Who Decides Which Emojis You Get on Your Smartphone?

November 10, 2016 - 3 minutes read

The Unicode Consortium does a lot of good for the world. It’s thanks to the efforts of this mostly volunteer organization that smartphone users can type in Chinese and rest assured that it’ll be readable on any other device. For speakers of obscure languages like Fulani, the consortium’s work literally pulls a whole culture across the digital divide.

But standardizing scripts for daily use aren’t what pushed the Unicode Consortium into the spotlight. For iPhone app developers and users, what matters most is once aspect of their work: emojis.

While the process for vetting and approving emojis might seem obscure, the journey from idea to universal keyboard symbol is less opaque than some app developers might suspect. The Unicode Consortium is actually composed of volunteers from a variety of leading tech companies (including Google), and was originally founded with the goal of standardizing communications between Xerox and Windows (yes, it’s that old).

The group’s co-founder and current president is Google employee Mark Davis, who’s can be found hamming up his role as the “shadowy emoji overlord” on social media when he isn’t solving pressing issues for his employer or the consortium.

For those of us curious why there isn’t a dinosaur emoji yet, or who decided what skin tones and genders to include for which symbols, the process is actually surprisingly straightforward. According to Davis, proposals can be submitted directly to the consortium, who considers the real-world usability of proposals above all else. Like every other keyboard symbol, the consortium determines the underlying codes that represent each image, ensuring the work on iOS, Android, OSX, Windows, and etc.

Part of the reason the vetting process takes a long time is the fear of overloading the keyboard with too many special characters. As any Boston app developer knows, each built-in symbol requires memory and introduces more complexity for users.

While it might not matter on the new iPhone 7 or Pixel, you can be sure that the less advanced smartphones used by the vast majority of mobile users will eventually hit a tipping point where they can’t keep up with the lexicon. Preventing that issue is a part of the Unicode Consortium’s consideration — and the reason we don’t have more skin tones, foods, and objects to choose from when crafting the perfect text message.

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