Tech

One Woman’s Bizarre, Delightful Quest To Change Emojis Forever

Jennifer Lee wants to open up the emoji proposal system.


Imagine, for a moment, getting the chance to help build a new language. A language that’s used by millions of people around the world. A pictorial language with the power to transcend all other languages. If the opportunity presented itself, you’d take that shot, right? Jennifer 8. Lee would. And did.

For Lee, CEO of the literary startup Plympton and a former journalist, it all started with a question and a $75 donation she made to the Unicode Consortium, a 24-year-old text encoding standardization committee. Comprising executives from Apple, Google, IBM, and the government of Bangladesh, among others, the Unicode Consortium oversees and governs the evolution of emojis. Since their formal adoption in 2009, emojis have evolved from an obscure Japanese glyph set into a rich, creative, global form of communication. Lee’s question — how exactly does one make an emoji? — led her straight to the consortium and its $75 Unicode memberships, which allowed her to join in a nonvoting, largely ceremonial role.

Lee’s first meeting of the Unicode Technical Committee was surreal. “It was totally random for them to have a nonaffiliated person show up, but they were very welcoming,” she told BuzzFeed News. “There were a lot of 50- and 60-year-olds who’ve worked together for decades asking me about myself — it felt a bit like showing up at church.”

The UTC, which is made up mostly of seasoned software engineers, was — as its name suggests — technical and serious and mostly focused on issues outside of emojis (the committee also works in tandem with the International Organization for Standardization [ISO] to approve emojis). Finally, when new proposals for the next set of emojis came up on the docket, members discussed them methodically, debating every nuance of each picture or character. Egg was passed easily. Milk was trickier: How should it be represented? To use a carton was too American for a global language. Would it just be a white liquid in a glass? And then came beans. That discussion was a contentious but civil one; it concluded with no clear answer. Beans would not pass.

“By the end, they were getting a bit worked up and you could see that they understood this was kind of a ridiculous thing to be doing,” Lee said of the meeting. “It was like, ‘We’re engineers we shouldn’t be debating the semiotics of beans!’” And yet for all its ridiculousness, Lee was riveted. “It made me think of language in this interesting way. With beans, for example, how do you find one bean to represent all world beans without leaving anyone out?” At one point, Lee said the committee toyed with the idea of a set of six bean emojis, before deciding against it. “Somebody said, ‘If we do that, then 1% of all emojis are beans! That’s insane.’”

The emoji proposal and adoption process is peculiar, somewhat delightful, and relatively unknown to the millions who punctuate observations with cute little swirled piles of poop or illustrate more complex thoughts with a string of cartoony images and letters. From one perspective, the consortium, specifically the UTC, is like an Emoji Council of Elders, a group of adults presiding over some largely silly symbols and advanced emoticons. But for those who really use emoji, the consortium’s role is far more important as steward of an evolving, near-universal means of expression. And with that role comes a great responsibility to make sure an emoji’s growth reflects the needs of those who use it.

The conversation between Lee and Lu that started it all. Courtesy of Jennifer Lee

This is where Lee comes in. One day, while texting with a friend — Yiying Lu, designer of the Twitter Fail Whale — Lu first noticed there was no emoji for dumplings, a food the pair believes is universal (gyoza, ravioli, pierogies to name a few in other cultures). “At first it was just sort of a throwaway complaint,” Lee said. “But then it was like, ‘Wait, if there’s no dumpling emoji, then clearly whatever system is in place here has failed. I figured, there’s something wrong with the world and I’m gonna go fix it.”

Using what Lee called “some low-level coordination,” she found her way onto the UTC’s emoji subcommittee, which meets roughly once a week to discuss the finer technical matters of emoji submission and implementation. And from that vantage point, she learned how to craft an emoji proposal that would stand up to scrutiny. “It’s crazy how labor intensive these proposals are,” Lee told BuzzFeed News. “It’s definitely more than a day’s work. Not only is it hard to write them, but I don’t think everyone could do it. Like, I know very educated Ivy League people who probably can’t write an emoji caliber proposal. It’s a very specific voice.”

Lee’s dumpling proposal bears this out. Coming in just under 1,300 words, the document has footnotes, graphs citing word usage throughout the years, a section concerning “factors for exclusion,” and a description of the dumpling’s “emotional content.” It’s as tongue-in-cheek as it is academic. Here’s an excerpt:

We believe a dumpling emoji will be persistent in large part because dumplings themselves have incredibly long historical persistence — predating (all members of the Unicode Consortium, as well as) almost all current governments on the planet. While Chinese legends attribute the creation of the dumpling to a doctor in the Eastern Han Dynasty, the earliest extant archeological evidence of dumplings dates to 600 or 700 A.D. in Turfan, along the Silk Road, where five dumplings have been found preserved in a desiccated state.

