As the number and variety of emojis grow, the language is gradually becoming more diverse and reflective of the people who use it. Its progress plods along one emoji at a time, propelled by women like Florie Hutchinson.
Hutchinson is a vivacious independent public relations specialist in the arts. She's also a busy mom with three young girls, and a dedicated feminist.
One night not too long ago, Hutchinson was up in the wee hours breastfeeding her youngest at her home in Palo Alto. While texting a friend in another time zone, and she typed in the word “shoe.”
"I realized I was staring, slightly deliriously, at this red, high-heeled stiletto," Hutchinson says. Was that her phone anticipating her preference as a woman? As if most women wear a shoe better suited to a Barbie doll?
With a little digital leg work, Hutchinson discovered there are four other shoe emojis, but all three female shoes involve a heel: the red stilleto, the mule, and the riding boot. Unless you type in the word sneaker, the stiletto appears to be the default.
She asked friends of various ages, genders and nationalities to type “shoe” - and they got the stiletto, too, "Whether they were typing in shoe, or chaussure or zapato."
Hutchinson doesn't think early emoji designers were intentionally trying to bake in stereotypical gender norms. Nonetheless, that's the result, and as our usage of the visual language grows, so does the impact of unconscious choices.
"Being a mum, I’ve become very aware and hypersensitive to what I see is implicit gender bias, something that is pervasive in every aspect of life from the age of zero onwards," Hutchinson said.
But how to influence the discussion as a PR Lady with no experience or contacts in tech? Cue the obvious Google search: "How do emoji get made?" And the first result is the Unicode Consortium, the non-profit in Mountain View that maintains a global, standardized list of approved emoji.
The web site's FAQ includes a lot of helpful history. The Japanese were the first to use pictographs — images of things such as faces, weather, vehicles and buildings, food and drink, animals and plants — or icons that represent emotions, feelings, or activities. Hence, the word emoji comes from the Japanese 絵 (e ≅ picture) + 文字(moji ≅ written character).
The consortium’s emoji subcommittee meets four times a year to approve or deny new proposals. Yet, even with this deliberative approach, some emoji prove far more useful and appealing than others, a fact dramatically visualized at emojitracker.com, which tracks the realtime use of many emoji in Twitter.
It's a young language, and it continues to evolve. Even though there are already nearly 2,700 emoji, the Consortium is wide open to new proposals.
Hutchinson was impressed with how easy the Consortium makes it to understand the application process. "There are lots of templates on the Unicode web site, some of successful emoji proposals, some of unsuccessful ones. And it’s just a matter of making a compelling case for why it should exist and why the existing emoji don’t do the job that you’re looking to do with your emoji."
Do your homework; then hire a designer
It does help to hire a professional designer. Aphee Messer wears a sandal whenever weather permits in Lincoln, Nebraska, and so she practically leapt on board the project. "You can look at it as a baby step, but I think any steps towards more diversity on the emoji keyboard are great," says Messer, whose best known emoji may be the recently approved hijab.
In early July, Hutchinson submitted a proposal for a ballet flat in multiple hues, " anything except pink!" Within a month of applying, her emoji appeared on the Consortium’s draft list for consideration... The final decision comes out in November.
"I couldn’t believe it!" exclaims Hutchinson. "That this crazy idea that I got in the middle of the night would actually become a reality, and even if it doesn’t make it through, which I sincerely hope it does, I can honestly turn to my girls when they’re preteens or older and say, you know, this was important to me and I did something about it, and it was not only for me but also for you."
Any plans for a follow-up? "I have my eyes on a one piece swimsuit," Hutchinson says, before adding "To be honest, what I'd love is for more women to take some time to go through the emoji and think about what in their daily lives isn't reflected in this global vocabulary that we're building."
You have your marching orders.