Emojis! We all have feelings about them! Some less that others! We can all agree, though, that the current emoji library is like the Western literary canon: completely lacking in racial diversity. Even Apple agrees. Earlier this week, the Unicode Consortium, the governing body behind standard emojis, announced that the upcoming release of Unicode 8.0 will include an option for variable skin tones — we just have to wait til next June. The Consortium’s explanation for its monochromatism: “The Unicode emoji characters for people and body parts are meant to be generic, yet following the precedents set by the original Japanese carrier images, they are often shown with a light skin tone instead of a more generic (nonhuman) appearance, such as a yellow/orange color or a silhouette.”
In the last Unicode update, 7.0, which came out July of this year, they added 250 new emoji, including a middle finger, a left writing hand, and seven new variations of airplanes. Why is racial diversity taking so long to incorporate? How hard is it really to add new emoji?
I turned to the official Unicode Consortium proposal for answers. First, a crash course in Unicode: Unicode is the standardized method of encoding, representing, and handling of text across all computers, programs, phones, etc. Its library includes over 110,000 characters (over 900 of them emoji) that span 100 scripts and languages. Your computer or phone platform then renders the code, which is why iPhone emojis look different from Android emojis. For a new emoji to get added to the encoding standard, it has to go through a lengthy process that has to prove, among other things, that it’s “in widespread use, as textual elements.” Which makes sense. Unicode is used by virtually any device that displays text. A new character needs to be important and useful enough to warrant changing the standard for every device in the world. But also, is racial diversity less widely spread than a fax icon?
Turns out, the Unicode Consortium isn’t interested in adding multiple differently-shaded versions of the same emoji to the standard. Instead, there will only be five new additions, or modifier characters, each corresponding with a skin type on the Fitzpatrick Scale. When shown by itself, it’ll look like a color swatch, but when following certain emojis, it’ll change the skin tone of that emoji. And if your phone hasn’t updated its own font to reflect combined emoji characters? Then the color swatch will still show up, so that “the user can still see that a skin tone was intended.” Even more, if you don’t bother to follow up a human emoji with a modifier, then it should show up with a “non-realistic skin tone, such as that typically used for the smiley faces, or a silhouette.” A minimal set of 33 emojis must implement modification, while an optional set of 118 more than can be modified, if the rendering platform developer chooses to incorporate them.
What about group emojis, you ask? Will we get interracial couple emojis in the new update? Unfortunately, the modifier character will apply to all the people in a couple or group character. You can’t assign different skin tones to the same emoji. Anticipating this question, the proposal for Unicode 8.0 suggests that:
Users can employ techniques already found in current emoji practice, in which a sequence of emoji is intended to be read together as a unit, with each emoji in the sequence contributing some piece of information about the unit as a whole. Users can simply enter separate emoji characters for each member of the group, each with their own skin tone e.g.: , possibly preceded by a group character.
That doesn’t directly answer why this solution took so long to develop, but given how (ostensibly) long it takes to review a proposal for new emojis, it’s no surprise that the Unicode Consortium settled on a way to add only five new characters, as opposed to at least 132 (four new shades multiplied by the minimal 33 affected emojis). Maybe previous proposals to diversify the collection were too ambitious, or too hard to standardize across different renderings, or didn’t leave room for future additions. Merely adding racially diverse versions of existing emoji doesn’t solve the problem of representation in future people-emoji proposals. With modifier characters, we’ll always have the option to diversify.
But Unicode diversification is still months away, and there’s still no taco emoji in the works, as far as I know. Here are a few apps out now that’ll help you express yourself to the fullest through emoji. Remember, though, they’re not Unicode Standard, so whoever you send them to will have to have the same app installed.
1. iDiversicons (iPhone and Android)
Born out of a commitment to emoji representation, iDiversicons has over 900 characters in its directory.
2. Basedmoji (iPhone only)
Released by Lil B, Basedmoji is a set of Lil B-created emojis that fulfill all your Based God and POC-moji needs.
3. Oju Africa (Android only)
Powered by Mi-Fone, an African mobile device brand, Oju Africa was developed to “celebrate our diversity” and “liberate Africans from digital exclusion.”
Not actually a set of emoji, Taco Text just lets you send a taco through text and other messaging apps. It’s the perfect response to the serious lack of tacos in the current emoji lineup. You can choose between an Everyday Taco, a Breakfast Taco, a Fish Taco, or a Mystery Taco(!??!).
This has been the one-hundred-third installment of Queer Your Tech with Fun, Autostraddle’s nerdy tech column. Not everything we cover is queer per se, but we talk about customizing this awesome technology you’ve got. Having it our way, expressing our appy selves just like we do with our identities. Here we can talk about anything from app recommendations to choosing a wireless printer to web sites you have to favorite to any other fun shit we can do with technology. Header by Rory Midhani.