha Fernandez; emoji courtesy Emojipedia).

Related Links: More insight from Marielle Segarra

First of all, I thought I was being original with the whole crying face thing but. … Thank you, Jeremy Burge, for showing me how basic I am 🙂

There are 112 new emoji — here’s a link to them and to Emojipedia, where you can read all about the emoji that already exist and how they’re generally used. Like there’s the upside-down smiley face, a personal fave, and Emojipedia says it’s “commonly used to convey irony, sarcasm, joking, or a sense of goofiness or silliness.” Which, yeah, pretty much.

Here’s a link to a Buzzfeed story about the Gen Z aversion to the laughing crying-face emoji. Apparently for some it’s a deal breaker? Like they won’t even date a person who uses it?

And “The Indicator” from Planet Money did an entire episode about Ford’s push to get a pickup truck emoji approved by the Unicode Consortium. Apparently there is a whole world of dark money behind the emoji you see on your keyboard. Like the taco? It appeared after some hard lobbying by Taco Bell.

And we’re also sharing a story from The Verge about an ER doctor who’s been pushing for more medical emoji to help people communicate. Things like intestines, a stomach, a kidney. Also crutches or a pill box. The argument is that these could help doctors communicate with their patients, especially ones who don’t speak the same language or communicate in the same way. Because you can use emoji for more than joking around. Some of those suggestions, by the way, made it into the latest round of emoji.

We want to hear from you. What emoji do you want added? Or do you think should be retired? Call or text us at ‪(802) 877-TECH. Or you can email us at mptech@marketplace-dot-org.

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