Of course you do! So many iconic moments. Beyonce dropped Lemonade. Oh, and there was that all female Ghostbusters. Then, there was Harambe. Jimmy Fallon rubbed Donald Trump’s head like a good puppy. And safety pins. Remember? Maybe not. They were worn by allies in solidarity with those exposed to hate and violence after the election.
Sure enough, a proposal was written for a safety pin emoji which the Emoji Subcommittee reviewed and advanced as an emoji candidate. (Safety pins have been around for a hundred and fifty years after all). Some time later the safety pin landed on our keyboards.
Sadly, this is not a story of success. While it’s clear that the Unicode Consortium is very effective at digitizing long standing well established languages and visual morphemes they can’t make “fetch” happen no matter how much you hope it'll catch on. To date, the safety-pin remains one of the least frequently used emoji. :-/
Why am I talking about safety-pins? As the world does another full rotation into the pandemic I was thinking back to 2020 and the proverbial emoji request inbox (aka people thinking out loud and shooting off a tweet):
Where is our elbow bump emoji?
Have you considered a foot bump emoji?
How come there is no emoji for washing your hands?
I want a stuck at home emoji.
What about a closed for business emoji?
How about medical glove emoji?
What are you doing about a Corona virus emoji?
Why isn’t there a vaccine emoji? Don’t you support vaccines????
We definitely need an emoji to de-stigmatize COVID-19!!!!!!
Do we though? 🤔
Globally, we were clearly struggling to gain some sense of control as the world was spinning out. Meanwhile, the CDC wasn’t even endorsing “elbow bumps” like the World Health Organization (WHO) did in 2006 during the Avian flu (and a year later, still doesn’t). We went from elbow bumping friends to never seeing them again in the blink of an eye. (Cue: “Now we need an emoji for socially distancing”). 😫😫😫
In these moments I am reminded of this observation from notable psychologist Carl Jung:
“Loneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself …”
The primal need to be seen and heard and understood combined with panic makes for a complex storm of emotions. If there’s a German word for everything including your “inner pig dog” (Innerer Schweinehund) then it’s not a big leap to understand why some people think there should be an emoji for everything too.
Building blocks 🏗️ vs. super-specific designs 🖼️
No emoji? No problem. You don’t need to solicit, petition, or rally Unicode to add a Corona emoji or Innerer Schweinehund. They already exist in your keyboard. Inner Pig Dog? 🐷🐶! Corona? 👑🦠! The infinite creativity of the human mind is visible in the unstoppable change we see through jargon and the formation of new slang. Immediately after lockdowns started happening, “👑🦠” started to appear on twitter. ('Corona' in many languages such as Spanish translates to crown).
There’s this WHOLE THING in linguistics that language is special because you use smaller units that don’t mean anything to build up meaningful concepts when combined. Language is*powerful* because a finite number of glyphs can Do It All (very naughty conflating language and writing here, don’t tell the linguists).
Emoji are not a language. You can gesture anyway you want but with emoji you’re constrained by what is available. Working creatively within the limitations of emoji is possible because of the particularly limiting constraints. And realistically how many more emoji can be added without decreasing returns? (More on that in a future blog, I promise).
So, do we need a 'social distancing' emoji as much as we need to understand how you feel about social distancing? After all, 80% of emoji are shared alongside words (And the internet full of gifs, video, memes, images, stickers etc etc etc). Emoji aren’t a substitute for language as much as they supplement it.
Stuck at home for the 55th week 🙃
Stuck at home for the 55th week 💀
Stuck at home for the 55th week 🍷
Stuck at home for the 55th week 😮💨
✍️ Using ✍️ emoji ✍️
So, before anyone writes a proposal for a hand washing emoji (or any emoji for that matter), open up your emoji palette of choice and take a good hard look. It takes up to two years to encode and distribute new emoji. (Given that historically it has taken centuries for writing systems to evolve this is really fast 😂). Meanwhile, there’s already a dozen code points that can be combined in any number of ways to convey hand washing: 🖐️👏🧴🤲🚰💦💧🧼. In some ways, how you string letters together to form words to create sentences to communicate ideas… emoji can also be combined together to create a shared experience, “I got my vaccine! 💪🩹” or embrace hygiene, “Please wash your hands 💧🧼👏”.
Emojipedia has a fantastic page showing some of the creative possibilities:
Go back and wash your hands 🧼🖐️
Washy wash wash 🧼👐🚰
Soap and water 🧼👐💦
How many of you are still washing your hands properly? 💧🧼 🤲
Wash your hands regularly, for at least 20 seconds 🧼🖐⏲2️⃣0️⃣
Soap not available? Just used alcohol based sanitizers🧴🤲
Oh, and if you’re still in need of an emoji for staying at home? The Unicode Standard has got you covered. 🏠🧍
The speed of language 🐆
Flash forward to 2021. “Where is our elbow bump emoji?” memes have been replaced with, “Where is our vaccine emoji?” While it’s true Apple, Twitter, and Google have publicly indicated that blood from their syringe emoji will be removed in a future release a simple search online illustrates that attempts to market the modification as a “vaccine emoji” is a bit performative. The syringe emoji (with or without blood) is effective at conveying a wide range of vaccine related messages.
That being said, the more broad emoji are designed the more useful they are! Language is fluid and so are emoji! There is less of a need to foist a new icon on the people when the people are using existing ones in their own voice and making it theirs.
Inject THAT into my veins ✨🦄💉💪
There’s palpable tension between the informal nature of the spoken word with the formal methodical process of any writing system. No one asks the dictionary for permission to invent the word, “duckface”. We just start saying duckface a duck-ton and the dictionary people say, “Yup, that’s a word now. Good job, people”. Language emerges from the people, by the people. One of the most misunderstood power dynamics of the Unicode Consortium is that they are the arbiters of how we communicate online — but on the contrary. The people are. 🌱✍️💎