Simone: It’s a cold fall New England night in 2012. I'm laying back on my dorm room bed, still buzzed from whatever college party I‘d just come from. And emboldened by the shots of cheap vodka, I decide to drunk text this guy I like…this is a younger Simone, okay? Be gentle.
Simone: I send some version of “Hey, wanna come over, question mark?” And I wait…and wait…and wait…until finally...
Simone: He replies.
Simone: Instead of a yes or a no, or an “absolutely, you deserve the world, queen”...I see…a shooting star emoji? Not an answer in plain English, no that would be too dignified. A shooting star emoji. What does this mean? Is that like “I’m shooting over to your place” or like…“I’m shooting you down in the most indirect way possible…” I am so confused…all I can do is literally hold the phone.
Simone: What it actually ended up meaning was, “I’m gonna talk to you for exactly one more week and then never again.” But this episode isn't about my college heartbreak. It's about emojis, which we humans send by the billions every day. And I’m willing to bet that a whole bunch of them leave their recipients feeling like I did...confused.
Simone: Which is ironic, because it turns out, that’s exactly what these little icons were designed to prevent.
Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history—and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I'm Simone Polanen.
Simone: On September 19, 1982—39 years ago this week—computer scientist Dr. Scott Fahlman introduced the world to the first digital representation of a face: colon, minus sign, parenthesis. We know it as the smiley face emoticon. This simple act set the stage for a revolution in more nuanced digital communication, all the way to our beloved emojis. You know, the smiling poops, the sexy peaches, the heart eyes. We've got over 3,000 emojis at our fingertips, so why does it sometimes feel like we still can't get our message across?
Simone: Stick around. This episode is going to be...flame emoji.
Simone: To understand how we found ourselves in a world full of cute little digital characters with a cute little name—emojis—we need to first go back…to the OG digital pictorial representation…the Emoticon.
Simone: It's September 1982, Pittsburgh, PA. Dr. Scott Fahlman is sitting in his concrete block of an office at Carnegie Mellon University, staring at a blinking cursor.
Simone: Scott is a research computer scientist. Which means he basically spends his time researching artificial intelligence, advising PhD students, and playing around on early versions of the internet.
Simone: At Carnegie Mellon, Scott, his colleagues and some students are really into these online bulletin boards called “bboards.” They use them to communicate all kinds of things—from announcements, to lost and found items to arguments about dicey political issues. But on the bboards, Scott’s discovering some holes in what he can and can’t say with words on a screen…
[ARCHIVAL, Scott Fahlman: If you made a sarcastic remark, there was always some clueless person out there who wouldn’t get the joke.]
Simone: That’s Scott himself, in a 2014 interview on CBS Sunday Morning. On the bboards, Scott was looking for a way to communicate something simple: jokiness.
Simone: A couple of other people on the boards had proposed some solutions: how about an exclamation point at the start of a jokey post? Or how about a hashtag—cause it kinda looks like an open-mouth laughing? Kinda, sorta?
Simone: Scott wasn’t feeling any of these suggestions. But then, he had a stroke of genius…or more like…three keystrokes of genius… He took to the bboards and sent out the following message:
[ARCHIVAL, Fahlman: And I said, “I propose the following character sequence for joke markers,” and then the colon minus and parenthesis. I said “Read it sideways. Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends. For this, use colon, minus, and the parenthesis the other way” and that looks like a frowny face.]
Simone: And just like that, the smiley face, and frowny face, emoticons were born. Emoticons— icons of emotions. Get it?
Simone: These little guys caught on quickly—around Carnegie Mellon, and soon beyond—via an early version of the internet called the ARPAnet. Over this experimental network, emoticons traveled to other universities, like MIT and Stanford, and corporate research labs, at companies like Xerox. Within just a few months, other smiley faces started popping up, like open-mouthed surprise—colon, minus sign, O. And person wearing glasses—the number 8, minus sign, parenthesis. It was clear: people liked this enhanced form of expression.
Mark Davis: Sometimes it's to express ourselves more precisely, sometimes it's to express ourselves and carry the kind of emotional nuance that we would carry with our voice.
Simone: That’s Mark Davis, a Lead Internationalization Architect at Google. Which basically means, he makes sure that computer operating systems all over the world can talk to each other.
Simone: And Mark says that digital representations of emotion—like the emoticon—help breathe life into words on a screen.
Mark: When we write text, we are missing a host of features that make our normal communication work. When I'm talking to you right now, I can see your face. I can see you're blinking. You're smiling. You're frowning. And text eliminates that, there’s no tone of voice. There are no gestures. There's nothing. And of course, if you're a Jane Austen or a Shakespeare, you don't need that to make it come alive. But for the average person, it's difficult to give it nuance.
