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One Expert Argues the Unicode Consortium Shouldn’t Govern Our Emoji

November 6, 2016, 10:31 PM UTC
TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY TUPAC POINTU A picture shows emoji characters also known as emoticons on the screens of two mobile phones in Paris on August 6, 2015. Forget traditional banners and promotional videos, brands are turning to emojis to communicate with their Generation Z target audience. AFP PHOTO / MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Photograph by Miguel Medina—AFP/Getty Images

Emoji—those cute icons on your smartphone’s keyboard—have their own governing body, the Unicode Consortium. Every year, the consortium carefully reviews hundreds of proposals for new emoji, and approves a few of them.

But is that the best way to manage these fun little icons?

Keith Winstein, a computer science assistant professor at Stanford University, argues that it’s not. The consortium, which manages all language characters, currently has the power to make decisions that it shouldn’t have to make. For example, the consortium is currently considering adding some form of dinosaur emoji, which means it has to decide how many different ones, which dinosaurs, and even whether it should not add any further dinosaur emoji in future. But as Winstein pointed out during at presentation at Emojicon in San Francisco on Sunday, the consortium is made up of (very smart) technologists—not paleontologists. They’re not exactly qualified to sort through dinosaur types, he argues.

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And that’s only one of the issues Winstein finds with the Unicode Consortium being tasked with managing the world’s emoji. To name a few, there’s also the influence from large companies like Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOGL), which are members of the organization. There’s the fact that Unicode doesn’t dictate how each emoji is represented, which is why one icon can look significantly different on an iPhone than it does on an Android phone, for example. This is because Unicode is only concerned with the “letters” of a language, but leaves the design part to font makers.

Moreover, as Winstein pointed out, popular online services like workplace chat tool Slack and microblogging service Twitter don’t even use Unicode for their emoji. They’re just images.

The Unicode Consortium was originally formed in 1991 to help promote the use of the Unicode standard. It only had to deal with language letters until 2010, when it decided to begin adding emoji following the rapid growth of smartphones.

Recently, Winstein was part of a group that presented to the consortium a way to relieve it from its governance over emoji, but it was (politely) shut down. The organization’s argument, which Winstein concedes is a fair point, is that people continue to submit proposals for new emoji and ask it to approve and manage the little icons, so it will continue to serve those requests from its community.

While there’s no sign that the Unicode Consortium will stop managing emoji, and the debate over whether it should still rages on, there’s good news: There are plenty of ways to go around the consortium’s approved official emoji. Developers have been creating stickers, which are small images similar to emoji, of thousands of diverse illustrations and millions of people use them to communicate everything current emoji can’t. We’re gonna be 👌.