A picture paints a thousand words: how to make an emoji

Emoji use is growing like a particularly good crop of  🍆. But the universal emoji keyboard is a closely guarded volume, with each icon painstakingly selected based on a huge number of criteria, ✏️  Jessy Edwards. So how does one get an emoji accepted onto this 📇 , what does the proliferation of emojis mean for the future of  💬 , and what do a 🇳🇿  living in Amsterdam and a reality TV star have to do with it?

As a conversation starter, try asking someone what emoji they use the most, and what new emoji they would like to see made available.

Speaking with New Zealanders, people expressed frustration with the lack of a kiwi icon, or a meat pie. The kiwi is multifaceted, one argued: it can stand for a people, a bird, or even vulnerability, if you want to get deep.

Asking a Barbadian, they said they’d like to see a ‘Rasta Man’ icon. It could stand for marijuana, which is also missing from the keyboard, a ‘chill’ way of life, or, again, a people.

A young Polish-American man told me that his most-used emoji was the  👀. For him, the eyes started out meaning ‘what’s up?’ But over time it evolved within his family to mean ‘what are you doing, can I come over?’

Emojis have grown to become a global phenomenon akin to a universal visual language, with friends, subcultures and countries adopting their own interpretations of the tiny pictures to unlock a whole new world of communication.

Local focus

Last year, Rotorua cultural centre Te Puia launched Emotiki, a 150-character emoji keyboard with distinctly Maori icons - think tiki, kete, pukana and poi.

“Initially it was created to be a platform for our young Maori rangatahi to be able to express themselves within the digital space, however, it has now evolved into something more,” Te Puia spokesperson Eruera West says.  

Since launching in December the Emotikis, which feature characters like the fern, various tiki faces and a Maori warden, have been heralded by international media as playing a role in promoting indigenous cultural heritage.

As well as being picked up in international media, West says Emotiki has had overwhelmingly positive feedback and has been seen used across various social media. This year it had a photo booth at Māori performing arts festival Te Matatini and was featured on television show ‘This Is Piki’.

While there was initially some criticism of some of the emoji, West says the design team worked hard to consult with Te Arawa and Te Puia elders to make the app a true representation of the iwi. 

“We undertook a thorough process with our pakeke multiple times to ensure that they were happy with what was created, this was really important to us and we wanted to make sure that this was ultimately the green light in releasing them.”

“With the rise of emojis, now text messages have a lot more context behind it and like the saying goes ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. With Emotiki, we hope to give a unique Maori take from a contemporary perspective,” West says.

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The growing popularity of emojis is being recognised in diverse ways. In 2013, the word emoji was included in the Oxford English Dictionary. But, perhaps more importantly, that same year, the classic novel Moby Dick was translated, sentence by sentence, into emoji (Emoji Dick was recognised as a ‘cultural moment in history’ and entered into the United States Library of Congress).

But way before society evolved to allow such complex communication ideas as aubergine = dick, people were using characters to show expression. As early as 1881, a magazine had published a diagram showing punctuation used to make faces. This is what we know as emoticons and what anyone over about 27 probably used in their early mobile flirting efforts. 😉

Over in Japan, emoticons were evolving into emojis via cell phone usage. While the name is similar, the word emoji actually comes from the Japanese 絵 (e picture) + 文字 (moji written character).

They were thrust into the global spotlight in 2012 when Apple released iOS 6, and iPhone users were opened to the world of the Unicode emoji keyboard, the 😀 and the 🔥. 

Emoji are thought to have been officially invented in ‘90s Japan, starting out when a company called Docomo added a heart button to its pagers and found it wildly popular with its younger users.

The company soon followed up with 176 more emoji, and other companies started designing their own, too.

That’s what caused that weird period where we thought we were getting lots of plain square boxes from our friends, when in fact they were sending us emojis from different operating systems that weren’t compatible with ours.

