Emojicon Brings Familiar Text-Message Characters To Life

By Marissa Lang
San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The use of emoji has become so popular on the internet that recently emoji enthusiasts had their own convention. Groups of emoji experts and enthusiasts gathered to play games and host serious intellectual discussions regarding emoji law, culture and linguistics.

San Francisco Chronicle

Past the photobooth with the hats shaped like a grinning pile of poop, past the Matisse and Leonardo da Vinci reproductions stamped with familiar looking yellow smileys, was a room full of linguists, artists and technocrats discussing the evolution of a new language: emoji.

The tiny images used in electronic messages and all over social media were the subject of an inaugural convention focused entirely on emoji. The three-day event, aptly named Emojicon, was a relatively small affair held under the dome of the Westfield Mall in downtown San Francisco that packed in games like emoji karaoke and improv alongside intellectual discussions of emoji law, culture and linguistics.

In sparsely decorated conference rooms, groups of emoji experts and enthusiasts met to discuss serious issues that belied the bulging-eyed smiley face stickers stuck to participants’ lapels.

Race, representation, gender politics and language as a living, breathing, evolving thing were the main focus of dozens of speakers. Discussions centered around how emoji are used and for whom are they made.

“For me, (emoji) is a claim on identity. It helps normalize the Internet as an Internet for all when we can have symbols that represent who we are,” said Latoya Peterson, the deputy editor of digital innovation at ESPN’s The Undefeated who led a conversation on emoji and how their use varies along racial lines.

Millions of people who engage in online communication use the icons to convey feelings, actions and other sentiments that transcend the written word, emoji devotees said.

An estimated 92 percent of people on the Internet use emoji, according to data from a New York analytics firm called Emogi. Over the past five years, since Apple added an emoji keyboard to its mobile devices in 2011, about 40 percent of captions on Instagram contain emoji alongside words.

A real-time tracker of emoji use on Twitter shows tens of thousands used every minute.

“No one could have predicted how this was going to blow up,” Peterson said. “Emoji is a visual language that is going to continue to evolve and grow…. The undercut of all that is we all want to see that emoji can reflect our world and our lived experience.”

On Sunday morning, Rayouf Alhumedhi, a 15-year-old girl originally from Saudi Arabia who now lives in Berlin, explained her push for an emoji character that wears a traditional headscarf known as a hijab. She appeared alongside Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who supports Alhumedhi’s campaign.

Alhumedhi, who wears the head covering, said she became aware of that there was no emoji that looked like her while chatting with her friends, who each used an emoji to identify themselves to one another in a WhatsApp group chat. Her friends, who don’t wear the hijab, found symbols that looked like them easily. But for Alhumedhi, there wasn’t one.

Why, she asked the room Sunday, were there emoji symbols for four different phases of a mailbox being opened, but not a single emoji to represent the millions of Muslim women and girls who wear head coverings?

Alhumedhi’s proposal has been brought before the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group in Mountain View that decides what symbols make up the alphabet of emojis used across platforms.

Though every company that allows its users to communicate with emoji can make the symbols in their own image — that’s why smiley faces look different on Facebook, Twitter and in text messages on your smartphone — most limit their so-called alphabet to emoji the Consortium has officially introduced.

Over the summer, 70 new emoji were unveiled with Apple’s latest release of its mobile iOS software, including several of “active women” working in professions and exercising — a change from the original female emoji that depicted women dancing, getting married, getting a haircut and a massage, while male emoji characters appeared with police uniforms, construction hats and the magnifying glass of a detective.

Women under 30 are the “most frequent emoji users by far,” according to Google, which has called emoji an “important means of communication” in the company’s own proposal for broadening the group of available symbols.

Emoji have become so integrated into written language that last year, Oxford Dictionaries named an emoji — the smiley crying tears of joy — its Word of the Year after seeing its use increase threefold over the course of 2015.

Emoji “make conversation more meaningful and personalized,” said Pradyumna Sathishkumaar, a promoter who attended Emojicon to help market emoji avatar creator Xpresso. “It changes the tone of a conversation, and it can really change someone’s mood in a way you can’t always do with just words.”

Members of the Consortium, often called the “overlords” of all things emoji, wandered the halls, encouraging attendees to submit their ideas to the group to expand the emoji library to be more inclusive and socially aware.

As convention-goers mingled in the hall, vendors sold pillows shaped like poop emoji and Chia pets in shape of smiley faces.
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A balloon artist crafted blow-up emoji creatures, noting the poop symbol was by far the most popular.

“I can literally give people s– and they’re so happy about it,” balloon artist Robin Brennen said. “I’ve put poop all over people today.”

A company called Emojibator turned the euphemistic eggplant emoji into a vibrating sex toy. The new model, a chili pepper, is already in production.

“The unspoken emoji truth is that the eggplant is really a penis, so it was a natural fit to turn it into a sex toy,” said Emojibator co-founder Kris Jandler. “I think there’s a fear of (emoji symbols) being associated with sex or being associated with body parts, but we’re hoping that products like this will help destigmatize that.”

Highlighting entrepreneurs who think creatively about emoji and how they should be used was just one of the convention’s purposes. Another, according to conference founder Jennifer 8. Lee, a writer and Internet producer who also founded a nonprofit called Emojination, was to allow emoji users to meet and talk with people who actually have a hand in creating the emoji lexicon.

“We are the Internet,” Peterson said. “It’s us. Who’s going to change it if not us?”

The convention was scheduled to run through Sunday evening.

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