Unicode Unwrapped 2021 🎁
92% of the world’s online population use emoji — but which ones are we using?
Graphic by Toph Tucker updated with 2021 data by Alexander Robertson
Well, it appears that reports of Tears of Joy’s death are greatly exaggerated 😂. According to data collected by the Unicode Consortium, the not-for-profit organization responsible for digitizing the world’s languages, Tears of Joy accounts for over 5% of all emoji use (the only other character that comes close is ❤️ and there is a steeeeeep cliff after that). The top ten emoji used worldwide are 😂 ❤️ 🤣 👍 😭 🙏 😘 🥰 😍 😊.
This collection of mostly positive vibes may seem familiar — it is not terribly different from the last time this data was published in 2019. As infinitely creative and diverse as the world is, the top 100 emoji comprise ~82% of total emoji shares. And yet …. There are 3,663 emoji. Sadly, that means a lot of emoji rarely get used (I’m looking at you, 🪃🚪🦛🥠🧻🧶) and our keyboards are beginning to resemble junk drawers :-(((((((( Fun Fact: Once an emoji is encoded it can’t be uncoded 🌊😵💫
So, why does Unicode keep reviewing new emoji proposals? 😵💫 This existential question haunts the emoji subcommittee and we want to understand what is happening. What are the most frequently used emoji? What do they have in common? Do we have too much of one type but not enough of another? How do we interpret the 83-spot leap (from 97 to 14!) in the use of Pleading Face 🥺?
What are the most frequently used emoji?
Emoji patterns are pretty universal across the subcategories — top-ranked emoji consistently represent multiple concepts so they are used in a wider variety of situations. As an example, let's look at clothing emoji. The top used is crown 👑 while the emoji collecting cobwebs in your keyboard seem to lack non-literal uses (like clutch bag 👝, lab coat 🥼, and flat shoe 🥿). This is a pattern we see over and over again: Here's a small sampling of emoji that are top in their class:
🚀 Rocket Ship found in the Transport-air is symbolic of progress being made and anticipation of big changes.
💪 Flexed Biceps is the top Body-parts emoji (this subcategory excludes hands) and is commonly used to indicate strength, success, overcoming a struggle, exercise, showing off, boasting, or rolling up your sleeve to receive a vaccine.
💐 Bouquet of Plant-Flower for all occasions: congratulations, celebrations, and relationships of many varieties be they platonic or romantic.
🦋 Butterfly is the most common Animal emoji (found in the Animal-Bug subcategory) representative of change, beauty, nature, and transformation.
🤸 Person Doing Cartwheel may not be the most popular sport in the world but it is the most popular Person-Sport suggestive of happiness and joy. Editor's Note: I'm fond of pairing it with a blackhole when disaster is looming 🤸🕳️
Most subcategories are neither completely popular or unpopular, with the exception of these completely popular subcategories:
Face-smiling 😀 😃 😄 😁 😆 😅 🤣 😂 🙂 🙃 😉 😊 😇… and most hands. (Hand and smiley faces are especially likely to be in the top 100 or 200 most frequently used emoji.)
Plant-flower 💐 🌹 🥀 🌺 🌷 🌸 💮 🏵️ 🌻 🌼 This subcategory is small in size and dominates the entire Animal & Nature category. Lss is more especially when the emoji have broad appeal
Emotion 💋 💌 💘 💝 💖 💗 💓 💞 💕 💟 ❣ 💔 ❤ 🧡 💛 💚 💙 💜 🤎 🖤 🤍 💯 💢 💥 💫 💦 💨 🕳 💣 💬 👁️🗨️ 🗨 🗯 💭 💤 Would be overwhelming and consistently popular if it was just hearts. Probably a good time for the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee to split this category into two ;-)
The least popular category? Flags. The least popular subcategory? Country-flags. They represent the largest collection (258 emoji!), but are used the least. Animal-mammal are the next largest subcategory (53 emoji!). Given that new emoji have to demonstrate they are not overly specific and need to break new ground, this suggests animal emoji are at saturation level.
This data is a strong signal to make an effort to add far less emoji especially specific, single-use types like flags and shower caps and for the committee to hold ourselves more accountable to the criteria for inclusion.
Also, you can explore the data for yourself!!!! I highly recommend checking out the interactive tools in this Observable Notebook ^_____^
How does 2021 compare to 2019?
While it would be easy to dramatize what’s hot and what’s not, the reality is that the emoji dropping out of the top 100 were already fairly borderline, ranking in the 90s, and didn’t drop far. (Auf Wiedersehen tiny dancer 💃, talk to the hand, ✋. It was such an unlucky year, even 🍀 dropped out of favor.) Most emoji remain fairly close to their 2019 ranks in 2021 with few notable exceptions.
2019: 😂 ❤️ 😍 🤣 😊 🙏 💕 😭 😘 👍
2021: 😂 ❤️ 🤣 👍 😭 🙏 😘 🥰 😍 😊
See the difference? Look closely. You may miss it.
Yeah, 💕 is no longer in the top ten but its replacement 🥰 was just outside at number 16. If you seek dramatic changes, the Top 200 contains bigger jumps — the biggest gainers were 🎂 (113 to 25) 🎈 (139 to 48) and 🥺 (97 to 14). Pleading Face emoji — like many other emoji added in 2018 — saw a great change in rank by 2021. Possibly because it still hadn’t establish its position but also who could resist those puppy dog eyes? 🥺🥺🥺🥺
And of course COVID continues to be part of our everyday lives as we enter 2022. Despite health-related emoji being used more often, only 🥵 and 🥴 managed to enter the Top 100 in 2021. 😷 moved up from 186 to 156 while 🦠 only just made it into the Top 500. This reflects the sheer number of emoji we use and the variety of situations we use them in, as well as the many different functions they have in our online lives: a global pandemic that changed the way we live had little effect on how we express ourselves online 😂 ❤️ 🎉 🥳 🍕 🌮