Google jumped in and started using code points to ensure that different devices would see the same emoji, and that then led to Unicode Consortium becoming the gatekeeper for the code points on the universal emoji keyboard.

Nowadays, emoji are everywhere. There is an authorised, global list of emoji which is closely guarded by a committee. If it sounds terribly formal, that’s because it is. Every year, the committee assesses submissions for new emoji to be added to the Unicode keyboard – much like a dictionary. Only about 60 new emoji are allowed on the list per year.

Anyone can make a submission to get a new emoji considered, but beware: the criteria is stringent, and it will likely be up to two years until the emoji is usable, if it is accepted.

This year’s new set was announced in March, with 56 new emoji characters released. The majority of the new emoji characters are the smileys and people, 13 new types of food and drink, as well as six animals and nature emojis.

In an attempt to further cater to diversity in the keyboard, an additional 180 emoji sequences for gender and skin-tone were also announced. If you think your ideal emoji is missing, the next round for emoji submissions opens July 1, but be prepared to put together a thick document filled with detailed research on why your emoji should be added.

The proposal must address, point by point, the emoji’s expected usage level, the frequency, whether it has multiple usages, how it might be used in sequences with other emoji, the distinctiveness of the image compared to existing emoji and whether it has been frequently requested. All should be backed up with search and internet use data.

The tone can be seen in a 2016 proposal to have the condom added to the emoji keyboard. The proposal’s author writes: “Emojis are playing a big role in relationships as young people are using aubergines/eggplants, hot dogs, peaches, etc. to discuss sex on mobile devices. This is evidenced by multiple international media references to sexting and emojis and by recent research showing over half of 16-24 year olds regularly use emojis when talking about sex.”

The author goes on to argue that the condom emoji would be used in conjunction with ‘phallic’ emojis and would promote safe sex. It presented data from Google Trends showing searches for a condom emoji were rising, versus searches for various other emoji.

Unicode is clear in its instructions that preference will be given to an emoji that has more than one possible meaning. In an example of what is required in a proposal, it says: “For example, SHARK is not necessarily only the animal, but also used for a huckster, in jumping the shark, card shark, loan shark, etc.”

If that proposal is accepted, it starts going through the Unicode committee which assesses it point by point and works with the submitter to help the symbol get accepted.

If it does then become accepted, Unicode adds the icon to its next release, and providers like Apple or Twitter then start to move to support them.

It’s worth noting that while the premise of the emoji is handed down by Unicode, how it actually looks is up to the vendor. That’s why emojis look different on different devices.

For example, a person who sends an emoji on an Apple device is likely to have intended a different meaning than the one received by their friend on a Google device.

Website emojitracker.com monitors the most popular emojis on Twitter in real time.

At the time of writing, 😂 was the most used emoji on Twitter, with 1.7 billion uses, while the 🚋  had just 78,961 uses on Twitter.

Other popular emojis were 😍  and 😭. 

There’s no solid data on emoji use in New Zealand, but in a global study of emoji use in 2015, our Aussie neighbours made headlines for being the 'land of vices and indulgence'.

They were found to be using emojis indicating alcohol twice as much as the worldwide average, and drugs 65 percent more than average. The study found they also used more holiday and junk food emojis than the rest of the world.

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While the term emoji is everywhere, many of the things we might consider emojis are in fact stickers. Spark made a valiant attempt to right the wrong that there’s no Kiwi in the emoji keyboard by releasing a sticker pack in 2014 called the Kiwi Emoji.

It initially launched the Kiwi Emojis to coincide with the 2014 elections, with the view to engage people further in the political process. As well as a kiwi emoji there was also a ballot box, an emoji Colin Craig and a Peter Dunne.

While Spark head of brand comms and experience Sarah Williams says the emoji pack was not progressed, she says there’s no denying that emojis have been a “really culturally important phenomenon”.

As part of the promotion of iPhone 6, Spark used giant personalised emojis to replace actual people in the queue to be the first to get their hands on the new device.

