I'll Choose My Own Emojis, Thank You Very Much

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- For a millennial, my emoji use is pretty old-fashioned. A :) will generally suffice. Nevertheless, I was mesmerized by “Picture Character,” an upcoming documentary that details everything you want to know about emojis.

The film follows three campaigns petitioning for the inclusion of new emoji characters in the canonical Unicode Standard: a woman wearing a hijab, mate, a popular Argentinian drink, and a pair of underwear with a drop of blood to symbolize menstruation.

The argument for including any particular emoji usually goes like this: Certain groups or activities are not represented by the existing canon and so to give voice to Norwegian onion farmers and colorblind dentists, the canon must be expanded. The logic nods to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences the way people think about the world. By including more emojis, tech companies give voice to the marginalized.

The counter-argument is simple: Things escalate quickly. Many emojis were originally metonymy -- images meant to stand in for entire categories. When people say, “give us this day our daily bread,” they aren’t envisioning a purely carb-based diet. Beyond standing for the spiritual, bread here encompasses all sustenance, be it tuna fish, mashed potatoes or foie gras. One bread emoji is enough to stand for all food. A texter does not need to scroll through dozens of pages of emojis to find a chocolate-covered strawberry with sprinkles on it. By getting specific, you actually exclude more than if you were to have kept things general. There’s a legal principle -- expressio unius est exclusio alterius -- that means roughly, “the expression of one thing excludes others not expressed.” This principle suggests that because a chocolate-covered strawberry with sprinkles and a mashed potato symbol exist, bread can no longer represent all food.  Because of this, the absence of a symbol for tuna fish and foie gras means they are entirely excluded.

As in most cases, what is most interesting here is not the answer, but rather who decides the answer. New emojis are currently approved by a non-profit organization called the Unicode Consortium. This group publishes the Unicode Standard, which ensures computers around the world render an “X” instead of as a “Y” when certain code is written. While different companies can make their particular “X” or smiley face look different – compare Apple’s with Google’s – Unicode enables certain pieces of code to be rendered as compatible graphical representations understandable to all.

Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee resembles a kind of Académie française, the centuries-old council in France that legally has the final word on the French language. Members of the Académie are called “immortals” and the documentary portrays the Emoji Subcommittee as Silicon Valley’s geekier analogue. But these standards-setting bodies, which exist in other countries, goof up all the time. The Académie does not want the French to continue using the English cognate “email,” insisting instead on “courriel.” (My French friends tell me that this injunction has not been heeded.)

People are going to use the language and emojis they want, regardless of stuffy, technocratic ukase. If someone doesn’t want to use the stuffy, technocratic word “ukase” to refer to an edict, then they won’t. Human language emerges as a spontaneous order, not of human design, but of human action.

So where does that leave us? First, it seems obvious that Unicode needs to get out of this line-drawing business entirely. They should decide that the number “7” or letter “Q” are encoded. They should not be deciding that triceratopses are out but sloths are in. Nor should they be deciding whether there should be five or fifteen skin colors. The personal quirks and idiosyncrasies of the subcommittee are on display in the documentary when it is revealed that there aren’t more vegetable emojis because the members don’t like vegetables. These should not be the people dictating how the digital world expresses itself.

Unicode seems to recognize as much. Some members believe these arbitrary decisions are fraught and take up too much of the subcommittee’s time. Instead of leaving emojis up to Unicode, there is a more elegant technical solution: Applications should treat emojis as pictures instead of text with only the most universally-accepted emojis included in Unicode’s emoji list.

This is a barbell strategy. On one end are apps like Bitmoji, which allow users to create personalized emojis or download packs that are limitless in their variety and can be displayed on both iPhones and Android devices. On the other end of the spectrum are emojis that are essentially non-controversial like the smiley face and heart. Unicode’s mandate should be to discover which are the emojis that no group could reasonably reject. Unicode should determine what this consensus is and this could start with culling the least-used emojis.

Unique expression will always be in tension with standardization. Standards constrict expression, while unbridled uniqueness quickly grows unwieldy. But this strategy leaves to Unicode what it does best and to the people what they do best. This strikes a :) balance.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Raskin is an adjunct professor of law at New York University.

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