In spring 2021, even as vaccines rolled out to fight the pandemic, Keith Broni was sitting at his computer in Dublin, wondering if the world was actually getting sadder.
Broni’s job title is editor in chief at Emojipedia, the Web’s go-to database and reference site for all things emoji. His role is to oversee changes to emoji sets from all major vendors (like Apple and Google) and to watch for online trends and common usages of the omnipresent little pictograms. Broni, a business psychologist by training, refers to this practice as “social listening.”
Over the previous few weeks, Broni had noticed an increased use of the “loudly crying” emoji, the yellow face with mouth agape and tears streaming from squinting eyes, across social media platforms. For years, the “laughing crying” emoji 😂, the guffawing face with a single tear squirting from each eye, had been Twitter’s most-used emoji. But by April 2021, the “loudly crying” emoji 😭 had surged into that top spot.
“On the surface, that seems grim,” says Broni. “It was as if everyone had laughed themselves into abject melancholy.”
But upon closer review of individual tweets, Broni came to the realization that COVID-19 had not reduced the entire internet to misery; rather, tweeters were now using the “loudly crying” emoji to convey extreme laughter instead of sadness — it had completely reversed meanings and literally replaced its “laughing crying” cousin.
“Just like ‘LOL,’ the ‘laughing crying’ emoji has become so ubiquitous that it’s lost meaning,” says Broni. “Meanwhile, people have come to view the ‘loudly crying’ emoji as maybe a little too melodramatic to adequately express sadness or grief.”
Broni wrote a blog post about the tectonic shift and posted it to emojipedia.org. Then he and his team adjusted the site’s official definition accordingly: Loudly Crying Face: May convey inconsolable grief but also other intense feelings, such as uncontrollable laughter, pride, or overwhelming joy.
The mystery was solved. The internet sped on.
Such is a day in the life of a virtual scribe working on the 21st century’s answer to the Rosetta Stone.
As of September 2021, there were 3,633 emoji (or emojis; both plurals are acceptable) in the Unicode Standard, the recognized authority in ensuring consistency across most of the world’s writing systems. That number includes numerous emoji variations based on gender, skin tone, and flags of all sorts. If you’ve bought an electronic communications device in the last five to 10 years, you have access to a keyboard with that manufacturer’s version of most of them.
Ninety-two percent of the world’s 4.7 billion internet users use emoji. That’s a testament to their universality — along with their shorthand ease of use and ability to communicate emotions, such as sarcasm, where mere text often fails. Emoji reduce complicated ideas into simple, one-click pictograms (and darn cute ones, at that) which everyone, everywhere can quickly and definitively understand. Right?
Emoji have an innocent enough origin story. Developed in Japan in the late 1990s, the first emoji were successors to the text-only emoticons
;) from the previous decade. They were heavily pixelated, almost blurry, but straightforward once you figured out what they were pictures of: A red heart ❤. A broken red heart 💔. An angry face 😠. A happy face 😀. A soccer ball ⚽. A snowman ☃.
The practice caught on quickly in Japan. Multiple sites and mobile carriers started designing their own sets of emoji. Naturally, a bit of chaos ensued as people struggled to communicate across platforms. Enter the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization created in 1987 to standardize character encoding. (It makes sure, for instance, that the ‘t’ I just typed on my Mac appears as a ‘t’ on your Android.) In 2007, Google appealed to the consortium to do the same for emoji.
“Gen Z isn’t canceling emoji — they’re changing meanings.”Keith Broni, editor in chief at Emojipedia
Still, emoji were more or less homogeneous. All professional faces were one color 👨⚕️. All were male 👮♂️. There weren’t even any redheads 👩🦰 or people with curly hair 👩🦱. But, of course, the pictographic Tower of Babel has only gotten more crowded as emails, chats, texts, DMs, and tweets have become the world’s default forms of communication. As the little characters gradually escaped Japan, crossing oceans and boundaries both national and cultural, more and more emoji were added to the lexicon 👩🏽⚕️👩🏽🚀🙏🏾👨❤️👨👳. It was inevitable that the meanings of some of these pictograms were going to get lost in international translation. (Just ask any Japanese vegetable farmer who searches for 2010’s purple phallic “eggplant” emoji 🍆, which once innocently symbolized the first night of the New Year and meant “good luck.”)
“All language is a tool for expression and communication, and people are adept at modifying things to their needs,” says Emily Brewster, senior editor and editorial ambassador at Merriam-Webster, Inc. “But there needs to be transparency, so the person you are communicating with can understand.” With emoji, Brewster thinks, that understanding isn’t guaranteed. “They are just an image that can call to mind a variety of things,” she says. “The potential for miscommunication is still there.”
Jeremy Burge founded Emojipedia in London in 2013 to solve a much less complicated social quandary: He wanted to know whether the doughnut emoji 🍩 on his iPhone keyboard had always been there. Unable to find an answer on Wikipedia or anywhere else online, he decided to create a website that would answer his own question — and many others. (The answer: yes, the doughnut dates to 2010’s Unicode 6.0, the first Unicode update to include emoji.) Upon the release of Unicode 7 the following year, users crashed the Emojipedia site, trying to learn which 250 new ideograms had been added to the standard. By 2017, Emojipedia was a voting member of the Unicode Consortium. At one point, Burge served as vice chair of its Emoji Subcommittee.
