Have you ever received a message and wondered why you are seeing a couple of awkward boxes or out-of-context question mark symbols? You probably have, and possibly more often that you can even recall. However, life is too busy for us to worry about such trivialities, and we would simply just ignore them. But what if I tell you that maybe we need to worry about them a little more!
Before I get to explaining why we sometimes receive messages with inexplicable characters, you would likely want to know why should you care anyway. Fair enough!
But first, in case you missed it, I’d like to wish you a happy ‘World Emoji Day!’ Yep, there is one for that already, celebrated annually on the 17th of July since 2014.
Once per year, Oxford Dictionaries selects “a word or expression that has attracted a great deal of interest” over the preceding twelve months. When they announced the ‘Word of The Year 2015’ it turned out to be an emoji rather than an actual word. Ironically enough, it was nothing other than the renowned laughing-crying face itself, officially known as the ‘Face with Tears of Joy’. On their website, Oxford Dictionaries explained that this particular emoji “was chosen as the ‘word’ that best reflected the ethos, mood, and preoccupations of 2015”. They also highlighted that according to statistics, the usage of the word ‘emoji’ has “more than tripled in 2015”, despite being around since 1997.
I remember both the sarcasm and astonishment that announcement had sparked back then. It brought about a wave of posts, tweets, and memes either documenting or making fun of the fact that we have lived long enough to see a smiley face slipping into our dictionaries. I believe that was a major milestone where many people perhaps realized that modern human linguistics had already evolved beyond alphabets.
In fact, that was not the first time an emoji received a special treatment. In 2014, Global Language Monitor (GLM) which is a Texan-based company concerned with tracking and analyzing trends in language usage worldwide, announced the heart emoji symbolizing ‘love’ as the ‘Top Word of 2014 for Global English’.
What I’m trying to say here is that emoji are no longer just those fun little smiley faces as we used to know them in the near past. They have evolved into a digital language that a few billion people around the world use every single day. Perhaps numbers can provide a better image of how significant emoji have become in today’s world.
Not only that emoji has greatly influenced the way we communicate with each other on a daily basis, but in some cases using certain emoji can also be quite problematic, either ethically or legally, or both. In modern days, communicating with emoji is no less sensitive than using any written language. You need to choose your emoji as much carefully and wisely as you would select actual words. Nevertheless, and unlike any other language, no matter how careful you are there is always a risk that the one or more people receiving your message could end up seeing a completely different thing than what you are seeing on your own screen. There is also the possibility that even if you both can see the same exact image, you may not perceive it the same way due to several factors, including cultural differences. This is exactly how emoji, as a language, is letting us all down.
Where is my emoji?
Remember those ugly boxes and question marks I was talking about in the beginning? In short, such meaningless symbols serve as placeholders for characters that your operating system or a certain platform cannot read, for some reason.
It all roots back to the way languages are programmed into digital systems in the first place. In case you never heard of it, there is something called ‘Unicode’. On Wikipedia, Unicode is described as a “computing industry standard for the consistent encoding, representation, and handling of text expressed in most of the world’s writing systems”. In plain words, Unicode assigns a unique number to each and every character of a given language so it can be read the same way across multiple systems. Once a system loaded with these codes reads any of them, it immediately recognizes the character attached to it and displays it on screen. Fortunately, this entire process happens in the background and in no time at all, so we don’t have to deal with any of that hassle by ourselves.
Emoji are no different, they are encoded in a similar manner just like any letter or punctuation mark. When you send an emoji, your system encodes it and transfers it to the other side of the conversation where it gets decoded and displayed once again as a graphical image. If the recipient’s device failed to decode that emoji for any reason, it usually gets replaced either by a replacement character, or sometimes by blank spaces.
But why would a system fail to read an emoji in the first place?
Opposite to conventional languages, emoji doesn’t have an alphabet nor any countable set of characters. We cannot break down an emoji into smaller units, as each one stands for a word or even a complete phrase on its own. There is no limit to the number of emoji we can have available; there is always a room for more. This boundlessness, while allowing for more ways to express ourselves, but in the same time it also makes it rather tricky to maintain both consistency and reliability.