Simone: It’s true. Listen, I’m a child of the internet, okay? After school, back in the early 2000s, I would be glued to my AOL Instant Messenger, trying to make friends at a new school. If I were to send a “ttyl” and not follow that up with some kind of smiley face…that would be full-on social suicide. People would be like, “Talk to you later!? Okay, is she angry with me? Is she sick? Like, what’s wrong with her?” Emoticons let the girlies know—hey, we’re good. I’m just here to have a goofy, friendly time. God, what is more stressful than middle school?
Simone: As I was blasting out these little punctuation mark faces on computers the size of small boulders—on the other side of the world, another kind of digital icon was emerging. The emoticons’ successor, if you will…their more colorful pseudo-progeny, the Emoji.
Simone: Emojis emerged in Japan in 1997, when the Japanese company Softbank released a mobile phone that included 90 of these little images. And fun fact! Emoji is a Japanese word that actually roughly translates to pictograph in English. Nothing to do with emotion. Like, mind blown emoji.
Simone: The early set were these pixelated images: a broken heart, a baby penguin, and famously, the smiling poop. That’s right, the poop was there from the beginning. These emojis were wildly popular in Japan—I mean, how could you resist? Over time, other Japanese telecom companies got hip to the trend, and started to create their own sets, releasing new emojis into the world.
Simone: For a time, it wasn’t clear these sweet little wide-eyed faces, handy hand gestures, and luxurious locales would ever see the light of day beyond their native country. Until a certain tech company, where Mark Davis happened to work, came knocking…
Mark: A team inside of Google saw that in order to, to adapt Gmail, to work with different telecoms in Japan, they really had to work with these emoji characters.
Simone: In 2006, Google was looking to launch Gmail in Japan. And like Mark said, they knew they couldn’t get anywhere without being able to incorporate these little images that had been exploding across the country for nearly a decade at that point.
Simone: But there was an issue. Since all these telecom companies had their own versions of emojis, Google had to figure out some universal way to make sure they showed up correctly from user to user and device to device. So they turned to Mark, because on top of his job at Google, Mark is also president and co-founder of this organization called the Unicode Consortium.
Mark: What we do is we set out the standards that allow all computers to talk to one another with text.
Simone: Unicode solves a really complicated problem: making sure computers can talk to each other across different languages and operating systems. They do that basically, by giving every character in 1000s of languages—all modern ones, and even ancient ones—a distinct code. That’s how you get the name Unicode—one universal code.
Mark: So whenever you hit a key on a keyboard, the key that you press is generating a Unicode code, which represents an “A,” for example. If you send that in a message to somebody, then it's going over the wires Unicode, and it's coming up on their phone or computer or whatever as Unicode.
Simone: So, if Gmail expanded into Japan, Google knew that these emojis needed distinct codes of their own, just like characters from any other language. Otherwise, the images from different operating systems and devices would be unreadable—and just show up as little shaded squares. Not everyone at Unicode thought these little images were deserving of the group’s attention, but Mark finally won them over…
Mark: And we were able to get the technical committee to agree to expand the scope of Unicode to deal with this as a compatibility issue.
Simone: So Unicode agreed to code for emojis, too. Now Japanese Gmail users could send these images over the email platform. This allowed these little icons to continue flourishing in Japan, and several years later…
[ARCHIVAL, Man: I’m sure you guys are familiar with the Emotioncons, which are, or Emoticons, or whatever they are called. The little smiley faces that you can make in text messages…well now that keyboard is built into iOS 5, and I’m going to show you how to get it.]
Simone: In 2011, Apple released iOS 5, an update to the iPhone operating system…meaning every iPhone had a built-in emoji keyboard… as well as the ability to send and receive these characters. Now, the rest of the world could shoot off flames and aliens and those two girls with the leotards and their legs sticking out…are they dancing? Or are they like power-posing at the same time?
Simone: Anyway…I myself started firing off emojis like crazy. Showering my friends with hearts and heart eyes and kissy faces. Snapchatting guys with the side eye emoji and then…not getting a response. Listen, I was not very lucky in love in the early 2010s, okay? What I’m getting at is, I was online and glued to my smartphone more than ever. And emojis were with me every step of the way.
Simone: Today, these little icons feel like their own language. I personally am unable to look at a peach or an eggplant without thinking about their...you know...other connotations. And at this point, I can have a sustained texting conversation that is predominantly made up of smileys.
