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Behind the scenes of the annual new emoji selections

April 23, 2021, 2:50 PM UTC

One of the least noticed features in Apple’s jam-packed event on Tuesday was the addition of a dedicated key on all new keyboards that opens the emoji selector. Right now, to get the emoji picker on a Mac, you have to remember the key combination Command-Control-Space bar. On Windows, it’s the Windows key plus the semicolon. I can never seem to plant either of those combos in my brain–I have to Google them every time (like just now)–so the new dedicated key seems like a huge win.

Technically, it’s up to computing platform owners, like Apple for the Mac and iPhone, Google for Android, and Microsoft for Windows to create and update the emojis that appear on our devices. But they all use the standard set of emojis from the Unicode Consortium, the group that has long established how keyboard setups in different languages interface with computers. As we noted last month, Google designer Jennifer Daniel now heads the consortium’s emoji subcommittee that revises the emoji collection annually. I spoke to her this week about the challenges of picking which new little cartoons make it onto billions of keyboards and which don’t.

Before joining Google five years ago, Daniel was a designer in the world of journalism as a graphics editor at the New York Times and graphics director of Bloomberg Businessweek. She always loved emojis and first went public with her ideas in an essay in the Times in 2014 called “The Emojis We Really Need,” which she later followed up with an art gallery showing of “Emojis I wish existed.”

“The best part is how accessible it is,” she explained to me in a video call. “It isn’t high art. I’m not here with a monocle on to talk to you about fine art. It really was just about exploring what could be done.”

Along with the op-ed, Daniel started taking the emoji world more seriously and filing formal applications with Unicode to propose new emojis. A concept to represent existentialism, a person seeing their reflection in a mirror, didn’t make it. But the smiling face with a tear, or a tear of joy, is now on all our keyboards. After she’d been at Google working on emojis for a few years, she joined the subcommittee in 2018 and when longtime chairman (and Unicode president) Mark Davis stepped aside a little over a year ago, she got the top post.

Anyone who fills out the proper forms can submit an emoji proposal. The subcommittee has a variety of criteria it uses to pick 30 or so new additions per year. “We are focusing primarily on communicative aspects of emoji, since they primarily are used in messaging spaces,” Daniel says. New emoji also should reflect “globally relevant concepts,” which can be something meaningful to everyone in the world or just a specific group.

The future, though, may be about letting people break out of the confines of the consortium’s emoji list. While there’s a standard way to include an image on a web page with HTML code, there’s no standard way to include a small image in every messaging app and word processor document. Some apps like Slack and Discord already allow groups to add their own small icons to use as emojis.

“Unicode can’t do everything so we’re trying to find new encoding paths,” she says. “Language is developed by just human minds interacting with each other. It’s unstoppable. And finding a way for that to be translated in digital spaces is just top of mind.”

So spend the weekend honing your new emoji concepts and we’ll see you back here on Monday. 😛

Aaron Pressman


🚘  Ghost in the EV. Consumer Reports said Thursday it found a way to trick Tesla's Autopilot app into driving one of the electric vehicles with no one in the driver's seat. That's supposed to be a no-no. Tesla had no-no comment. And on the subject of dangerous tricks, an internal report at Facebook seen by BuzzFeed concluded that the company's social platform was used to help incite the insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 as efforts to block organizing around conspiracy theories fell short. Facebook said the report was not a definitive assessment. "It’s a product of one of many teams who are continuing to study what happened," it said.

💜 Purple rain. First impression reviews are coming in on some of Apple's new gadgetry. Dieter Bohn at The Verge slipped one of Apple's new AirTags trackers into a colleague's pocket and tried to find him in an unfamiliar city. It worked. He also noticed that the quarter-size trackers scuff pretty easily. YouTube tech review Jud Aura, aka @uravgconsumer, made a video showing off the tags and some of Apple's various holders for them. CNET's Patrick Holland has a 4-minute video just about the new purple iPhone 12. "Yeah, that's purple," he says. "This is actually a pretty light purple, almost an Easter purple." I'm not sure Prince would approve, but BTS ARMY might.

