Emoji diversity: how 'silly little faces' can make a big difference

Emoji

When Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge sent his fiancee to the wrong side of London for dinner, he sent an apologetic text message. He received an emoji-less reply: “It’s fine.”

“We all know that’s not what it means at all. That means ‘it’s not fine’,” he said, pointing out that emoji have infiltrated language so deeply that their absence from that message carries a meaning that we all understand. Once considered a nerd topic, emoji have now become a mainstream medium, Burge says – and San Francisco’s first Emojicon conference seems to agree.

Hundreds of adults (and surprisingly few children) turned up for sessions including Emoji Karaoke, where participants had to translate the lyrics of pop songs such as Call Me Maybe into strings of emoji; emoji spellcasting, which revealed how modern witches have embraced technology; and a specialist emoji balloon artist whose biggest request was the poop symbol. There was even a stall selling Emojibator, a vibrator in the shape of the aubergine/eggplant emoji. Something for everyone.

Emoji users feel a significant ownership over these tiny digital symbols, as evidenced by the reaction when Apple swapped the gun emoji for a water pistol and changed the peach emoji to look less like a butt, or when a Saudi teen designed her own headscarf-wearing emoji.

Emoji have also been recognized as art, with New York’s Museum of Mordern Art (MoMA) acquiring the original 176 emoji designed by a Japanese phone company in 1999. Not everyone agrees with putting emoji on this lofty cultural pedestal, said Paul Galloway, MoMA’s architecture and design collection specialist, but there was similar pushback when MoMA introduced photography, cubist artworks and video games to its collection.

“People think we should be sticking to beautiful oil paintings by dead European guys, but this is part of a broader range of creativity,” he said.

Yet there are more serious cultural problems highlighted by the rise of emoji, particularly how to make them more inclusive to people of different races, genders and physical abilities. Until a range of skintones were introduced for emoji in 2015, there were no options for making emoji anything other than white (or cartoon yellow) – and even the new set of modifiers were only introduced after public outrage about lack of diversity.

‘Technology neutrality is a myth’

Researcher Kate Miltner has spent two years researching why emoji were developed with such a limited worldview. She concluded that there was no intention to actively exclude people, but that the icons did align with a belief that inadvertently marginalizes people – the belief that technology is neutral.

“Emoji may seem trivial, just silly little faces, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem. The values either intentionally – or unintentionally – baked into the systems we use on a daily basis can deeply impact people and how they navigate their world,” said Miltner, a PhD student at USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, who conducted extensive interviews with, and analyzed hundreds of emails from, the Unicode Consortium, the official body which standardizes emoji.

Both Unicode and its partner, the International Organization for Standardization, approached their task as a technical process, Miltner said, to encode the characters originally created by Japanese telecoms firms and avoid “the messy politics of representation”. Yet there is no such thing as a neutral or apolitical technological system.

“Design and engineering choices are made by people – people who have belief systems, who work for organizations that have belief systems, and who direct their products to a market or a set of consumers who have certain belief systems,” said Miltner. “This is not necessarily bad – it’s just how things are.”

“Investing in the idea that technology is neutral ignores and even erases the influence of engineers, designers and the organizations they work for. When this happens, it often works out that marginalized groups – people of color, LGBTQIA folks, differently abled people – are not taken into consideration because they are not considered to be the default, or the norm.”

The author Toni Morrison once said: “In this country, ‘American’ means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.” Hosiery, clothing and bandages sold as “skin tone” are typically the colour of white skin, Miltner said, because whiteness is considered the default skin in the western world. The same happens with gender and sexual orientation; until 2015 the family emoji represented a heterosexual, white-skinned couple with two children. “When people say default or standard that usually means western, white and usually male,” she said.

Miltner says we need to think beyond binary interpretations of gender and race, especially in technologies that – however “cute” or “silly” – are used by millions of people worldwide.

“It behooves us all to acknowledge the power and politics that are involved in the formation of widely used technologies, especially if we are to move beyond the ‘default’ and towards more inclusivity.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Olivia Solon in San Francisco, for theguardian.com on Monday 7th November 2016 23.51 Europe/London

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