Designing and coding every single emoji and making them all available across multiple systems and platforms is a very challenging and a never-ending job when there are thousands of them already, and there are constantly many more in the pipeline.
Now you probably wonder: Who is responsible for that entire process? Moreover, who gets to decide whether we need more emoji in the first place, and which ones are we going to have?
Like mentioned earlier, Unicode is the modern standard for encoding almost every language that we use in the digital world, and that includes emoji. It is maintained and published by a non-profit organization called the ‘Unicode Consortium’, which works alongside many other organizations and companies and has some of the world’s tech giants as voting members.
The good news is that anyone can submit a new emoji proposal to Unicode following the requirements and steps specified on their website. If it made the cut, your new emoji takes a number and waits for its turn to be released in a later version of Unicode. But once all that happens, does it mean that everybody can now use that emoji on any device or platform? Nope.
Unfortunately, the way it works is more complicated than what you might be thinking. There are multiple variables affecting both the accessibility to emoji and the way they appear. One way to think of it is that Unicode merely provides the database. Nevertheless, a database has no real value if it stands all alone in the void, and this is where platforms come into play.
In order for an emoji to be used on a certain operating system or platform, that system first needs to be updated with a Unicode version which includes that specific emoji, otherwise it will neither be accessible nor legible. Not only that, but if you are a multiple device and operating system user like myself, you most certainly have noticed that emoji look so much different on Android than they do on iOS, and on Windows than on macOS. On a different level, WhatsApp emoji are also very different than those of Facebook, and even Facebook emoji by themselves may appear differently on a desktop browser than on the mobile apps.
Despite the availability of Unicode specifications to tons of emoji, but it remains entirely up to each independent system or platform to decide which emoji to provide, when to make them available, and how would each one look like. And while it sounds logical that platforms would likely want to always maintain fresh looks, but in reality, including every single emoji is not always their top priority whenever they roll a new update. There is often a lag between the time a new emoji is officially listed on Unicode and the point where it becomes available on a certain device or application. This delay can be anything from a few months to a couple of years. Some platforms even choose to exclude certain emoji altogether, and there is almost nothing we can do about it other than ranting online.
So how many emoji versions are really out there?
The short answer is: There are too many! Perhaps a better way to count them is by categorizing them:
1. Operating systems:
Each of Google, Apple, and Microsoft designs and maintains its own unique set of emoji for each of their respective operating systems; the most popular of which are Android and iOS for smartphones, and Windows and macOS for computers. And as if that wasn’t too much already, but each version of every operating system may provide a different release of the same emoji set. Newer versions could either include new emoji or provide a refined design for existing ones, or a bit of both.
In the second image we can see how multiple versions of the same operating systems can provide extremely different emoji design, which is much more obvious in Android compared to iOS. Seriously, does that last emoji on the bottom right corner look ‘angry’ as the name suggests?! Google was actually doing such a terrible job in regards to emoji design for quite some time, and I’m really glad they finally moved on.
The data provided in the images above is collected from emojipedia.org which is, by the way, a great source for so much information about emoji.
Luckily for Apple’s loyal customers, the neat eco-system guarantees much more consistency, since all of Apple-provided software run exclusively on their own gadgets. On the other hand, while Google currently sells its own Pixels phones, the majority of Android devices in the market are non-Google products. The problem is that many device manufacturers, like the giant Samsung, typically add their own touch on the open-source software before selling it to the consumer. Not only that they integrate their own UI, but they may also override the system’s default emoji with their own set. So even users of the same version of the same operating system may see different designs for a single emoji if one of them owns a Samsung and the other owns a Huawei for example.
2. Platforms and applications:
On an older phone that I still have which stopped receiving updates since Android KitKat, I could use a wider set of emoji on WhatsApp than what the system provides. Needless to say, both sets indeed looked entirely different. Actually until some point of time around 2016, WhatsApp on Android used iOS emoji, but then all of a sudden they were slightly redesigned — I’m guessing possibly over licensing issues. They still look very similar, however.
Compared to WhatsApp, Facebook apps on Android were such a mess. Sometimes I could see Facebook’s own emoji, other times Android’s emoji, and in some cases just blanks or question marks. Until today, even on a phone running Android 8.1, Facebook apps still seem to be quite inconsistent when it comes to emoji. Meh!