Simone: Emojis represent our support, our joy, our horniness...but you know what? It’s 2021 and I still don’t have an emoji to express basic stuff, like—I’m getting my hair braided or I have an afro. I have a lot of hair-specific needs…and what’s up with that? Why do some things, places, and people get represented—and others don’t?
Simone: Thinking face emoji? After the break.
Simone: Before the break, we went on a worldwide journey in search of more nuanced digital communication—from the halls of Carnegie Mellon university, where the emoticon was born… to the cell phones of Japan…which displayed the world’s first emojis. Then Unicode ushered those little icons across the sea, crash-landing in Gmail messages and iPhones worldwide.
Simone: In that first emoji set, there were just over 700 little images to communicate with—what more could we possibly want? Turns out, quite a bit. 700 images just doesn’t come close to expressing the breadth of our experiences… See, if you’re using an emoji to represent a feeling, a desire, an idea you have…and you can’t find an emoji that looks like you…then it doesn’t tell your story.
Simone: Emojis weren’t capturing the world’s diversity—and Unicode had a problem on their hands.
Simone: So they did the thing that all large organizations do: they created a subcommittee.
Jennifer Daniel: It’s a merry band of misfits that range from folks who are in technology, to folks who are linguists, to cultural agents.
Simone: Jennifer Daniel is the current chair of Unicode’s Emoji subcommittee. She also leads Google’s own emoji program. (There’s a lot of cross-pollination like this going on.) She says, in some ways, the Emoji subcommittee at Unicode is a labor of love.
Jennifer: It is an eclectic group and they’re all volunteers… It’s a not for profit organization. So everyone is committing their time and resources out of the goodness of their heart.
Simone: But don’t let that fool you. This largely anonymous merry band of misfits have got quite a bit of power, because they are the people responsible for approving new emoji. They meet every week for about two hours to review proposals and debate whether or not they’re worth adding to the keyboard. They go over stuff like: do we really need a green car, when we already have a blue car and a red car? And also, is a bubble tea emoji absolutely necessary? Personally, I think it is...very much so.
Simone: Of course, the subcommittee gets hit with way more consequential proposals than that—particularly in the arena of representation.
Simone: When emojis were first released, most of the humans basically looked white. Unicode finally attempted to address this issue in 2015, when they rolled out 5 skin-tone variations.
[NEWS CLIP, Elaine Quijano: The emojis on your smartphone are getting a lot more diverse. Apple is testing out characters that would allow you to change their skin tone.]
Simone: In 2017, millions of women who wear headscarves were finally represented through emoji…
[NEWS CLIP, Sanam Shantyaei: Last year, 16 year-old Saudi national Rayouf Alhumedhi submitted a proposal for a hijab emoji to the corporation that reviews and develops the new keyboard symbols. Her suggestion was accepted by the tech giant.]
Simone: Unicode has also rolled out more inclusive same-sex couple and family emojis, and recently, emojis for people living with disabilities.
[ARCHIVAL, Greg Harper: A number of different disability themed emojis will be made available shortly. Including, we have a prosthetic arm, a leg, an ear with a hearing aid, a guide dog…]
Simone: The gendering of emojis, though, has been especially tricky. For a while, it seemed men got to do all the “jobs”—construction worker, cop, private eye. And the women? They got all the girly stuff: brides, princesses. Luckily, that’s changed over time.
Simone: But in 2018, when Jennifer Daniel first joined the Emoji subcommittee, she noticed something deeper, as it related to gender. At work, Jennifer and her friend were dealing with a male colleague who was especially condescending. Jennifer was trying to stealthily commiserate with her friend via text, but her message went through in a totally different way than she intended.
Jennifer: The only reason I knew this is because I was doing it in a meeting and she was standing next to me. And I was like, “love a good man-splain, person facepalming.” And then I looked at her phone and it showed a man and I was like, “What’s going on?”
Simone: Jennifer was confused. On her Android phone, she had selected what looked like a gender-non-specific character face-palming. But on her friend’s iPhone, the emoji that popped up was clearly coded to look like a man. If you’re trying to complain about a mansplainer but can only express it through the image of a man…kinda defeats the purpose, no?
Simone: As part of her role on the Emoji subcommittee at Unicode, Jennifer started digging.
Jennifer: And I discovered over a dozen examples of there being these gender swaps. So you would send a mer-person and it would turn into a mer-man. Or a dead woman, like a zombie, it would turn into a dead man. You know, what is gender when you’re the un-dead? I don't know, but like at least in terms of how it's represented.