“It’s been interesting to see how emojis have evolved into a much broader spectrum of visual language – just look at the rise in the popularity of gifs for starters.”

Vodafone consumer director Matt Williams pointed out the way people communicate and share experiences is constantly evolving, with younger people especially being highly visual communicators.

“Over time they have completely changed how they communicate with each other – in the past they used mainly words, now they can choose from a vast array of content, such as images, videos, memes, GIF and of course emojis.”

He says it takes the human brain less than one second to interpret a single image or video, so it made sense that emojis and other forms of visual communication were rising as the way in which people transmit and consume information.

Cast your mind back just a few months ago when the only way you could react to a Facebook post without making a comment was to ‘like’ it. This wasn’t entirely appropriate when someone was sharing a story about a death in the family, or a divorce.

Enter Facebook reactions, whereby people can now react with a like, a heart, a laughing face, an angry face, a crying face, and now even a ‘pride’ rainbow.

As Sonal Chokshi points out in the a16z podcast on emoji, this enhanced range of reactions also allows Facebook to ‘codify’ people’s emotions, turning people’s mental states into machine readable data for sentiment analysis.

Dr. Tony Fisher

Massey University linguistics lecturer Dr. Tony Fisher says digital communication sits somewhere in between speech and writing. A tweet or a text is not the same as writing an email or a letter, the messages are shorter and more conversational, and people can respond or react almost instantly much as if you were speaking in person. What’s different is the face-to-face element, meaning all the nuances of tone, body language and facial expression are missing.

“We’ve all had that experience of posting something and someone takes offence and you have to go back and do that repair work. Because you may have meant something with a smile on your face, but there was no face to smile,” Fisher says.

That’s where emojis come in: they provide that smiley face, the wink or the sarcastic girl to add another layer of meaning to the message.

“It allows us to present a meta-message, a message about the message and how it should be decoded. I think that’s where the popularity comes from,” Fisher says.

One of the other aspects of emojis that make them such an excellent form of communication is their universal nature. In the same way that two people from different countries might communicate using sign language and facial expressions in person, they might use emojis to communicate online.

Many have called emoji a ‘language’ in its own right. But Fisher says the system is not sufficiently well-developed to be classified as a language by linguistic standards.

We’ve all had that experience of posting something and someone takes offence and you have to go back and do that repair work. Because you may have meant something with a smile on your face, but there was no face to smile.

“The fact someone managed to translate Moby Dick suggests they are becoming more sophisticated,” he says. “And if you can communicate in a closed group of people using these ideas it does seem they’re starting to operate as a language, but the real test would be could we use emojis productively to write a new book that has never been written? And at this stage I don’t think you’d be able to get very far.”

We may not be able to create a book (although The Spinoff recently wrote an emoji article reporting the state of our native birds). But plenty of humans are reliant on emoji to describe how they feel to others, without having to use their words. So is this a good thing or a bad thing?

A recent study from Brigham University in Salt Lake City found that emojis were starting to creep into school students’ assignments. Wellington East Girls’ College teacher Edwin Bruce says the growing use of emoji among young people was inevitable, but not necessarily a bad thing. He says emoji could be used to enhance and augment communication, despite not yet being appropriate for formal communication.

He pointed out that while there may be a bit of generation gap dividing teachers and students on emoji use, teachers have long used visual elements – stars and smiley faces – to enhance learning.

“Interestingly, they may turn out to be the equivalent of [supposed global language] Esperanto but much more universal in adoption, use and accessibility.”

And the impacts of emoji can be powerful, some courts are starting to recognise. In a bizarre case in Israel, a couple were ordered to pay more than 8000 shekels (NZ$3189) after sending a set of misleadingly festive emojis to a prospective landlord, Engadget reported.

After receiving a message that roughly translated as: "Good morning  😊 we want the house 💃🏻 👯 ✌️ ☄️ 🐿️ 🍾  just need to go over the details…When suits you?”" the landlord took the place off the market.

