NPR logo Coding Diversity Into Keyboards One Emoji At A Time

Coding Diversity Into Keyboards One Emoji At A Time

Emojis of customizable skin-tone

Every time you type on your cellphone's keyboard, you're punching in tiny bits of Unicode, a universal standard for creating text, numbers and emoji. Emoji, taken from the Japanese words "e" (picture) "mo" (writing) "ji" (character), are pictorial symbols used to communicate simple ideas with even simpler images.

Apple's default emoji keyboard features only two people of color: an Asian man wearing a Gua Pi Mao hat and a man wearing a nondescript turban. Apple hide caption

toggle caption
Apple

This past summer, the Unicode Consortium introduced about 250 new standard emoji, including a spider web, sunglasses and a hand giving the middle finger. Conspicuously missing from the emoji catalog, however, was a wider selection of nonwhite human faces.

As emoji have grown in popularity, people have wanted to see themselves reflected in the tiny cartoons pinging back and forth between their cellphones. Aside from the collection of standardized yellow emoticon faces, emoji of color were limited to a man wearing a Gua Pi Mao hat (usually identified with the Qing dynasty) and a man wearing a nondescript turban.

Mark Davis, co-founder and president of Unicode, and Peter Edberg, an Apple engineer, recently published a working draft detailing how the standard could support a broader array of racially diverse emoji in its next update.

When you look at them, the majority of current human emoji immediately read as white. In their proposal, Davis and Edberg advocate for a default Simpsons-esque yellow emoji whose race could be customized using a set of skin-tone swatches. Rather than relying on predefined symbols, users could choose an emoji's race by placing a skin-tone swatch next to a racially "blank" emoji. Phones would interpret the emoji + swatch combination as an entirely new person. That same process could be applied to groups of human emoji holding hands or even to individual body parts, like a hand giving the thumbs-up sign.

Article continues after sponsorship

Bernie Hogan, a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, says that emoji act as emotional punctuation in a world increasingly tied to digital, text-based interactions. Racially coded emoji, he explained, could function as a symbol of cultural kinship, broadening the scope of digital communities.

A diagram depicting how the Unicode Consortium could create a more diverse array of ethnic emoji. Unicode Consortium hide caption

toggle caption
Unicode Consortium

A diagram depicting how the Unicode Consortium could create a more diverse array of ethnic emoji.

Unicode Consortium

"We've already started to intuit a notion that there's a weird Twitter, feminist Twitter and Black Twitter," he said. "But now Black Twitter won't just be the community, it'll also be semantic and associated with black emoji."

Demand for more emoji of color on Apple's iOS platform dates back to when the iPhone first began natively supporting emoji keyboards. In August, nearly 5,000 people co-signed a DoSomething.org petition asking the company to diversify its collection of tiny icons. Though Apple acknowledged the petition and assured its customers that it was working on a solution, implementing a new set of emoji isn't as simple as issuing a software update.

Unicode 8 is slated to roll out sometime next year, but there is no hard time table as to when individual companies like Apple, Google or Microsoft might begin supporting updated characters. Even more unclear is how the public will actually use the new emoji.

Initial reactions to the consortium's proposal were mixed; some saw the move as progressive, if a little bit overdue.

"It's about time," Shamar Cole, a black teenager, told The Daily News. "I didn't have anything to represent me."

Still, though, others thought that creating brown faces defeated emoji's purpose entirely.

In its attempt to represent a broader spectrum of ethnic faces through emoji, says Bernie Hogan, the Unicode Consortium is both addressing users' needs and facing a new set of potential problems.

"Right now within political circles online, there's a lot of concern about voice, authenticity, representation and cultural appropriation — imagine people claiming who can and cannot use certain emoji," he said. "I can imagine '22 White People Who Use the Black Emoji Wrong.' That list is going to write itself."