Today, the ad-driven Emojipedia site is run by Broni. (Burge stepped down at the end of January.) It has its own lexicographer, Jane Solomon, and sees as many as 50 million hits a month. (In August 2021, it was acquired by Zedge, a content distribution platform for mobile devices.)
But Emojipedia is more than a successful business. It’s also the Merriam-Webster of the pictorial world. Its work — including definitions, histories, and content providing cultural context — is filed in the Library of Congress’s Web Cultures Web Archive. The hallowed definitions include:
Pleading face 🥺: A yellow face with furrowed eyebrows, a small frown, and large “puppy dog” eyes, as if begging or pleading. May also represent adoration or feeling touched by a loving gesture.
Sparkles ✨: The glittering flashes of sparkles. Generally depicted as a cluster of … four-point stars, with one large sparkle and two small ones to its left or right. Commonly used to indicate various positive sentiments, including love, happiness, beauty, gratitude, and excitement, as well as newness or cleanliness. May also be used as a form of emphasis or to convey sarcastic or mocking tones.
Pile of poo 💩: A swirl of brown poop, shaped like soft-serve ice cream with large, excited eyes and a big, friendly smile. May be used to represent feces and other bathroom topics as well as stand in for their many related slang terms. It also enjoys a wide range of idiosyncratic applications, such as conveying a sense of whimsy or silliness, given its fun, happy expression.
Anyone can make emoji. They can come from artists and designers or any random user. Companies can create them and program them to automatically populate social media posts and promote an event or product. Most new emoji are created by vendors and providers — like Twitter, Samsung, or TikTok — who simply want to expand their offerings to customers.
Every emoji is born with an intended meaning. “New emoji don’t just fall from the sky,” says Meryl Alper, a professor of communication studies at Northeastern University who focuses on the social and cultural implications of communication technologies. “As with most tech developments, it’s both a top-down corporatization and a bottom-up user-driven form of innovation. They are commercialized to the point where they’re almost meaningless, and yet at the same time, they present almost endless possibilities for expression and communication.”
Before an emoji reaches the fingertips of a user, no matter where it comes from, all emoji first go through the Unicode Consortium. The creator submits the proposed design and name. The approval process takes months and months. “Rightly so,” says Broni. “Once an emoji is added to the keyboard, it’s there forever.”
Every September, Unicode announces which lucky emoji made the cut. (This past year, Unicode 14.0 saw the additions of “Melting Face,” “Low Battery,” and “Beans.”) Then the emoji go out to the vendors, whose developers and designers go to work on building out their new keyboards. While Unicode issues the basic description, different versions of the same emoji still vary slightly by vendor in terms of shade, size, and small details. But while the individual design is technically proprietary, no one owns an emoji. And no one person or entity gets to define it.
Meanwhile, Emojipedia announces the list — and waits. “We are constantly watching and listening and assessing,” says Broni. “We watch on Twitter and other social media and really see how people are using this and to what extent.”
Broni and company then update their definitions accordingly. When they spot something newsworthy, they’ll post a story on the Emojipedia blog. In 2016, the site issued an analysis that showed the “peach” 🍑 emoji had come to represent a butt. In 2020, it found that “face with medical mask” 😷 and “microbe” 🦠 were most used to represent COVID-19.
Emojipedia has been referenced in comedy bits on Jimmy Kimmel Live. The site has even been presented as an expert in court. In 2018, actor Geoffrey Rush brought a libel lawsuit in the Federal Court of Australia. He was suing a news outlet that reported he’d sent inappropriate messages to a co-star, including one that contained an emoji of a face with the tongue out 🤪. The defense argued that the emoji was “panting,” but Rush’s barrister countered with the Emojipedia definition of “an attempt to be wacky, zany, or otherwise joking.”
Emojipedia rarely involves itself in emoji design (though the company did work with Tony Hawk to craft a more realistic-looking skateboard emoji 🛹). Nor does it jump into online debates about definitions. In fact, Broni says, sometimes the most important thing to do is not comment, as when some TikTok users decided to try to rally fans to accept and spread use of the “chair” emoji 🪑 as the new sign for laughter. It did not catch on.
Meanwhile, as generations grow up with emoji, the fun little characters continue to expand their roles. With the rise of telecommuting, for instance, more coworkers are communicating via email, DM, and other online platforms, increasing the emoji’s use in the workplace — a formalization that increases the stakes when it comes to misinterpretation.
“Emoji can lessen work [by being succinct], but it can also add work,” says Alper. “It adds the time and emotional labor of trying to figure out exactly what someone meant.”
As for the younger generations, the digital emoji natives, they occasionally appear in hot-take stories about how kids are taking to TikTok with claims that emoji aren’t “cool” anymore. But from Broni’s seat, it doesn’t appear that the little characters are disappearing anytime soon.
“Emoji have never been more popular than they are today,” he says. “Whether they are used genuinely or ironically, it ebbs and flows. Gen Z isn’t canceling emoji — they’re changing meanings.”
Where older generations might see something benign in a slight smile 🙂, Gen Z might use it as a sign of frustration or rebuke. It helps to have Emojipedia to keep up with the times.