Florie Hutchinson’s crusade against emoji fashion started last year, on the heels of the presidential election and the 2017 Women’s March. She’d been thinking about feminism, her three young daughters, the kind of world she hopes they grow up in.
Then one day, thumbing a message on her phone, a predictive emoji popped up. It was a shoe. Specifically, a red stiletto.
To Hutchinson, the stiletto seemed like an exaggerated, even sexualized, representation of women’s footwear. So she started looking for alternatives in the emoji closet. There was a pair of jeans, a button-down shirt with a tie. A dress. A kimono. Scarf, gloves, socks. A pink polka-dot bikini. A pink blouse with a generous V-neck. A heeled boot, a heeled sandal, and the red stiletto. Whoever designed the clothes for emoji women, she thought, must’ve likened them to Barbie dolls: hyperboles, with feet designed to fit only into heels.
An emoji is worth 1,000 words and all of these emoji have stories behind them.
Emoji proposal author Florie Hutchinson
Hutchinson didn’t know much about emoji or how they’re designed, so she started googling for the person to blame. She landed on the website for Unicode, emoji’s governing body, where she found that new emoji ideas are crowdsourced from people all around the world. Anyone can submit an idea. And so Hutchinson took it upon herself to create a better women’s shoe.
“I spent the month of June writing up my proposal,” says Hutchinson, “fact finding, getting the Google analytics, the trends, nerding out on shoe history. I know so much about women’s shoe-wearing habits now.” Hutchinson settled on a classic ballerina flat: small and blue, distinctly feminine, definitely flat.
Last week, Hutchinson’s little blue flat emoji was adopted into Unicode 11.0, along with 156 other icons. The list includes superheroes and supervillains, a dozen new animals, options to give emoji red hair, white hair, or no hair at all. There’s a mooncake, a red envelope, a nazar amulet; a petri dish, a microbe, a DNA double helix.
Taken as a collective, the new emoji look like a jumble of digital plants and animals and household items. But behind each proposal, there are clues about how our digital communication is becoming more nuanced, more colorful, and more important.
“You look at a blue flat shoe and it seems innocuous enough. Why should anyone care?” says Hutchinson. “But then you realize an emoji is worth 1,000 words and all of these emoji have stories behind them.”
If you consider emoji a language, then it is the fastest-growing language in the world. It transcends countries, cultures, generations, and operating systems; just about anyone, whether a native speaker of English, Arabic, Japanese, or Russian, can become fluent. There are differences of interpretation, yes, just like a friendly hand gesture in one culture can register as obscene in another. By in large, though, emoji are universal. Think of it like body language—primitive, but intuitive. If two people with no languages in common can interpret the meaning of a smile, so too can they understand the meaning of 😀.
When emoji first debuted on Japanese mobile phones in 1999, the original 176 characters were meant to represent basic information: the weather 🌧️, the traffic 🚗, whether your girlfriend was ❤️ or 💔 about that thing you said last night. Today, that vocabulary has grown to 2,623 emoji, excluding the 157 that will reach platforms later this year. To put that in perspective: The Oxford English Dictionary officially adds about 1,000 new words every year (inventions like “ransomware” and “mansplain”) to the existing 600,000 words in the dictionary. Unicode adds new emoji at about 35 times that rate.
“We’re at a stage where there’s a fair few emoji out there. I think [the new emoji] are just a matter of rounding out the list a little,” says Jeremy Burge, the head of Emojipedia, who also vice-chairs the subcommittee at Unicode that chooses new emoji. “What’s left that people are obviously wanting and will obviously use? Hopefully this fills in some gaps there.”
Burge, like many others, doesn’t think of emoji as a language. There isn’t enough precision or structure to communicate complex thoughts in emoji alone.
“It parallels some of the ways that early ideographs were used,” says Mark Davis, the president and co-founder of Unicode. If you look at emoji now, he says, they’re almost all nouns. No adjectives, very few verbs. It’s almost impossible to describe, using emoji, concepts like higher or lower, slower or faster, better or worse. “I can’t say something is heavy or light. I could use a mouse or an elephant to convey that, but that could be confusing.”
The nouns, though, have become incredibly precise. Before, there was an emoji to suggest nausea and an emoji for vomiting; now, one for the don’t-pull-over-the-car-just-yet feeling of wooziness. Before, an emoji for when you’re hot with shame 😳, for when you’re hot with anger 😡, for when you’re sweating 😓, for when you’re smiling but also panicking in a cold sweat 😅; now, an emoji for when your face is just… hot. The emoji zoo includes dozens of animals, the emoji household is crowded with things. There is now an emoji fire and a fire extinguisher.
