Why Unicode Is Putting Its Emoji Up for Adoption
The Unicode Consortium is a rather mysterious entity. Its stated goal is straightforward: to “enable people around the world to use computers in any language.” The organization tracks every character any piece of computer software around the world could create or display—from the English “A” to the Hebrew “ת” and of course, our beloved emoji. It makes that data available to software publishers, programmers, and organizations eager to support different languages. It’s a complex, world-spanning mission. And an expensive one that could use some extra funding.
Now, Unicode is tip-toeing into the branding world a bit, and allowing people to adopt a character—for a price, and toward a case.
Unicode is launching a fund-raising campaign called “Adopt-a-Character,” which allows you to adopt any emoji, letter, number, or symbol on the keyboard. Different characters cost different amounts. Prices start at $100 and go up to $5,000. What’s all the cash paying for? The very big job of representing how the world speaks on the computer.
“The funding we’re looking for goes into two buckets,” says Unicode president and co-founder Mark Davis, who also serves as Google’s Chief International Architect. Bucket one, he says, is encoding more historical scripts—like Egyptian hieroglyphs—so they can be digitally preserved. “The second bucket is providing better language support,” Davis explains. “There is certain core information that is needed for a computer to support a language, and that’s the data in the CLDR project.”
CLDR stands for Common Locale Data Repository, and its Unicode’s database to help provide other companies with the information and tools they need to include support for the world’s many languages. It’s a collaborative project, and one that’s helped titans like Google and Apple reach more of the world. But asking volunteers to submit code only goes so far; Unicode wants to dive deeper to support the world’s languages, which means traveling, and hiring translators, researchers, and software engineers. Suffice to say, none of what Unicode is trying to accomplish comes cheap.
A Wink’s Not as Good as a Nod
What does come cheap is the emoji spotlight. No doubt you’ve noticed that in the past couple of years, emoji representation has gotten a lot of attention. Emoji racial diversity, cultural interpretation, and ethnic inclusion have dominated the conversation when we discuss the medium. And that discussion has been effective. Emoji now include skin tones, ASL characters, more flags, more foods, more religious buildings. That’s all very sexy—who doesn’t love to talk about emoji?—but Unicode is focused on an issue beyond this: language script inclusion.
According to Unicode, 98 percent of the world’s languages are “digitally disadvantaged,” meaning they don’t show up on keyboards, operating systems, browsers, or software. They virtually don’t exist to a huge variety of technologies. And that’s becoming more important as we use devices and apps to communicate: While much of the world is still struggling to even get online, the web and mobile apps are the first tools we turn to once we can get a data connection. More and more manufacturers are trying to reach technologically underserved groups with cheaper, modular devices. But even once many communities have access to them, if none of those devices can properly represent their language, what then? That’s where Unicode is stepping in.
So what do you get when you adopt an emoji from Unicode, exactly? Sorry to break any hearts out there, but Face with Tears of Joy will never belong to you and you alone. Basically, you’ll get a shout out on Unicode’s site—and more importantly, the knowledge that you’re helping fund a platform that’s enabling global Internet communication.
So which emoji or letter or symbol or character is going to go first? “I don’t think there are any betting pools right now,” Davis laughs. “I bet, actually, the flags could be fairly popular. But I expect a lot of the popular emoji will go fast.” More than anything, Unicode is hoping to gain awareness for what it’s doing more than a dollar amount.
“The magnitude of the issue is large…as far as languages go, we have very good support for the top 70 or so, and then it starts to fall off. There are many, many thousands of languages that need to be added. We have a long way to go.”