📱 Your love won't pay my bills. It took two years and enough lobbying trips to D.C. (and stays at a Trump hotel) to win platinum status on any frequent flyer program, but former T-Mobile CEO John Legere winning approval to merge his company with Sprint ended up being very profitable for all involved. Shareholders certainly won, as T-Mobile's stock price has more than doubled since the deal was first announced way back in April 2018. And Legere, who retired when the deal closed in April 2020, also won big. He got a $137 million severance payment, according to a T-Mobile filing this week. At rival AT&T, first quarter results impressed investors. AT&T's revenue rose 3% to $43.9 billion, better than expected, and the carrier gained 3.3 million HBO Max subscribers and almost 600,000 postpaid phone subscribers. AT&T shares gained 4% after the results came out on Thursday and are now up 9% for the year.

📈 Zig zag cross the floor. Elsewhere on Wall Street, Snap's first quarter results impressed but Intel's slumped. The developer of disappearing messages said its revenue increased 66% to $770 million and its daily average users climbed 22% to 280 million. Snap's shares, which had already gained 14% in 2021, increased another 4% in pre-market trading on Friday. At Intel, the continuing PC boom saved the day yet again. Chips for PCs rose 8% while the more lucrative server chip segment shrunk by 20%. Net net, revenue was down 1% from a year ago to $19.7 billion. Intel shares, up 26% so far this year on the "We believe in Pat Gelsinger" rally, lost 2% in pre-market trading.


The other day, we brought you some of artist and author Emily Segal's views that blockchain technology and NFTs might help small publishers. Software engineer and blogger Kevin Dangoor, however, isn't so sanguine.

I am excited about a lot of the change that is coming for authors and publishers: AI-assisted writing with technologies like GPT-3, and more possibilities with audio thanks to vastly improved text-to-speech. On the business side, it has become easier than ever for independent author/publishers to sell direct, providing a better relationship with our readers and more profit.

The core concepts behind blockchain technology are really cool, and I love that as a technologist. But in a three-way market involving publishers, book retailers/aggregators, and readers, I don’t think blockchains actually solve common problems or enable uses that can’t be better enabled in other ways.


A few great long reads I came across this week:

Attack of the drones: the mystery of disappearing swarms in the US midwest (The Guardian)
When groups of sinister drones began hovering over homes in America’s Midwest, the FBI, US Air Force and 16 police forces set up a task force. But the drones vanished. Did they even exist?

Travis Kalanick's stealth $5 billion startup, CloudKitchens, is Uber all over again, ruled by a 'temple of bros,' insiders say (Insider)
Kalanick's talent for spotting game-changing trends has made him a key player in the food-delivery business. But hundreds of employees have left his Saudi-backed startup this year, many frazzled by a hard-knock and super-secretive culture.

At Ben & Jerry’s, ice cream innovation persevered through the pandemic (Fortune)
In 2020, even with all the challenges posed by a global pandemic, Ben & Jerry’s created nearly 40 new products, making it their most innovative year ever.

The Redemption of Justin Bieber (GQ)
He made every mistake a child star can make, including the ones that nearly destroyed him. Now—fortified by God, marriage, and a new album, Justice—Justin Bieber is putting his life back together, one positive, deliberate step at a time.


Away co-founder Jen Rubio says she never planned to be CEO. Here’s what changed her mind By Emma Hinchliffe

UiPath has high ambitions despite whatever’s happening in the markets By Lucinda Shen

Venture capital’s quest for diversity and equity remains a work in progress By Rey Mashayekhi

How Intel’s employee-led pandemic relief initiative is sparking climate action By Sheryl Estrada

Inside the Future 50: Why these companies thrived in the pandemic—and could grow even faster coming out of it By Martin Reeves and Tom Deegan

How staying at home and my compost bin introduced me to the gardening community By Danielle Bernabe

The freedom found thanks to a bike during lockdown By Lindsey Tramuta

(Some of these stories require a subscription to access. Thank you for supporting our journalism.)


One final takeaway from Tuesday's Apple event. In the popular Apple TV+ show, fictional soccer coach Ted Lasso wins over skeptical coworkers with delicious homemade shortbread cookies. In the very last frame of Tuesday's event, Apple showed the recipe. Software developer David Smith grabbed the instructions and posted them on his blog. He also whipped up a batch. Looks pretty yummy. 🍪