Doing more, with less
By: Jennifer Daniel, Chair of the Emoji Subcommittee
This past Fall, the Unicode Technical Committee announced the delay
of Unicode 16.0. This wasn’t without precedent — COVID slowed down the release
of Unicode 14.0 in 2020 and the world seemed to survive 😉. Subcommittees were
well prepared and adjusted accordingly, discussing what this meant for their
respective areas of expertise.
For the Emoji Subcommittee (ESC) — the group responsible for
defining the rules, algorithms, and properties necessary to achieve
interoperability between different platforms for those smiley faces that appear
on your keyboard (Shout out 😁🥰🤔😵💫!) — this delay presented an
opportunity. Sure, we were so close to exhaling a sigh of relief (the intake
period for Emoji 16.0 proposals had just completed). But upon learning we
couldn’t ship any new codepoints until 2024 we turned our energy towards
emoji based on existing ones. (These are called
emoji ZWJ sequences.
That’s when a combination of multiple emoji display as a single emoji … like 👩
🏽 +🏭 = 🧑🏽🏭).
When Less is More
An incredibly powerful aspect of written language is that it
consists of a finite number of characters that can “do it all”. And yet, as the
emoji ecosystem has matured over time our keyboards have ballooned and emoji
categories are about to hit or have hit a level of saturation. Upon reflecting
on how emoji are used,
the ESC has entered a new era where the primary way for emoji to move forward is
not merely to add more of them to the Unicode Standard. Instead, the ESC
approves fewer and fewer emoji proposals every year.
But our work is not done. Not by a longshot. Language is fluid and
doesn’t stand still. There is more to do! This “off-cycle” gives us a chance to
address some long-standing major pain points using emoji. The first one that
came to mind: skin-tone.
What is a family?
encoding of multi-person multi-tone support has matured over the years;
however, the implementation can seem random to the average person: While it’s
true, all people emoji have toned options (with the exception of characters
where you can’t see skin like 🤺) there are … misfits. Some two people emoji
offer tone support ( 🧑🏻❤️🧑🏿) others do not ( 👯). A few non
RGI emoji render with tone
but with no affordance to change one of the two characters (For example,
And then … There is the suite of family emoji
These characters include two people, three people, sometimes four and none of
them have any tone support (!). We seem to have a lot of family emoji and yet
simultaneously not enough.
The 26 “family” emoji can be broken down into four groups:
Despite the Unicode Standard containing 26 “family” emoji, each one
of these glyphs is overly prescriptive with regard to delivering on a visual
representation of a family. The inclusion of many permutations of families was
well intentioned. But we can’t list them all, and by listing some of the
combinations, it calls attention to the ones that are excluded.
What even is a family? For some, family is the people you were
raised with. Others have embraced friends as their chosen family. Some families
have children, other families have pets. There are multi-generational families,
mutli-racial families and of course many families are any combination of all of
these characteristics and more.
Fortunately, we don’t need to add
to your keyboards (even this would fall short of capturing the breadth of
“family” as a concept). Instead we can juxtapose individual emoji together to
capture a concept with some reasonable level of specificity — not too unlike
arranging letters together to create words to convey concepts 😉
For emoji keyboards to advance in creating more intuitive and
personalized experiences the Emoji Subcommittee is recommending a visual
deprecation of the family emoji. This small set of emoji will be
redesigned as part of a
multi-phase effort to “complete the set” of toned variants for the remaining
multi-person emoji. This of course begs the question: when there are as many
families as there are people in the world, is there an effective way at
conveying the concept of “family” without being overly prescriptive in defining
what is and is not a family? Well, thankfully icons can do a lot of heavy
lifting without requiring very much detail.
When is an emoji running for the police or getting chased by them?
Another area the ESC is actively exploring is how the semantics of
emoji sequences can differ when writing directionality changes. Some emoji
characters have semantics that encode implicit directionality but when the
string is mirrored and their meaning may be unintentionally lost or changed.
Left to Right Emoji Sequence
Quickly running towards an “exciting” police
Right to Left Emoji Sequence
Running away from the coppers
What, if anything, can we do to aid in ensuring that messages are
meaningfully translated be them tiny pictures or tiny letters? As part of 15.1
we’re proposing a small set of emoji with strong directionality — with an
initial focus on people — to face the opposite direction. Soon you too can run
towards or away from … excitement.
Given that the intake cycle of emoji proposals for Unicode 16.0
ended last July, the Emoji Subcommittee has also decided to temporarily delay
the intake of Unicode Version 17.0 proposals until April 2024. Fortunately, you
won’t have to wait until then to get new emoji. Among the list of
recommendations includes 578 characters (most of them the candidates described
above to support directionality). The list also includes a few humble additions
including a broken chain, a lime, a non-poisonous mushroom, a nodding and
shaking face, and a phoenix bird. Each one of these leverages a unique valid ZWJ
sequence of emoji so while they look like atomic characters made of a single
codepoint they are composed of two or more codepoints.
Broken chain is the result of 🔗💥, with a variety of meanings,
such as freedom, breaking a cycle, or perhaps a broken url ;-). Like the
bi-directional emoji touched on above, nodding face and shaking face are the
result of 🙂↔️and 🙂↕️ respectively. Oh, and of course there is a phoenix rising
from the ashes (🐦🔥), a perfect metaphor to capture where we are today.
The Unicode Technical Committee (UTC) will review the required
documents at its first meeting of 2023 in January – and if these
candidates move forward, you can expect an update from the UTC later this Spring
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