The emoji diversity lobby

·National Correspondent, Technology

(Emoji design: Kevin McCauley for Yahoo News; background: Getty)

It’s an understatement to say Emma Kelly is a proud redhead. As the owner of the website Ginger Parrot, it’s her job to keep up with her clan’s news. She regularly posts photos of Jessica Chastain, tips for keeping your hair color vibrant and recurring interviews with the “Ginger of the Month.” Recently, however, she’s taken on a weightier cause: the fight for redheads to be represented in emoji form.

After a recent Apple mobile software update that included new, varied skin tones for emoji, she was disappointed to find there were still no illustrated characters that resembled her. So she took to the Internet.

“If you say you’re going to diversify, why not add a few red-haired emoji in the mix?” she wrote in a petition on Change.org, which currently has a little more than 9,000 digital signatures. “Natural redheads may be rare at less than 2 percent of the world’s population, but that is 138,000,000 iPhones waiting to happen.”

Little did Kelly know that getting a new emoji into the standard emoji keyboard — a collection of teeny illustrations that anyone can access on a modern phone, tablet or computer — is a slothlike and politically fraught process. The official American emoji set, which includes such masterpieces as an eggplant, a tempura shrimp and a pile of poop, is regulated by a little-known, opaque organization called the Unicode Consortium. Based in Mountain View, California, the group was created by major software and hardware manufacturers at the dawn of the World Wide Web to standardize characters and fonts. It ensures that text and symbols appear the same from device to device no matter what operating system you use. For years, those standards have been almost unanimously adopted by tech giants like Apple, Google and Microsoft.

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(Change.org)

It was all a relatively uncontroversial process until 2007, when the UC decided to include emoji, originally developed for pager users in Japan, and stumbled into a cultural minefield. Until very recently, the set didn’t include African-Americans or same-sex families. And even after its most recent update, it still lacks human symbols for the handicapped and — much to Kelly’s concern — redheads. These absences have inspired fiery online petitions demanding that there should be more diversity within the set.

Having labored in relative obscurity since its founding 24 years ago and never having faced much scrutiny, the UC was caught off-guard by the criticism and slow to react. But more recently it has started to take concrete steps to answer the critics.

To address the lack of diversity in emoji, the UC drafted a landmark document this winter known as Unicode Technical Report #51. For the first time ever, it will outline the criteria required for proposed emoji and offer guidelines for how they should be depicted. In a way, the document is a response to Kelly’s lobbying efforts and those of all the people and constituencies before her who requested new skin tones, food items or symbols for Beyoncé.

But even in addressing these issues, the consortium is unwittingly echoing a larger Silicon Valley riddle: Can a mostly white-male group of tech insiders really ensure that their industry is representing minorities, too? For critics like Kelly, the proof will come when the iconic characters that have become a part of our daily discourse look more like the world they inhabit.

A language is born

Most of the emoji on your phone weren’t crafted for an American audience, let alone with the intention of revolutionizing digital communication. They started as a business ploy. In the early 1990s, a Japanese telecom employee named Shigetaka Kurita invented emoji to get a leg up on his fellow competitors in the pager industry, choosing a set of illustrations that were largely arbitrary. After other companies followed suit, emoji took off in Asia.

Then, in August 2007, a Japanese Google engineer named Katsuhiko Momoi lobbied to bring emoji to America under the regulation of the UC, citing research that found Japanese users, especially women, thought their messages fell flat without emoji. With backing from several of his colleagues, the little symbols were integrated into the company’s email and Gchat services. It was a move that several UC members described to me as “opening the floodgates.” Years later, Katsuhiko, who still works at Google, says he had no idea what he was starting. “In hindsight, we may not have anticipated the power and popularity of emoji in America,” he told Yahoo News.

As the UC standardized these symbols, other tech giants automatically integrated them into their operating systems — each adding its own individual aesthetic to the set. Take the pizza emoji: No matter what device you’re using, the pizza emoji is represented as a single pepperoni slice. That’s the guiding shape and look as decreed by the UC. But Apple’s version is mouthwateringly realistic, Google’s contains one green pepper and is oozing with cheese, and Microsoft’s looks as stiff as cardboard.

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(Emoji: Kevin McCauley for Yahoo News)

Emoji remained buried in the international keyboards section of most American phones until enthusiastic texters eventually discovered them. By 2013 they had become such an ingrained part of the culture that you could find them on $340 designer loafers, in reports from the White House Council of Economic Advisers, and on the walls of Chelsea art galleries.

