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Emoji for Dummies

3rd March 2016

They’re everywhere these days: grinning yellow circles Grinning Face on Apple iOS 9.3. Dismembered horse heads Horse Face on Apple iOS 9.3. Tasty-looking tacos Taco on Apple iOS 9.3. There’s even a Vulcan salute nowRaised Hand With Part Between Middle and Ring Fingers on Apple iOS 9.3. We’re talking about emoji, of course – (almost) everyone’s favorite way of writing on phones, computers and even billboards. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably sent, received or at the very least seen an emoji at some point.

But there are still many misconceptions and confusion about these emoji despite them being literally everywhere. What’s actually behind all those little characters? Where do they come from? What are their secrets? What do they MEAN? We’re here to clear it up – read on to find out!

What exactly is an emoji?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (which named an emoji as 2015’s Word of the Year – more on that later), an emoji is “a small digital image or icon used to express an idea, emotion, etc., in electronic communication”. Though you see them as the cute little pictures you drop into texts, emails and more, emoji are technically a font, and are recognized as text.

The word and concept of emoji are Japanese and originated in the 90s, when the first emoji was developed by a Japanese team; the name comes from ‘e’ (絵, “picture”) + ‘moji’ (文字, “character”). But while the concept of emoji have been around for ages, it wasn’t really until the last few years that things have really taken off.

So does this mean that the Kim Kardashian emoji in the Kimoji app aren’t actually emoji?

Not officially, no; it’s technically a third party keyboard that sends images (also known as stickers) – as opposed to emoji, which are treated like text. Unicode doesn’t officially have an emoji of Kim K.’s notorious rear (at least, not yet).

Who decides what emoji there are?

THE MOST POWERFUL PEOPLE IN THE WORLD. But in all seriousness, they’re called the Unicode Consortium, and they’re the non-profit governing body that manages the Unicode Standard – along with representatives from Twitter, Apple, SwiftKey (!) and more.

In plain English? The Unicode Standard ensures that the characters you type, including emoji, mean the same regardless of device (although visual representations may differ). They’re also responsible for deciding which emoji make it out into the world.

How are emoji decisions made?

The emoji decisions made by Unicode are influenced by a number of factors, including feedback from users and vendors. For example, Unicode worked closely with Apple and other vendors in developing the new skin tone emoji and other emoji that were released a few months ago.

Although not part of their official process, Unicode has occasionally made some of their decisions based on petitions – for example, people advocated for the taco emoji on, and others are now gunning for some other foods, like cupcakes, dumplings and more.

Last year, SwiftKey became an associate member of the Unicode Consortium, and as a part of this membership we’ll specifically be assisting Unicode with making future emoji decisions. However, this doesn’t mean we’re able to add new emoji to the keyboard ourselves!

You can read more about Unicode’s complex system for making emoji decisions here, where you can even submit a proposal for your own idea! (You could even try getting your own face, but it probably wouldn’t get accepted, no matter how beautiful you are)

Why do emoji look different on different devices, operating systems or websites (like Facebook or Twitter)?

You might have noticed that your “Birthday Cake” emoji looks like this Birthday Cake on Apple iOS 9.3 on your iPhone, but then like this on your friend’s Android Birthday Cake on Google Android 6.0.1, and then there’s Twitter, which is a whole other story Birthday Cake on Twitter Twemoji 2.0. That doesn’t even look like the same kind of cake! Or, you might have been living in blithe unawareness that the cute little devil Imp on Apple iOS 9.3 you think you’re sending from your iPhone actually looks like THIS on Android: Imp on Google Android 6.0.1! Spooky stuff.

So why do they look different on different devices and platforms? The short and sweet answer is that they basically function like any other typeface (for example, Helvetica or Comic Sans); they vary between fonts. Apple has one emoji “font” that displays in a certain way, while Android devices have various different “fonts” that display in other ways. You can read more about how emoji may vary on different Android operating systems here.

Why do some phones have emoji that others don’t?

As above, it all depends on your OS; for example, Android devices haven’t yet implemented the “skin tone emoji” that have been around on iOS since iOS 8.3. So if you were to text someone on a Samsung Galaxy the “Princess with Dark Brown Skin Tone” emoji Princess + Emoji Modifier Fitzpatrick Type-5 on Apple iOS 9.3 from your iPhone 6, it would show up as the standard yellow princess plus a box with an x in it, which represents the skin tone modifier that doesn’t yet exist on the platform. Just like this:


So basically: just because an OS supports emoji doesn’t mean they support every emoji in existence. Unfortunately, there isn’t really an easy way for the user to tell how emoji they send will show up on a friend’s device – if it shows up at all.

What do all the different emoji even mean?

Well, here’s where things get a little tricky; opinions vary widely as to what certain emoji mean or represent. For example, something as benign as the eggplant Aubergine on Apple iOS 9.3 can actually mean… something else altogether (we’ll let you read more about that here). The newer “Upside-Down Face” has also been a point of contention for some: Upside-Down Face on Apple iOS 9.3. One that has confused a lot of people is the “Information Desk Person” Information Desk Person on Apple iOS 9.3. Why is she even called that? What is she supposed to be used for? Perhaps only Unicode really knows – but Emojipedia is a pretty solid source for all things emoji when you’re in a pinch.

Any other fun facts to know about emoji?

Have more questions about emoji? Ask us on Twitter!