Hutchinson’s little blue flat, like many of the other new emoji, follows a trend of making the emoji more intelligible. There were already five ways to say “shoe” in emoji, but a shoe is not always just a shoe—it’s a way to communicate ideas about people, gender, fashion, and culture. There were already ways to say “good luck” in emoji (🤞 or 🍀 or 🙏), but now, with the addition of the “evil eye” emoji, there’s something a little more like “luck and protection.” Emoji already show incredible nuance for things like the weather (cloudy ☁️, slightly cloudy 🌤️, cloudier yet 🌥️, cloudy with rain 🌧️, cloudy with lightning 🌩️, cloudy with lightning and rain ⛈️, cloudy with snow 🌨️, cloudy with rain but also a little bit of sunshine 🌦️). With every batch of new emoji, those nuances spread to other categories of communication: describing people, describing traditions, describing emotions.
That all makes it possible to use emoji in new ways—not just punctuating the end of a text message with 😏 to suggest sarcasm, but actually using emoji to create standalone meaning. Take, for example, the new mosquito emoji. The idea was suggested by Jeff Chertack, who heads malaria advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Marla Shaivitz, who works at the Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs. In their proposal, Chertack and Shaivitz made a public health case. The mosquito emoji, they argued, “would give health professionals a quick way to communicate with the public about the presence of mosquitoes, and allow researchers to promote their work around mosquito-borne diseases more easily via social media.” A new batch of science-related emoji—like a test tube, a petri dish, a DNA double helix—could achieve similar aims.
The mosquito emoji could also be used in many other ways, of course. You could pair it with ⛺ while texting a friend before a camping trip, or use it beside 😒 when someone’s really bugging you. But the idea that it could be a part of a campaign against malaria, or Zika, or other mosquito-borne illnesses—a way for doctors to cross the border of language, to simplify a public health plea to those who are illiterate—represents something much bigger than a little icon on a keyboard. It’s one indication that with a more expressive emoji keyboard, we can use these communication icons in entirely new ways.
After the red stiletto debacle, Hutchinson briefly considered that she might be making a mountain out of a molehill. Did anyone really care about a tiny digital shoe? But then she thought of her three young daughters, the way they might text their friends in the future, and the kind of emoji she’d want at their fingertips.
“My thought was: I have a responsibility to make sure that at least this tiny slice of the emoji vocabulary is evolved,” she says.
Looking for advice, she cold-emailed Jennifer Lee, a former journalist for The New York Times who led the charge for a dumpling emoji, which Unicode added last year. Lee’s dumpling project led to the formation of Emojination, a grassroots group devoted to diversifying and democratizing the emoji vocabulary. It’s had a hand in getting emoji representing the hijab (for Muslims), the bagel (for Jews), broccoli (for vegetarians), and people coming out of a sauna (for Finnish people, who really like saunas).
“I landed on her website and I thought, ‘Here’s a person who actually submitted an emoji,’” Hutchinson says. She sent Lee an email, told her she was thinking of creating an emoji—a classic flat shoe, something a regular woman would wear, definitely not pink. “And within a matter of hours, she replied: ‘This is a good idea. Deadline is July 1.’” Hutchinson set to work on drafting her proposal.
If you ask Burge or Davis, the key to a good proposal is proving that people will use it. Unicode isn’t an arbiter of culture or representation; its job isn’t to decide which groups of people, or which types of food, deserve representation on our digital screens. Instead, emoji get chosen when they offer a way to say something that no other emoji can. “You’d try to convince us that yes, there’s evidence that this is going to be widely used,” says Davis. “But also we look for: Is it breaking new ground? Is it something that’s different from other things?”
In Hutchinson’s proposal, she argued that a ballet flat meant something entirely different than the red stiletto, or the heeled sandal, or the heeled boot. Not only that, but it was something people would use instead of those alternatives. “I used Google Trends to look at how women are looking up flats or ballet flats versus stilettos,” she says. “It turns out that ‘stiletto’ is only really actively googled in three countries: Brazil, Greece, and Italy. At the time, the hashtag for ‘ballerina flats’ and ‘flats’ was over 5 million, whereas the hashtag for ‘stiletto’ was 1 million.” In the end, Hutchinson snuck in her own philosophical argument: “Implicit bias can lay dormant forever until there is a course correction made.”
Now that Unicode has approved Hutchinson’s proposal, it’s up to platforms like Apple and Android to roll them onto devices later this year. (Apple famously introduces them in the fall, while other platforms tend to release them earlier.)
Even with nearly 3,000 to choose from, the emojicabulary is far from exhaustive. There is no emoji for schadenfreude, or mansplaining, or thinking about your own death. There are countless nouns left to visualize, countless people and places and things with no emoji analog. But with every update, the emoji keyboard gets a little bit richer. And as it does, we gain new ways to communicate our ideas, beliefs, feelings, and identities across a vast digital landscape.