Simone: Jennifer was trying to figure out why this was all happening. And then, an aha moment: she realized that Unicode’s bible of guidelines simply gives developers recommendations for what emojis should look like. It’s totally up to the companies that make the phones to design what each emoji actually looks like.
Simone: So even though Unicode said these characters should be gender-neutral, when it came time to design the emojis, a lot of those companies were picking a gender. Mostly turning them into men…can you hear me rolling my eyes? When Jennifer found this out, she was pissed! And she got to work.
Jennifer: The first solution was just to, like, fix those designs so that they didn't subscribe to the gender binary. And the second was to add additional code points that weren't supported.
Simone: Jennifer started persuading emoji designers that their default images shouldn’t be gendered. She also made sure Unicode added new code points for the characters that existed—which basically meant making sure they all had representations of a man, a woman, and a gender-neutral person. She focused on professions. For example, ensuring there was not only a man doctor and a woman doctor, but a gender neutral doctor as well. Same for teacher, farmer, cook, even Santa. She wanted there to be an option for gender non-binary people, but she also wanted it to be possible to not automatically gender a profession or a sports player, or just, like, a person having a mood.
Jennifer: So, like, just making sure that all those emoji have representation around the full gender spectrum. Most recently I think we added person in veil, person feeding baby, uh, next year we'll roll out pregnant person…
[ARCHIVAL, Tucker Carlson: Your smartphone about to get a major, and we think important update. A new emoji, a pregnant man emoji reportedly set to debut in your text messages very soon.]
Simone: Tucker Carlson is right on this one. In addition to a pregnant person emoji…with the 2021 update, every phone with emojis will include what appears to be a pregnant-man emoji. And unfortunately for us, Tucker and his bestie have thoughts…
[ARCHIVAL, Tucker Carlson: So Mark Stein, under what circumstances would you use this emoji in your personal text messages?]
[ARCHIVAL, Mark Stein: Well that’s what I don't get because an emoji is supposed to be, you know, jazz hand, “Oh, wow!” Or it's a, you know, tears of joy. I don't understand in what way the pregnant man emoji assist you with that? I don't understand the circumstance. Look I’m cool with the idea of the pregnant man.]
Simone: If you don’t get it…just say that. Because emoji have always been up for interpretation. You can use them literally, or you can switch them up. For example, Tucker, when people send you clown emojis, they’re not saying you’re literally a clown. It’s more like, your behavior is clown-ish, your words are clown-esque, your show is circus-like…are you following? So take the pregnant man emoji…you could use it to literally represent a pregnant man (yes, that’s possible, read a book)...but it could also come in handy, say, if you had just eaten a very large burrito…or maybe you’re up in Rihanna’s instagram comments…I don’t know, just experiment with having one creative thought for once in your life. I bet you can figure it out.
[ARCHIVAL, Carlson: I'm going to send that emoji in every text I send every day until they ban me from texting.]
Simone: I don’t think that’s how texting law works but sure, go for it dude.
Simone: This hullabaloo over textable cartoons might seem extreme. Like, this is the hill you’re gonna die on? Representation in...emoji? But think about it—this is a keyboard available on practically every smartphone in the world. The images available totally influence what most of us can—and can’t—communicate. Or who gets to be seen and who doesn’t. It is important.
Simone: This progress—it helps ensure that our message gets across, that we’re understood, that we can express ourselves in our fullness…and connect with those around us.
Simone: And isn’t that how this whole thing started out? With one computer scientist using three punctuation marks to compose a face…all so he could be a little bit more human in the digital world. That's still what we're trying to do. Turns out, our current variation on that smiley face—the tears of joy emoji—is the most used emoji today. You know, the one that’s laughing so hard it’s crying. That's our #1.
Simone: When we connect digitally, we still just want people to know that we’re laughing with them…we just wanna crack jokes with the people we love. And that makes me smiley face.
Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. This episode was produced by Tom Carroll. Next week is the return of the history domino effect.
Mary Hallowell: Like, what is wrong with us that we need a hot, like, a sex icon M&M?
Simone: I can tell you exactly why there is a sexy green M&M.
Simone: The rest of our team are producers Sarah Craig & Kinsey Clarke. And Associate producer Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Maura Walz. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Matt Boll. Original Music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: Hannah Simpson, Jane Solomon, Tyler Schnoebelen, Lydia Polgreen, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat.
Simone: Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. Click the little bell next to the follow button to get notifications of new episodes. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.
Jane: You don't need skin-tone modifiers to know that an eggplant emoji is a penis. That's sort of the established meaning, in many, many, many contexts, unless you're specifically talking about dinner and texting with your mom or something.