Emojis have come a long way from their start in Japan. Back in 1999, emojis were simple, monochromatic and pixelated. There were not many options to choose from, 176 in all, but as technology evolved, so did the emoji keyboard. As tech companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft emerged, so did the need for an emoji unicode. Thus, in 2007, the Emoji Unicode was born, though it took until 2008 for emojis to make their way into the American mainstream with the introduction of the Apple iPhone.
By 2010, the number of emojis jumped to 722, and this number is only getting bigger with each year. As of 2021, there are 3,521 emojis in the Unicode, with 217 new emojis dropping early 2021 in the Unicode Emoji 13.1 set according to Emojipedia (the 217 emojis already released for Google Pixel users at the time of this writing).
Those who owned an Apple or Android product in the early 2010s may remember how different emojis used to look. The art style was different, there was not as much variety and for emojis representing people, there was only one skin color: white. While there were not many worker-emojis in the keyboard (construction worker was one of the only options), emojis had an all-male workforce, as female emojis were delegated to painting their nails or shrugging their shoulders rather than having a job. Family emojis existed too, but they were limited to opposite-sex couples.
This changed April 2015, when Apple released a sweeping update that allowed people of color to be represented in their emoji by adding five different skin options, the only exception being family emojis whose skin color stayed emoji yellow. In later years, a female option for every job as well as same-sex families and couples were added to the Unicode. By 2019, a non-binary version was created for every person emoji in an attempt to become more gender inclusive.
Now for 2021, the Unicode has released skin color options for couple, kissing and family emojis, as well as non-binary and female emojis with beards. This encompassses the majority of the new 217 emojis, as each skin color is a different emoji in the Unicode, but other new emojis include a heart on fire, healing heart and person covered in fog.
With so much variety in emojis, 63% of Heritage students (out of a sample size of 87) feel there is a person emoji that represents them. However, not everyone is represented. Despite originally coming from Japan, no person emoji is overtly of Asian-descent other than a Japanese doll emoji. There are also no people with glasses and only three options for hair color.
“The fact that they are making more of these emojis to include different people and their unique differences shows that our world, though so divided, is little by little starting to unite,” freshman Amara Okpala said. “It also makes young people like me feel like we belong, to help us go through tough times like this by just knowing that other people see and recognize us.”
However, not all students believe representation is important.
“It demonstrates the fragility of our identity that we have to compensate by forcing companies to release thousands of the same emojis that already exist in yellow. Personally, I don’t care, however the emoji expansion is a chilling reminder that a texted smiley face can offend a person,” sophomore Brian Lee said.
Having an emoji that represents a minority group is not going to cure oppression on its own, but as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook Sheryl Sandberg said as she pushed for more representation of professional women in Getty Images, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Her same argument can be applied to emoji representation; seeing female emojis in professional careers or non-binary emojis simply existing can help normalize them in society.
If you have an emoji idea, you can even submit a proposal, which, if approved, will be implemented across all platforms. Ultimately, the Unicode is constantly evolving, so the emojis of today will likely not look like the emojis of the future.