The Emoji That Nearly Weren’t

How this year's emoji want no one to be left behind

We were very close to not having any emoji in 2021. As the world shut down in early 2020, Unicode, a volunteer based organization responsible for encoding the world’s languages, quickly realized their yearly release was going to be delayed six-months. As the Chair of the Emoji-Subcommittee I wrapped my head around what this would mean: we’d likely miss the deadline to ship emoji leaving us loudly crying until 2022. 😭😭😭😭

Hold up. I know what you’re thinking. The world will survive if we miss a year or two. Emoji are great but they aren’t the only way to express yourself online. I don’t disagree. As a product of the Unicode Consortium (again, who are responsible for umlauts) they are held to a different standard than memes and gifs and TikToks which tend to be as fluid, transient, viral, informal, and as flexible as the internet. Encoding emoji for encoding emoji sake benefits no one (we’re already over 3,000 emoji and the experience using them hasn’t evolved much since the initial set of +700 found their way onto your mobile keyboard of choice). Here lies the tension of the role of the Unicode Consortium in digital communications that I’ll save for a future discussion. For now, it was clear that as we bunker down in our homes we were gonna rely on the internet more than ever and emoji play a nontrivial role in how we express our feelings to others online … and we were gonna be online _a lot_ more.

Adjusting to this new reality we found a promising path forward: We couldn’t create new code points but maybe we could create new emoji based on existing ones. It was technically feasible to ship emoji ZWJ sequences (that's when a combination of multiple emoji display as a single emoji … like 👩 🏽 +🏭  = 🧑🏽‍🏭). While I love mushing two emoji together just as much as the next person encoding redundant concepts into Unicode that can easily be conveyed with existing emoji benefits no one in the existing input ecosystem. So, we meticulously audited all the proposals previously reviewed and identified stable ZWJs which became our recommendation of a modest collection of emoji candidates to the Unicode Consortium.

The most notable aspect of Emoji 13.1 isn’t that new emoji exist — it’s that it leaves no one behind. This is the understated beauty of an effective ZWJ. Every single one of 2021’s emoji is a combination of existing ones so no matter how old your phone is you won’t see tofu with this new release. For those unaware: Emoji are tied to your Operating System. New OS? New emoji. There is a very real economic division between people who can afford to get a new phone every year (or who can afford one that generously updates the OS remotely) vs … well _everyone else in the world_. For the majority of mobile phone users this means that when new emoji are released they appear as a black boxes known as a tofu). It sucks, everyone hates it and it’s absurd. Short of untying emoji updates to OS updates this 13.1 Emoji release is pretty cool so … Let’s get right to it!!!


1. FACE EXHALING When Samsung's changed their design for ANGUISHED FACE a few years ago it was for a noble cause: to reduce miscommunication across platforms. However, we mourned a truly great expression. I’m glad to see that this emoji return as we all try to breathe into paper bags and hyperventilate into 2021.

2. FACE WITH SPIRAL EYES This underwent a number of revisions which could fill a whole newsletter (Note to self: write a future newsletter on this emoji). TL;DR Some emoji fonts designed DIZZY FACE go be faithful to the name with actually dizzy spiral eyes and others were loyal to the original design on Japanese phones. In the short time since this emoji was proposed, fonts with swirly eyes started changing them to “X’s” (again to reduce miscommunication across different messaging platforms, noticing a trend?). Face With Spiral Eyes reconciles this standoff and expands the range of emoji dizziness from "knocked out" to “hypnotized”. 

3.  FACE IN CLOUDS Non visible disabilities are extremely difficult to convey in emoji form and yet 96% of people with chronic medical conditions live with a condition that is invisible. BRAIN FOG captures confusion, forgetfulness, and other mild cognitive impairments.

4. MENDING HEART It’s easy, maybe too easy to be angry online. It's difficult to express empathy, sympathy, and the space between overt extremes like "love" and "hate" via text. A mending heart emoji is there for softer, more gentle communications.

5. HEART ON FIRE A ZWJ has a high bar. It needs to simultaneously prove it isn't already representable with existing emoji but also needs to have an effective fall back. Probably the most questionable of all the ZWJs, encoding this one came down to what can HEART ON FIRE accomplish that a bigram simply cannot? “🔥❤️ “ implies a certain amount of lust … a heart literally on fire has roots in religious iconography. It also gets you somewhere closer to pain/pleasure than love/lust.

6&7. More MULTI-SKINTONED COUPLES. Extending skintone support for some multi-person groupings we now have hundreds of lovers in our emoji keyboards.

8. Encoding gender into tech artifacts isn't trivial. As we identify paths that scale in the future w/o sacrificing backwards compatibility a few emoji remain explicitly gendered (eg Princess (👸) Prince (🤴🏻), Woman dancing (💃), Man dancing (🕺🏻), Pregnant woman (🤰) BEARDED PEOPLE are a good reminder: minimal designs broaden use.


OK OK OK SHOW ME the EMOJI!!! Where can you see them? GREAT QUESTION WITH A NOT GREAT ANSWER. As with all emoji rollouts it takes about a year for them to fully propagate platforms, apps, and devices so if you’ll see them on iOS, Microsoft and your messaging app of choice later this year. As of today you can fire them up:

- ChromeOS, everywhere

- Android Devices, starting with Pixel phones


This is all to say thanks to the thoughtfulness and dedication of Unicode’s volunteers we won’t have to wait for a MENDING HEART, a DEEPLY EXHALING face, and hundreds of couples of all skintones kissing. Despite these throwing strong 2021 vibes they are all popular visual morphemes that have been used to communicate for a long time. Emoji 13.1 focuses on images that are globally relevant and targets categories with the highest frequency of use: smileys and hearts. Ok, Hearts isn’t a category, more of a subcategory, whatever.

(´∩。• ᵕ •。∩`)

— jennifer