The Emoji Diversity Problem Goes Way Beyond Race
If you updated to iOS 9.1 last month, you had a happy surprise: over 150 new emoji. Among them were a cheese wedge, a middle finger, a mosque, a synagogue, and a clown face. All were approved by the Unicode Consortium, which will be voting on even more new emoji next May, including an avocado, an owl, a pregnant woman, a croissant, and a “stuffed flatbread” that resembles a pita or a döner kebab.
You probably don’t think about it every time you use the new lion emoji, or select your old favorite—the poop emoji—but with each new vote and following induction, emoji are becoming increasingly politically charged. The presence or absence of emoji both hints at and contributes to cultural visibility and erasure. The emoji selection process must contend with delicate geopolitical issues, like nationhood, ethnicity, religion, and war.
Emoji diversity is not a new conversation. Before last April, Apple was constantly criticized (and rightly so) for its lack of skin color options in its emoji, which was finally addressed in the iOS 8.3 update. But while physical diversity has (somewhat) been addressed, there are other missing emoji that haven’t gotten as much of our attention—namely, culturally diverse emoji. Things like places of worship, popular food, clothing styles, transportation methods are still generally very westernized in appearance.
“People connect with emoji on a personal level—they use them to show their smiles and their hearts,” says Tyler Schnoebelen, founder of Idibon, a text analytics company, who also wrote his Stanford Doctoral thesis on emoticons. “It can be a pretty intimate connection, which is why people want to look at emoji and see the things that are meaningful in their lives.”
With the inclusion of the taco and burrito emoji, hundreds of millions of people did see emoji that are part in their lives. To some people, taco and burrito were just fun additions to talk about late-night food runs; for others, they filled a cultural void. Up until now, Mexican-specific dishes were completely absent; emoji has always tilted heavily toward Japanese staples like bento and onigiri. Now, Mexican and Latin American users are better represented, at least in terms of food. To depict tacos and burritos in emoji form is to recognize them as important to a global communication platform. (Though I’m guessing that the political implications of adding a taco emoji weren’t the priority of its biggest advocate, Taco Bell.)
Plenty of cuisines are still absent. Notably, the emoji keyboard lacks many African-specific dishes: no jollof rice, injera, or fufu. But Africa is a major growth market for smartphones. By the end of 2015, the number of mobile phones shipped to Africa and the Middle East is set to exceed 155 million, according to global technology consulting firm International Data Corporation. Will Unicode respond to this development? Perhaps in a year or two, we’ll see, say, a doro wot emoji.
In addition to the much-trumpeted new foods, the iOS 9.1 update quietly added a synagogue, a mosque, the Kaaba, a menorah, prayer beads and a shinto shrine alongside the existing church emoji. Now Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Shinto can talk about specific religious rituals and holidays using emoji. “I’m undertaking the Hajj” could be represented as:
“Happy Hanukkah” could be:
Now, almost all of the world’s major religions are represented in the emoji keyboard.
But the most contentious emoji arena isn’t food, or even religion. It’s flags. From October 2010 until April 2015, there were a limited number of flag emoji, including the Israeli flag—but notably, no Palestinian flag. When the Palestinian flag was added—along with some 200 other flag emoji—it was cause for celebration.
Palestine exists in an unusual limbo in international law. It is recognized by some countries as Palestine, and by others as the Palestinian Territories.
“Technology has been used as a weapon to revolutionize the Middle East, and now it is being used as a weapon to legitimize Palestine,” wrote Palestinian columnist Yara al-Wazir at Al Arabiya earlier this year. “Introducing the Palestinian flag as an emoji is more than just a symbolic gesture.”
First, Palestine—where next? Many Kurdish users, for instance, want a Kurdish flag emoji.
Technology will remain to disappoint me until the day there is a Kurdish flag emoji.
— ڕە 6;گی 6; دارا (@RangeenDara) September 1, 2015
Many Kurds recognize Kurdistan as a nation, but it is not officially a state, meaning it lacks a sovereign government and international recognition as a sovereign entity. But it is possible that in the near future—due to war and disputes in Iraq—Kurdistan might become its own state. Will a Kurdish flag emoji arrive then? And, more broadly, how will Unicode deal with a world of shifting international borders?
“Emoji are a great way to be playful,” says Schnoebelen. But they also help users express their identities, whether in small ways, with foods, or in big ways, with flags. “With new emoji,” he says, “we can let in more people to play.”