An island in the valley

To understand why emoji caught the Unicode Consortium so flatfooted, you have to understand the origin of this otherwise boring, highly technical organization. The group was founded in January 1991 by Xerox’s Joe Becker and Apple’s Lee Collins and Mark Davis (the current president and now a Google employee) to standardize the text encoding process. Text encoding has existed for decades in the form of Braille or flag signaling. Each letter or punctuation mark is communicated through a pattern of bumps on a surface or a special sweep of a flag through the air. That basic concept carries over in the computer world, where each character is made up of a unique pattern that ensures it’ll translate correctly from device to device. Since its beginning, the UC’s prosaic purpose has been to standardize those patterns so the letter “A” is the letter “A” no matter how you send it.

Navigating the UC’s website, it’s clear the organization was never built for public interaction, let alone with a grassroots critic like Kelly in mind. Its design is outdated, and the text on the site is mostly technical jargon. People sometimes have so much trouble finding the UC’s feedback form that they direct their suggestions to Emojipedia.org — a crisp online hub dedicated to chronicling each and every emoji across different platforms that has absolutely no sway in official emoji decisions.

Though the UC website does allow for public comment, its major decisions are largely determined by large tech companies who can afford to pay a full membership. Currently Adobe, Apple, Google, Huawei, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Yahoo and the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs (which provides guidance on Arabic script) all pay $18,000 a year for “full membership,” which allots them a vote at all important meetings. Other members pay less, but the less they pay for a membership, the fewer votes they get. A $7,500 membership for nonprofits, for instance, nets half of a vote at technical meetings. An individual membership costs $75 and simply allows interested people to participate in discussions.

In other words, the UC has always made decisions based on the opinions of a select few representatives. And because most of its member tech companies have historically lacked diverse staffs — especially in the field of programming — the UC’s executive board and voting technical committee are mostly male and white. Of 11 current board of director members and executive officers, seven are men, and all but one are white.

Skin tones for all

Given the consortium’s lack of diversity, it’s little surprise that the first change did not come from within. Instead, the first public call for change came from a scrappy pop star who twerked her way to superstardom. In December 2012, Miley Cyrus tweeted “RT if you think there needs to be an #emojiethnicityupdate” to her some 19 million followers. The call inspired a number of online petitions from nonprofit sites like Change and Do Something, urging Apple and Google to include symbols representing different races. One blog post, titled “Are Emojis Racist?” drew connections between status and skin tone of emoji, noting that “some white emojis, such as the image of the police officer, appear to hold positions of power, emphasizing the idea that minorities do not commonly occupy skilled jobs like these.”

With pressure mounting, Apple’s reps were finally forced to make a statement in March 2013. After an MTV blogger reached out to CEO Tim Cook about the issue, he received a response from the company’s vice president of communications, Katie Cotton, agreeing that “there needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.

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(Emoji: Kevin McCauley for Yahoo News)

If you can’t beat ’em

Around the same time, an African-American woman named Katrina Parrott had grown tired of waiting for tech companies to save the day. The former NASA employee was struck with a sense of urgency when her daughter, a senior at the University of Texas, came home to visit one weekend and mentioned that “it sure would be nice to be able to send an emoji to my friends that looks like me.”

Parrott got to work commissioning emoji that included an interracial couple kissing, a smiley face with dreads, and a woman in a hijab. By October 2013, she had a finished product: an app called iDiversicons that contained a 900-emoji keyboard of different families, races and religions. Yet it still bothered Parrott that her emoji were buried in a separate app, excluded from the set most people have readily available while texting.

To address the issue, she went right to the source, paying the $75 annual fee to join the UC as an individual member. (Anyone with a vested interest in standardization is welcome to join the UC). At her first in-person meeting there, she gave a presentation in which she argued iDiversicons would “satisfy a void that the current emojis lack and what the public has been asking for: ‘more faces of color.’”

“I’ll never forget, after I got up and gave my presentation, some of the feedback I received was: ‘Katrina, I don’t think anybody was taking this diverse emoji seriously until you came and gave your presentation to the committee,’” she said in a recent interview.

The emoji constitution

Parrott’s presence made it clear that diversity was no longer an issue the UC could ignore. Though the consortium denied her request to integrate iDiversicons into the standard, it finally decided to tackle the issue of physical appearance. In the process, the committee drafted universal guidelines — what became known as UTR#51 — setting out criteria for new emoji and general design instructions. These new rules, to be officially implemented in June, are expected to lay the groundwork for wholesale change—a veritable emoji rainbow.