Just like WhatsApp and Facebook, many other vendors like Twitter also provide their own emoji. Another level of confusion arises here as sometimes applications override system defaults, while other times an operating system may force its own emoji within almost any application, like iOS does.
When I mentioned that we cannot break down an emoji into smaller units, well, that wasn’t the full story. While an emoji doesn’t consist of smaller characters in the same manner a word consists of letters, yet some emoji contain additional layers called ‘modifiers’. So far, there are two types of modifiers: one for ‘skin tone’ which was first introduced in 2015, and another for ‘gender’ which wasn’t proposed until 2016.
These relatively new modifiers finally made emoji more inclusive and diverse, which is indeed a great accomplishment. However, there are many older devices which are still being in use but they don’t support these emoji modifiers, and most likely they never will. So if you are, for instance, sending the ‘woman with medium skin tone raising hand’ emoji to a device that doesn’t support either or both modifiers, there are multiple possibilities to the way that emoji will be displayed:
(A) If only one modifier is not supported it may be reset to its default value, while the other one being applied normally. For example, if the missing modifier is the skin tone, it can be reset to the default yellow color but you will still be able to see a ‘woman raising hand’ emoji.
(B) In some cases, an emoji can be divided into multiple symbols, each representing a different layer. In our example, you may see a ‘person raising hand’ and next to it the ‘female sign’, instead of seeing a single emoji conveying the same message.
(C) The emoji will not appear at all, and may get replaced by boxes, question marks, or a blank space.
(D) One more possible scenario is that you may see a combination of both B and C.
The Present vs. The Future
Despite all the negatives highlighted so far, but I think that emoji might already be going in the right direction. Perhaps it is just not moving as fast as it needs to be. The awareness of how significant emoji has become is gradually increasing among device makers and platform vendors, which is a good indicator, but it is just not good enough.
To be fair, it is not solely the vendors’ responsibility after all. The speed in which consumers adopt new technologies also plays a huge role in this game. While developers are working harder and updating their software more frequently than they used to do in the past, it usually remains in the hands of consumers to decide whether to opt in or out of these new updates. Another problem is that in many cases you will need to spend more money in order to enjoy an upgrade, and not everyone has the luxury to replace their phone every one or two years unless it’s for a really good reason.
To explain what I mean, I will leave you here with a snippet showing figures officially published by Android, then it is up to you if you wish to dig into more statistics by yourself.
The numbers above show that both Android KitKat and Lollipop combined make up 21.4% of the total number of active devices running Android at the time this data was collected in May 2019. This is a huge percentage considering that Android 4.4 was first released in late 2013 and Android 5.0 was released just a year after that. On the other hand, Android Pie, which is the current most recent version has just above 10% on its own, while the second most recent version, Android Oreo, has a share of only 28.3%.
It is also worth mentioning that something like the skin tone modifier wasn’t introduced in Android until version 7.0 (Nougat), with a delay of around two years since the feature debuted in Unicode. That also means that around 40% of current Android users don’t have access to hundreds of emoji which are already available to more users on other platforms. Of course the older versions will become obsolete in time, and there will be newer versions offering even more features. However for that to happen, it may take another four or five years, I suppose. Until then, there will be so much more that millions of users will be missing on every day.
A Few Last Words
There is still so much more that can be written on this topic, but to wrap it up, emoji has broken so many records so far, yet there is more needs to be done. The trickiest part remains that even the slightest change in the design of a specific emoji may alter the way it feels like; from love to hatred, from excitement to indifference, or from disappointment to anger. This is why it really matters to make the emoji language more consistent and accessible for everyone, equally.
I avoided the strong temptation to type any emoji throughout this post, which is probably unlike what would typically expect from a post talking about nothing other than emoji, right? But I did it for a good reason. You could be reading this either on a smartphone or on a laptop, on Android or on iOS, on a web browser or on a mobile app, and each of them may show you a completely different thing than what I originally wanted to say. It’s not all roses and sunshine in the emoji world, or at least not yet! *shrugs*