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Hed: The Past and Future of Flag Emoji

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Emoji Flags are dead, long live Emoji Flags 🏁 🏁 🏁

By Jennifer Daniel, Unicode Emoji Subcommittee Chair

With Emoji 16.0
submissions
open from April 4, 2022 through July 31, 2022, the Unicode Emoji
Subcommittee members stand with open arms for your future
hair
pick
,
khanda,
and pink
heart
emoji proposals (BTW, if you were planning to prepare proposals for
those concepts, we have some good news for you: they are already
Emoij 15.0
draft candidates
!).

That being said, there is one particular type of emoji for which
the Unicode Consortium
will no longer accept proposals
. Flag emoji of any category.

Flag emoji have always been subject to special criteria due to their open-ended nature, infrequent use, and burden on implementations. Today nine out of ten are in the top twenty most frequently shared flags. (The only outlier is Russia.) The addition of other flags and thousands of valid sequences into the Unicode Standard has not resulted in wider adoption. They don’t stand still, are constantly evolving, and due to the open-ended nature of flags, the addition of one creates exclusivity at the expense of others.

Why do flag emoji exist in the first place?

Well, the shorter, more technical answer is: The country flags use
a generative mechanism, and were encoded early on for compatibility reasons.

The longer answer requires a flashback to the 1990’s. KDDI and
SoftBank — two Japanese mobile phone carriers — had early emoji sets which
included 10 country flags: 🇨🇳 🇩🇪 🇪🇸 🇫🇷 🇬🇧 🇮🇹 🇯🇵 🇰🇷 🇷🇺 🇺🇸¹. A
possibly apocryphal explanation is that they were used to denote what to grab
for dinner: “American 🇺🇸 or Italian 🇮🇹?” (Such an innocent time in emoji
history, pre-hamburger 🍔 emoji). Alas, as Unicode stepped in to create
meaningful
interoperability
between these carrier-specific encodings, they were
presented with a problem: why should these 10 countries have flag emoji when
others do not?

The original emoji set included ten flags (shown above).

¹ Interestingly, Windows has never supported flag emoji 🔮. So, if
you are reading this on a Windows device and flags aren’t displaying, simply
refer to the image above of the ten original flag emoji.


Various ideas were considered. The Unicode Consortium isn’t in the
business of determining what is a country and what isn’t. That’s when the
Consortium chose ISO
3166-1 alpha 2
as the source for valid country designations. ISO 3166 is a
widely-accepted standard, and this particular mechanism represents each country
with 2 letters, such as “US” (For United States), “FR” (France), or “CN”
(China).

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but by allowing the 10 flag emoji —
and the rest of the country flags — to be accurately interchanged between
DoCoMo, KDDI, SoftBank, Google, and Apple, and others, it worked just fine.

Why this flag emoji but not that one?

Today, the largest emoji category is flags (Out of only ~3600
emoji, there are over 200 flags!). But, did you know that there are over 5,000
geographically-recognized regions that are also “valid”? These are known as
subdivision
regions
and are based on ISO
3166-2. (These include
states in the US,
regions in Italy,
provinces in Argentina,
and so on.)

First, what does “valid” mean to the Unicode Standard? Well, think
of it this way. Today, anyone could make a font of 5,000 emoji flags using these
sequences. They are valid sequences. They are legit sequences. They won’t break.
Any platform, application, or font can implement them. The significant
difference here is that valid doesn’t mean they are recommended for
implementation.

Back to ISO. ISO groups countries in a more formal way than say
FIFA or The Olympics. For example, the four regions of the
UK
are regularly used in sport but not recognized in ISO 3166-1. In 2016, the
Unicode Consortium started looking into solutions to support their inclusion
(with the technical feasibility of adding more if needed in the future). This
was the impetus for adding a general mechanism to make all ISO 3166-2 codes be
valid for flags. However, only three of the 5,000 ISO 3166-2 codes have widely
adopted emoji— England, Scotland, and Wales. (Northern Ireland remains in limbo
until an “official
flag
” is formalized).