“It’s a very different kind of process than we’re used to using,” Davis, who co-authored the document, told Yahoo News. “Emoji are of a different breed.”

But Emma Kelly’s crusade on behalf of ginger-haired emoji fell short. The redheaded digital caricature was immediately dismissed, written off in a terse decree that read, “Dark hair is recommended for generic images that include hair. People of every skin tone can have black (or very dark brown) hair, so it is more neutral.” (The only exception to this rule is an emoji named “person with blonde hair,” which was added to the set long before the issue of skin color.)

But after Parrott’s presentation, a long and heated debate about skin tone kicked off on the organization’s email listserv, which is open to all members. Some felt that color specifications of any sort had no place in the world of plain text; others wanted to include skin-tone options for the entire color spectrum. Parrott felt that changing the skin tone but not facial and hair features defeated the purpose of adding diverse emoji in the first place.

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(Emoji: Kevin McCauley for Yahoo News)

Finally they settled on applying something called the Fitzpatrick scale to every human emoji. The numerical system was invented by a dermatologist to show how different skin types are affected by UV light. Though the organization makes no explicit mention of race, most people using these emoji — whether African-American. Asian, Hispanic or Indian — can probably find a skin tone that resembles theirs. Even then, there were numerous disagreements about how to display faces on the five-color scale. Do you go from lighter to darker or from darker to lighter? Should they just randomize? As Ken Lunde, the UC representative for Adobe, told Yahoo News, “There’s no way to win.” They finally ended up just following the order of the original scale.

Shervin Afshar, a member of the subcommittee from the company HighTech Passport, says approving the skin-tone modifiers opened up another level of specific requests, but “that doesn’t mean the UC can just address all types of diversity in human appearance everywhere.” The committee — as Afshar and many other consortium members I spoke to implied — needed to draw the line somewhere, and redheads ended up on the other side of it.

“I view that as the [consortium’s] attempt at testing the waters,” Lunde told Yahoo News.

In other words, it may not be the final word on the matter, but the UC’s lack of interest in the ginger cause indicates it will be just as slow and cautious about hair colors as it was with skin tones.

Finally, the group tackled the criteria for approving new emoji. At the beginning of 2015, the UTC created the first ever emoji subcommittee, which now presides over every official emoji request. That group (which includes Parrott) drafted a list of factors to consider when evaluating a potential emoji candidate, which includes:

  • Level of popularity. The subcommittee answers this question by looking at the frequency in which a word or image is searched for online, examining data on emojitracker.com and imagining an emoji’s multiple uses.

  • Similarity to existing emoji. They’re not going to add a cassoulet or a stew if they already have a “pot of food.”

  • Filling a gap. Is there a church but no mosque? A dancing woman without a dancing man?

  • Generality. The subcommittee prefers items that can stand for much more than just one thing. A shark, for instance, could stand for “jumping the shark, card shark, [or] loan shark.”

  • Ease of communication in an existing sequence. Crying baby, for instance, could be represented with a crying emoji and a baby face.

  • Frequency of requests. Everyone wants a taco.

There’s also a short list of things that are all but guaranteed to take your emoji out of the running:

  • Logos, brands or symbols from operating systems.

  • Specific people, living or dead.

  • Deities (including Beyoncé).

Tagged onto this set of criteria was a new set of emoji that will be integrated into most major operating systems in June. It includes a taco, a unicorn and a volleyball.

Even with these additions, the subcommittee has wasted no time preparing for next year’s update: Unicode 9.0. Yahoo News has learned that it approved 38 new emoji earlier this month, that should be added to phones and computers by June 2016 as long as the rest of the consortium approves. Highlights include a “call me” hand, a wilted flower, glasses clinking, a dancing man, bacon and a symbol for selfies — all relatively popular illustrations that don’t raise the issue of identity politics. See the list of all 38 here.

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A sample of the new emoji coming next year. Clockwise from top left: Selfie, bacon, wilted flower, man dancing, “call me” hand, and glasses clinking. (Illustration: Kevin McCauley for Yahoo News).

The battle ahead

Despite the UC’s rejection, Kelly hasn’t given up. Once she gets 10,000 signatures on her petition, she plans to submit her plea to Apple, in hopes they’ll redesign an existing character or two with auburn hair. If the battle for modified skin tones is any indicator, it could take years for Apple to respond. Or the company might never come around.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we never heard from Apple,” she told Yahoo News. “But if someday a redhead emoji is added, Ginger Parrot would like to think it’s all thanks to us.”

Follow Alyssa Bereznak on Twitter or email her here.