But even with a proposal in hand, inside knowledge from the subcommittee, and collaboration from artists like Yiying Lu (a co-creator of the Dumpling Emoji) to craft the dumpling’s pictorial form, Lee felt something was missing. Getting to the submission stage had required Lee to devote significant time, energy, and money and required her to call upon friends and colleagues in the realms of tech and media. “They have no system for normal people to plug in systematically to the Unicode discussions and suggest and work on these proposals,” Lee said. “So we decided to build something to be that layer.”

That layer, according to Lee and her dumpling supporters — which include the likes of restaurateur and writer Eddie Huang — is a grassroots organization called Emojination. Its plan is to launch a Kickstarter to raise money to join Unicode as an official nonvoting associate member, which costs about $2,500 a year. Currently, Unicode allows emoji proposal submissions and consortium President, Mark Davis told BuzzFeed News the committee “welcome[s] proposals from people around the world: we also devote significant resources to handling them. So regular people do have a voice on emoji, both directly to Unicode and through vendors whose devices they buy.”

Ideally though, Lee hopes to be able to raise enough to eventually pay the $7,500 fee in order to get voting rights on the technical committee, which would allow Emojination to not only help craft proposals, but also fast-track them in the consortium. Said Lee, “I’m proof that, to Unicode’s credit, people who really care about emoji are rewarded. We just need to make it easier.”

And it looks like Lee may get that chance; in just over a day, the Emojination Kickstarter is already half funded.

In interviews, Lee is quick to portray her dumpling emoji quest as a lark or, at the very least, a lighthearted experiment in harnessing the power of the internet; when pressed, however, she shows hints of a deeper motivation. “I’m not even that big an emoji user,” she confessed over the phone, when asked why someone with a startup to run is spending precious time immortalizing dough pouches across encoding platforms.

“One the bigger problems, she said, is that it is that the Unicode emoji approval process along the way is mostly male, mostly white, mostly engineers, starting from the Emoji Subcommittee,” she said. “People who decide emoji need to be more diverse since this group is not representative and to their credit, they know it, but their biases still pop up.” Outside of the subcommittee, Unicode also has five women on its board of directors, and the technical committee’s chair is Lisa Moore from IBM.

And while a number of members hold advanced degrees in linguistics (Unicode’s president has a Ph.D. in philosophy), there is work to be done. There are, for example, an extraordinary number of emojis surrounding offices and work, Lee said, while noting that there are no household chore–related emojis. That sort of traditionally gendered omission is subtle but insidious in Lee’s eyes. “I have nothing against Unicode, who are great, really, but half the population of the world spends a lot of time washing, cleaning, sweeping, and that’s not represented. That’s a systematic bias.”

Few seem able to agree on emojis’ status as a new language. Unicode president Mark Davis told BuzzFeed News last summer that he didn’t quite consider it as such, while emoji observers like Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge see it as hovering somewhere between punctuation and full-blown native tongue. That said, few deny emojis’ potential and power as a global means of expression. At their best, emojis give meaning to ideas and emotions that have no linguistic root.

For Lu, who designed the dumpling, “Emoji are a wonderful blend of art form and meaning, expressed through technology” with the power to “transcend linguistic barriers.”

And while it’s early yet, Lu and Lee’s dumpling may just find its way onto our phones and social networks and in our conversations in the coming years. Davis told BuzzFeed News that Lee’s proposal “came into the committee, and is in process,” meaning that members will now review the proposal to make sure that everything is complete according to submission guidelines. Then, Davis said, it will go into revisions, noting that previous food emoji proposals “went through probably a dozen revisions before being accepted.”

Currently, Lee’s feeling pretty good about her prospects. She and Lu have plans, proposals, and art mock-ups for a Chinese takeout box emoji as well as a few other potential emojis. But for now, she’s playing it cool.

“If we get it through, I think we’ll probably make a whole bunch of T-shirts,” Lee said, letting out a laugh. “I mean, if it happens it’ll be it’s pretty cool — I think I’ll put it on my LinkedIn profile.”

UPDATE

Lee informed BuzzFeed News that the Kickstarter proposal was funded in just 50 hours. “I think we are giving up on $7500 half vote. Not a great use of money,” Lee wrote via email. Instead, Emojination will focus on using the money for three years of non voting members.





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Charlie Warzel is a senior writer for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Warzel reports on and writes about the intersection of tech and culture.
Contact Charlie Warzel at charlie.warzel@buzzfeed.com.
 
 

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