Flags for England, Scotland, and Wales were included in Emoji 5.0

So, with so many “valid sequences” why hasn’t anyone taken advantage
of this sweet sweet rich flag opportunity?

At the time, in 2016,
adding a
few flags
seemed reasonable but in retrospect was short-sighted. If the
Emoji Subcommittee recommends the addition of a Catalonia flag emoji, then it
looks like favoritism unless all the
other subdivisions of
Spain
are added. And if those are added, what about the
subdivisions of Japan
or Namibia, or the
Cantons of Liechtenstein?
The inclusion of new flags will always continue to emphasize the exclusion of
others. And there isn’t much room for the fluid nature of politics — countries
change but Unicode additions are forever — once a character is added it can
never be removed. (That being said, font designers can always update the designs
as regimes change).

How are flag emoji used?

Flags are very specific in what they mean, and they don’t represent
concepts used multiple times a day or even multiple times a year. You could say
flag emoji have transcended the messaging experience and are primarily found in
more auto-biographical contexts. (Like your TikTok bio. Or, maybe you add a flag
to your username on Twitter.) But, even then
flags are not as
commonly found in biographical spaces as you may expect
. (The top five emoji
found in Twitter bios? ❤️✨💙💜💛.)

Despite being the largest emoji category with a strong association
tied to identity, flags are
by far the least used.
(There are exceptions: usage of the
rainbow
flag is above median
!) That begs the question, “So, why not encode more
identity flags?” Well, we have seen the same results for flags as we have seen
for other emoji — a very long tail of rarely used options. They also tend to
change over time! In the past six years since adding a Pride Flag to the Unicode
Standard (2019) it’s already been redesigned.

Many times
. Identities are fluid and unstoppable which makes mapping them to
a formal unchanging universal character set incompatible.

Why does usage matter in selecting emoji?

Any emoji additions have to take into consideration usage
frequency, trade-offs with other choices, font file size, and the burden on
developers (and users!) to make it easier to send and receive emoji. That’s why
the Emoji Subcommittee set out to
reduce the
number of emoji we encode in any given year
. Flags are also super hard to
discern at emoji sizes — it’s quite easy to send a different flag than you
intended (and with each additional flag the problem gets worse). The simple
truth is that if more people used flags then there would be more of an argument
to encode them. The Unicode Standard subset is just not a viable solution here
for implementers nor users. Fortunately, there are seemingly infinite other ways
to exchange images of flags that are more flexible and decentralized, such as
stickers, gifs, and image attachments.

What is Unicode doing about it?

We realize closing this door may come as a disappointment — after
all, flags often serve as a rallying cry to be seen, heard, recognized, and
understood.

The Internet is a different place now than it was in the 90’s — the
distribution of imagery online is unstoppable! Given how flags are commonly used
this is a reasonable path forward: If you care to denote your affiliation with a
region be it geographic, political, or identity (or all three) you can add a
flag to your avatar image, share videos, or send a gif or sticker to razz your
friend during a sports game (and of course there is always ⚽ ⚽ ⚽ ⚽ ⚽).

The more emoji can operate as building blocks, the more versatile,
fluid, and useful they become! Rather than relying on Unicode to add new emoji
for every concept under the Sun (this is simply not attainable) the citizens of
the world have proven to be infinitely creative and fluid: often using existing
emoji like the colored hearts (❤️️ 🧡 💛 💚 💙 💜 🤎 🖤 🤍) to express
themselves. Hearts are among the most frequently used type of emoji and the nine
colored hearts are often juxtaposed next to each other to denote markers of
emotion (“I’m sorry 💙” or “love you ❤️”) and identity or affiliation that are
not represented with atomic emoji in the Unicode Standard (ex. “Pan African
pride ❤️️💚🖤”, “Hi I’m bi 💖💙💜”, and yes even sports teams “Go Mets!
💙🧡” ).

With this in mind, the Emoji Subcommittee has put forth a

strategy
to add a
pink heart,
a
light blue heart
, and a
gray heart
to the Unicode Standard. These are colors commonly found in
gender flags (gender fluid pride flag), sexuality flags (bisexual pride flag),
in sports team colors (Go Spurs!) and even some regional flags (Brussels). As of
this year, these three heart emoji advanced as draft candidates, and you can
expect them to land on your device of choice sometime next year.