When the rental fell through, he took them to small claims court for misleading him with their emoji use.  Part of the judge's ruling read: "These icons convey great optimism. Although this message did not constitute a binding contract between the parties, this message naturally led to the Plaintiff's great reliance on the defendant's desire to rent his apartment.”

Gregor Cooney

There’s huge money to be made in these popular little icons, too. In late 2015, Kim Kardashian-West launched her own personal range of Kimojis, retailing at $1.99 on the app store.

The sticker packs traded on the reality star’s unique brand. It featured a pop-famous image of her hysterically crying, one of the reality star taking a selfie, and one of her famous derriere.

While the head of digital media company Whalerock Industries won’t disclose how many purchases the app has had, they claimed late last year that it was one of the top 50 most downloaded paid apps on iTunes.

Between the reality star’s 101 million Instagram followers and her 53.5 million Twitter followers, it’s safe to say Ms Kardashian-West is hysterically laughing all the way to the bank.

It is definitely a fad and we may see many iterations of them over the coming months and years. We’ve seen plain emojis, a move to stickers, gifs, filters, geo-filters, and the list goes on. There will always be something new to jump on that helps us get our message across to one another and also our customers, and we want to be on the forefront of it.

And other celebrities like Justin Bieber, Charlie Sheen, and basketballer Stephen Curry have followed suit.

New Zealander Gregor Cooney recently helmed the development of Geordie Shore star Gary ‘Gaz’ Beadle’s ‘Gazmojis’, an app that has dozens of emojis/stickers tailored around Gaz’s outrageous personality and shenanigans.

Cooney is based in Amsterdam in his role as general manager at Crowd Mobile, a mobile entertainment company active in 40 countries and 30 languages. He says Crowd Mobile started using emojis in its direct-response marketing copy about two years ago and saw “instant and material” increases in clickthrough rates and conversions.

Noting the huge uprise in the popularity of emojis, it began to partner with its top influencers to create tailored emojis – or stickers – that fans could download and send to friends.

“For Gaz and Kim, it is a topical and current way to extend their brand beyond the TV screen and become immersed into the every day/hour/minute addiction we all have with social media and messaging.

“Commercially, once the virality of the app and stickers/emojis grow, it is also another tool for monetisation where customers can pay to unlock premium content and brands can pay to have brand funded stickers/emojis aligned with an influencer and generate a large number of impressions in a non-traditional and quirky way,” Cooney says.

Getting a sticker set accepted to the Apple app store is a lot easier than getting an emoji accepted into the Unicode emoji keyboard, but it still has its barriers.

Gaz’s outrageous personality, and often xxx-rated antics meant Crowd Mobile had to have its designers balance being true to his brand and what his audience loved about him, and adhere to Apple’s rules, Cooney says.

“To be completely honest, some of the initial emojis we submitted were rejected by Apple and we had to tone it down a little. Naturally there was a bit of to and fro until we settled on the final app and stickers which satisfied all parties. We are yet to receive a complaint about Gazmoji!”

While emoji are the hot mobile accessory right now, Cooney sees them more as a trend than a sustaining language.

“It is definitely a fad and we may see many iterations of them over the coming months and years. We’ve seen plain emojis, a move to stickers, gifs, filters, geo-filters, and the list goes on. There will always be something new to jump on that helps us get our message across to one another and also our customers, and we want to be on the forefront of it.”

Unicode itself recognises that at the rate new emoji are being added to the keyboard, the future of the keyboard might not be sustainable.

As people demand more from their emoji – wider diversity with different hair styles, new foods, new symbols with each rising trend – the framework around the Unicode keyboard strains.

That means that either something is going to come in to replace emoji, or we will become more reliant on using sticker packs.

“The longer-term goal for implementations should be to support embedded graphics, in addition to the emoji characters,” Unicode says.

In the meantime, take advantage of the fact Unicode is accepting new additions to the keyboard. It just might be closed to new business in the near future.