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MIT Technology Review

The woman who will decide what emoji we get to use

As the new head of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium, Jennifer Daniel has a vision for how to make these symbols work for everyone.

image in robin's egg blue background of woman at bottom jennifer daniel looking thoughtful with four emoji above her thinking face emoji hand pointing down emoji unicorn emoji and smartphone emojiimage in robin's egg blue background of woman at bottom jennifer daniel looking thoughtful with four emoji above her thinking face emoji hand pointing down emoji unicorn emoji and smartphone emoji
Ms Tech | Courtesy Photo

Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.

Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.

Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil. 

Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.

“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.

I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed. 

What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?

It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.

I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down. 

There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy. 

Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?

My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.

When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.

The latest release of emoji, the first under your tenure, includes a face covered in clouds. It can variously mean someone who is dealing with brain fog, or smoking weed, or someone who is mortified. Maybe we haven’t figured out another explanation, or there’s another cultural understanding of it too! That’s totally different from basic smiley face emoji, for example. How are you thinking of creating emoji with layers of meaning? 

The internet is full of metaphors. We lean on it a lot online. You say, for example, “I feel attacked.” That means you saw something that really hit you hard. You’re not actually getting attacked. But it’s conveying that feeling, and the other person understands it. The upside-down face—it’s a feeling. It’s a vibe. Maybe you look at it and you see that next to a string of words, and you know that a person is feeling loopy or is indicating sarcasm. It’s flexible based on context.

Abstract concepts are globally relevant. We want emoji to be useful and popular and flexible. And multiple uses are at the top of my mind.

You’ve been critical in helping to introduce nonbinary or genderless emoji. For example, a pregnant body isn’t necessarily “feminine,” and a baby’s clothing is neither blue nor pink. How do you respond to people who say emoji shouldn’t be political?

I mean, look, even a few years ago, how many people were using the word “they” for a person? That has rapidly changed. Imagery isn’t apolitical in any way. It’s political. Take bathroom symbols. Why does a woman wear a skirt? I get it, it’s shorthand. But is it political to use that character, or is it political to lean into something just because that’s the way it was designed?

What goals do you want to achieve as chair?

I’m operating in a way to create a structure and process that continues on, whether I’m involved or not.

One of the goals I have is to make sure the emoji are globally relevant concepts. They have to relate to everyone in the world. That’s not to say that globally relevant means the emoji means the same thing all around the world. Hand gestures can mean different things, for example. But we have to know the history. Rope is a good example. It became a lynching emoji. We have to anticipate that. History is completely unavoidable with design. We ended up making a knot emoji. Same meaning, but the design is different. That’s my primary priority.

When you text a letter on your keyboard, you expect the recipient to see the letter on their end. With emoji, we’re not there yet. Over the past two or three years, we’ve been really aligning everyone to make sure images are the same. Like if there’s a picture of a crutch, can we align on meaningful details? The color, the angle, the type?

And third, we want to reconcile the rapid, transient nature of communication with a formal process for people to apply to get their emoji seen by us. Emoji are unstoppable, and language is unstoppable. You can mush emoji together to create these amazing things without words. The internet is optimized to share pictures of cats and news clippings and music, but how can we optimize the internet to share emoji so everyone sees and uses them?

People have to apply to get their emoji suggestions considered and approved. How do you hope to not only get diverse applicants but release diverse emoji?

This is important to me. We publish our strategy documents every quarter to get feedback. This is how we’re thinking about representation, how we’re thinking about directionality. I hope it demystifies the process, and it’s also helpful to know why some emoji are being suggested or made. I am hopeful that sharing these mean you don’t have to agree with how or why an emoji was made, but you can know why you disagree with it, or consider another way to think about it. We have to think about this holistically rather than just adding a platypus or a pterodactyl.

It takes two years to make an emoji from start to finish. And within those two years, so many decisions are made. You get feedback all the time from people. To me, the most helpful thing is to share these docs early and often. 

What Unicode was really, really effective at was identifying a problem that existed. But in some ways, the accessible part of it has been left by the wayside. There is often no alt tag [to describe the emoji via audio]. And even if there is an alt tag, it might not tell you what’s going on. Like during the Trump era, a frog meant something different from the animal [Pepe the Frog, or the sad frog meme, transformed from an innocuous early-aughts cartoon character into a symbol of the alt-right, with white supremacists heavily using it in forums like 4chan and Reddit to further anti-Semitic, racist tropes]. If the audio says “Frog!” you’re not getting an idea of sentiment. Surely there is a way to understand that this is an emoji and reference that back to a meme or explain the secondary meaning. It requires a much more specific meme accessibility team or standard. It’s great that the internet is getting more accessible with captions, but there’s so much more room to improve upon that. Emoji could do better.

I have to ask what your favorite or most-used emoji is.

Since we’re remote working a lot, I tend to use the musical instrument emoji a lot. If someone sends me a bug, I’ll send them a caterpillar emoji plus a saxophone, like I’m fixing the bug; the bug is singing and playing music. Even a butterfly with a violin! I’ll personalize it to whatever instrument I think they might play.

I also use the deep-exhale face a lot. It’s probably a sign of something.