In some ways we have returned to where we first started: Adding
three new emoji to support a seemingly infinite number of concepts. This time if
it fails, at least we’ll be left with lots of heart emoji that have multiple
uses. ❤️🧡💛💚💙💜🤎🖤🤍

In light of this change, we’d like to clarify a few additional
frequently asked questions with regards to emoji flags

Wait, if a country gains independence and is recognised by ISO,
does that mean no flag emoji for them?
Flags for countries with Unicode region codes are automatically
recommended, with no
proposals necessary
! First their codes and translated names are added to
Unicode’s Common Locale Data Repository
[CLDR], and then the emoji become valid in the next version of Unicode. These
emoji are also automatically recommended for general interchange and wide
deployment.

What about flags that change designs for geopolitical reasons?
Unicode does not specify the appearance of flag emoji. It is the
responsibility of font designers to update their fonts as politics change. EG:
no Unicode changes required for

https://emojipedia.org/flag-mauritania/

My region was assigned a 3166-2 code. Do we have to submit a
proposal?
No, the Emoji Subcommittee is no longer taking in any proposals for
flags of any kind.

As a recent example, Kurdistan (a subdivision of Iraq) became an
official subdivision in
ISO 3166-2
(IQ-KR) on May 3, 2021. The corresponding Unicode subdivision
code (iqkr)
is slated for release in CLDR v41 on

Apr 6, 2022
. At that point the flag for Kurdistan will officially be
valid — any platform, app, or font could support it. But that doesn’t mean it
automatically gets in the queue for everyone’s phone. Only countries with ISO
3166-1 region codes are automatically recommended and require no proposal to
move forward.

So what warrants an ISO 3166-1 assignment vs ISO 3166-2?
ISO 3166-1 is for countries recognized by the United Nations and
ISO 3166-2 is for parts of countries.

Why is Antarctica part of ISO 3166-1 but Africa isn’t? There seems
to be no rational explanation with regard to why islands with no inhabitants
have a flag while regions with millions of people have no emoji flag.
It’s true, there are “Exceptional reservations.” Antarctica has an
ISO 3166-1 alpha 2 code: AQ. But WHY does it have an ISO 3166-1 code? Because
ISO 3166 decided to (ages ago) include it, probably since the whole continent is
“shared.”

For historical reasons, you may see other exceptions like 🇦🇨 AC
Ascension Island, 🇨🇵 CP Clipperton Island, or 🇩🇬 DG Diego Garcia.

Why don’t we have asexual, bisexual, pansexual, and non-binary
pride flags? And if 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁷󠁬󠁳󠁿 and 🏴󠁧󠁢󠁳󠁣󠁴󠁿 get Unicode flags, surely
there’s room for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags?
Before diving into the facts of why these flags are not part of the
universal character set, we want to first take a moment to consider what people
mean when they ask these questions and what Unicode means when they decline
these flag proposals. Because this question is not one we take lightly. In the
course of world history, groups have used flags as a rallying cry to be seen,
heard, recognized, and understood. In the Unicode Consortium’s mission to
digitize the world’s languages, improve communication online, and achieve
meaningful interoperability between platforms, the requests for flags have
become a lightning rod for these rallying cries.

When people ask for a new flag emoji, we recognize that the
underlying request is about more than simply a new emoji. And when we say, “We
aren’t adding more flags,” we are only saying changing the Unicode Standard is
not an effective mechanism for this recognition.

What if I submit a proposal for a flag despite this policy?
Your proposal will not be processed.

Relevant docs/Further Reading

https://www.unicode.org/L2/L2021/21128-esc-recs.pdf


https://www.unicode.org/L2/L2021/21167.htm


https://www.unicode.org/L2/L2021/21172-esc-recs.pdf


https://www.unicode.org/emoji/proposals.html#Flags


http://www.unicode.org/L2/L2019/19084-trans-flag.pdf