Meet the woman at the helm of the Unicode emoji subcommittee

22 Sep 2021

Image: Jennifer Daniel

Jennifer Daniel leads the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee. She tells us how emojis are chosen and discusses their importance in the world of language.

Language has been evolving for as long as it has existed. How we express ourselves changes from one society to the next, one generation to the next and even one family to the next.

One of the most recent of these evolutions is the emoji language – arguably “the first language born of the digital world”, according to Wired’s detailed history of emojis, which I highly recommend reading.

It’s important that emojis are not just disregarded as funny pictures to make a text brighter and more dynamic, though it certainly fulfils that brief. Emojis have the ability to add back in the facial expressions, the body language and the subtle nuances of emotion that are so easily lost in a piece of flat text.

Over time, they have evolved from the plain text emoticons we all know and love from the ‘90s [:-) to the bright, varied and sometimes animated emojis we know today 😍.

The first of these emojis were created in 1999 by Japanese artist Shigetaka Kurita to make it easier to communicate with a very limited number of characters. Sound familiar? ​​​​​​🐦

More than 10 years later, emoji was adopted by Unicode, an information technology standard for the consistent encoding, representation and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems.

This adoption brought hundreds of new emojis to the public domain, with today’s catalogue sporting nearly 3,000 representations. Last week, the Unicode Consortium approved the character set of Unicode 14.0, which included another 37 new emojis.

But how are these new emojis decided? To find out more about the process, I got in touch with Jennifer Daniel, who leads the emoji subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and is creative director of Google’s emoji programme.

Unsurprisingly, when I asked what her job entails in a nutshell, she answered in emojis: 🧑‍🏫🕵️.

“In a past life I worked as an illustrator, which I later dovetailed with a passion for journalism. Now, I have found myself working at Google serving as the chair of a technical subcommittee for an open standards body,” she said.

“What I do now really is an amalgamation of all my previous experiences. A little bit art, a little bit journalism, and a little bit tech.”

‘Emoji are just one of a potpourri of ways to express yourself digitally now’
– JENNIFER DANIEL

Having gone from working in a newsroom to the role she does now, Daniel said she can see the similarities between the two roles.

“As a journalist you are responsible for telling other people’s stories and there is a huge responsibility that comes with that. I try to apply the same amount of rigour, sensitivity and thoughtfulness to the emoji subcommittee.”

Daniel talked about the humble beginnings of emojis and how they made it easier to text things that were hard to say face to face. And while the emoji language has undoubtedly changed over the past two decades, she believes this evolution is more to do with how the world around us has changed.

“At the time emoji were introduced, we were still tapping the number pad multiple times to text – smartphones came nearly a decade later! Now, with faster Wi-Fi connections, emoji are not our only means of communicating metaphorically. We use stickers, gifs, memes, videos. Emoji are just one of a potpourri of ways to express yourself digitally now.”

The birth of new emojis

When it comes to bringing a new emoji into the world, Daniel said it can take up to two years from the initial concept to seeing it arrive on your phone.

👶🕛🕧🕐🕒🕞🕓🕟🕔🕠🕕🕡🕖🕢🕗🕣🕘🕤🕙🕥🕚🕦🧓

“Unicode is focused on communicative, globally relevant concepts. The best emoji are ones that we’re already using and familiar with found in literature, movies, arts, culture! A recent addition, ‘smile with tear’ emoji, cites its observance [from] religious scripture to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Throughout the consideration process for new emojis, Daniel said only about 30 are added each year, which means plenty of emojis are left on the cutting room floor.

There are several reasons why one might not be chosen: for example, if it can already be represented by a sequence, such as a garbage fire 🗑️🔥; if it’s too specific, for example every type of flower or every breed of dog; or if it’s a transient concept. “Think less ‘memes’ and more stable longstanding concepts.”

In terms of the new Unicode 14.0 emojis approved last week, Daniel discussed some of the latest additions.

“There’s a great collection of new smileys, particularly some that introduce ‘effects’ to convey emotion,” she said. “There is also ring buoy. I can’t believe we went this long without a really good emoji for conveying both relief and gratitude.”

She also said the new bubbles emoji has the potential to be used as frequently as the sparkles emoji due to its versatility, which is outlined in the proposal.

“And battery! A good metaphor but also deeply literal. I’m guilty of never charging my phone.”

A low-battery emoji.

An important means of communication

While some might write emojis off as fun or silly pictures, Daniel said the importance of them cannot be ignored.

“They finally made writing a lot more like talking! 80pc of communication is non-verbal and 80pc of emoji are shared alongside words,” she said.

“Emoji are also super effective in video dialogues. Think about it. You’re in a big video chat and everyone looks like The Brady Bunch. It’s hard to discern what people are thinking when they are on mute, their face is tiny, or perhaps their video is completely turned off. That’s when emoji step in – throw a heart emoji when you’re on mute so the speaker knows you appreciate, like or agree with what they are saying. Without interrupting them, you have kept the conversation moving.”

Over the years, Unicode has also worked hard at making the emoji language more inclusive. Updates in the last number of years have included the introduction of new skin tones, same-sex couples and the Pride flag, as well as emojis to better represent people with disabilities such as a guide dog and a wheelchair.

Daniel said to make emojis even more inclusive and accessible, she’d love to see someone tackle the challenge of how the use of many symbols, while rooted in centuries of written languages, has changed over time. She said that while this evolution is extremely exciting, it can cause problems for those who have low vision.

“For example, people use mathematical symbols as fonts. But because the talk back experience doesn’t know you aren’t writing a maths equation, [while] you’re just making your handle look cool in what appears to be blackletter, folks with low vision just hear…well, listen for yourself.”

Of course, I couldn’t interview the woman at the helm of the emoji subcommittee without asking about her favourite emoji.

“I use a caterpillar and saxophone quite a bit together. It has great vibes and conveys a lot without really saying anything — like when someone asks me to do something, I reply with a happy bug playing music.” 🎷🐛

This interview had me thinking a lot about my own emoji usage and, for what it’s worth, I’m a big fan of the upside-down face 🙃 along with its old-school emoticon counterpart, shruggie: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Jenny Darmody is the deputy editor of Silicon Republic

editorial@siliconrepublic.com