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Unicode is over and it dies over Emoji

In 1982, Scott Fahlmann invented the use of :-) and :-( for marking up emotions or semantic context in written online communication. That was a great idea.

The :-) is just a symbol for an emotion. It is specifically not a human face, it does not have a hair color, eye color, skin color or other human attributes. It is universal.

Then some cellphone maker turned that into , anthropomorphising it. Come as it must, we soon get color, and it turns into 🙂. That Simpsons yellow was read by some as white and non-inclusive, and here is where things start to break down.

Because the logical thing would be to stop here and revert back to . But that is not what the Unicode consortium did. They went this way:

The Fitzpatrick Scale of skin colors inspired the U+1F3FB – U1F3FF suffixes for skin toned Emoji.

That was not a good thing. How do I know?

In the wake of this change we got articles like Why White People Don’t Use White Emoji and Kendall Jenner is being accused of cultural appropriation for using the ‘wrong’ emoji.

That is, something that was supposed to be an annotation for conveying emotion became not only anthropomorphised to the point where that meaning is overshadowed by race, gender and culture issues.

We are considering a full modification system for Emoji, in the (withdrawn) TR52. Taking this to the logical conclusion, what we get is this:

Skyrim Character Editor

That is, someone is taking the point of writing out of writing and is trying to put all the expression of a video chat or video game into a single glyph.

Coming back to the withdrawn TR52: we just got FROWNING PILE OF POO:

Frowning pile of poo clearly has race issues.

We also get Emoji with hair colors and hair styles in Emoji 6.0.

And people in the Unicode consortium are not amused about the pile of poo with facial expressions, but while valid, it’s missing the larger point.

What people actually would need is most likely something more like universal Giphy integration and less Skyrim character editor for Emoji. Sadly, nobody in the Unicode consortium is trying to fix this, and so we get a lot of symbol pollution in a thing that was supposed to be a writing system.

Published inComputer Science


  1. Rudolf Polzer

    Let’s encode SVG into Unicode.

    And then let’s add JavaScript event handlers into Unicode codepoints.

  2. Olli

    TL;DR So, how do I play a pile of poo in Skyrim?

    • kris kris

      Smiling or frowning pile of poo?

      • Ds

        Looks to me like a lot of the alleged frown emoji are actually showing sad or unhappy. Many of them get the eyebrows wrong – should be down, not up, in the middle.

  3. Matthias

    I want a company specific snmp-mib style subset for personal use.

  4. Chris Pimlott

    It seems like the symbols in the first two paragraphs are meant to be original colon-and-parenthesis emoticons but they appear to have been unintentionally (auto-converted?) as emoji icons. Which is its own issue…

  5. A very keen observation that speaks trouble for our written communications. It is essentially the same pattern highlighted in Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves To Death,” which examines the decline of public discourse in the age of television.

    The way we share ideas and put forth thought is now indiscernible from entertainment. Visuals alone cannot supplant structured writing, logic, and prose. Unfortunately, with the evolving nature of emoji, it seems like the masses would sure like it better if we could just communicate in symbols.

    • Boundless

      Nouveau hieroglyphs for the foreboding post-literate age.

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