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The life and times of the Emoji – where did they come from

The popularity of Emojis has steadily grown as mobile characters and desktop machines incorporated them into operating systems – but where did they come from… and where are they going?

Some of the most common Emojis

Some of the most common Emojis

It’s often said that it’s hard to gauge a person’s true meaning in an email or text – without the tone of voice or facial expression you can’t tell if someone is being sarcastic, rude, witty, off-hand, or cynical – because there’s no intonation. However, thanks to emoticons, and later – Emojis, many an email or text sender has prevented offence or embarrassment thanks to a strategically-placed winking smiley.

But these are hardly a new phenomenon. Did you know there have been incidents of what appear to be emoticons in print as far back as 1648? It was in a poem written by Robert Herrick, as well as in a speech by, believe it or not: Abraham Lincoln – although both examples could simply be typographic errors, which is much less fun so let’s pretend otherwise.

The first properly intended use of typographic symbols arose in 1881 in the satirical magazine, Puck – the first mag of its type in the U.S. It printed a collection of faces describing joy, melancholy, indifference and astonishment as ‘typographic art’ using marks such as periods, dashes and brackets (although they were applied horizontally).

The first online use of the now-traditional smiley and frowning face is credited to in 1982. A young computer scientist working at Carnegie Mellon university, Fahlman was a regular user of the university’s science message board, who suggested that the smiley face would help people distinguish between jokey and serious posts.

Scott Fahlman's familiar smiley

Scott Fahlman’s familiar smiley

And like an electronic virus, these symbols then continued to catch on and quickly spread to ARPANET, the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network developed by the U.S. Department of Defence, which formed the basis of the internet as we now know.

These markers were known as ‘smilies’s until 1990, when the New York Times dubbed them ‘emoticons’.

The emoticon family began to expand as other users added to the range of facial expressions, and also as the Internet spread to nations with more nonstandard typographical characters.

Then, emoticon creation exploded. People began to add different characters to generate not only different faces but animals, objects, short-hand messages and to display other emotions. In 1992, Internet enthusiast James Marshall began collating a list of ‘smilies’ on his website. To date the list now contains 2,231 different type-based emoticons. Those can be viewed here… if you really want to.

As the Internet went international, there arose a need for emoticons that were understood globally, and the move from text-based emoticons to graphics occurred in 2000, when AOL began replacing typographical smilies with 16 detailed graphical representations, rendered on the familiar yellow background.

However, in the Far East, emoticons evolved differently: while western emoticons are read with your head tilted to the side, their eastern cousins are read horizontally, as normal type. These are referred to as Kaomoji, a contraction of the terms ‘face’ and ‘writing’, and began appearing around 1985 on the early Japanese social network service ASCII Net.

Emojis were developed in Japan

Emojis were developed in Japan

In February 1999, Japan’s major mobile phone operator NTT DoCoMo, launched i-mode – the world’s first mobile internet service, offering email, telephone banking, news, ticket reservations and internet access. By 2000 it had 6.5 million users.

The advent of email and text messaging in Japan brought with it its own problems. A lot of Japanese words are long and often have multiple meanings, which are lost in the brevity of electronic communication. The existing Kaomoji were still too complex to type in and so a young engineer called Shigetaka Kurita decided to add graphical icons to improve the i-mode user experience. He and his team designed a series of 176 12×12-pixel symbols depicting everything from facial expressions to everyday objects. Even though they were quite basic – Kurita wasn’t a trained designer – the phone companies took the symbols as they were and implemented them into their i-mode phones.

Emoji were incorporated into the iPhone firmware 2.2 released in 2008, and though originally intended for use in Japan on the Softbank network, people soon found a way of unlocking them elsewhere, too. After three years of requests by Apple and Google, in October 2010, version 6.0 of the Unicode Standard – a computing industry standard for encoding text was released including hundreds of Emoji symbols allowing them to be used more widely.

Unicode Consortium is a standards body for the encoding, representation, and handling of text

Unicode Consortium is a standards body for the encoding, representation, and handling of text

iPhone users were then able to add an entire Emoji keyboard onto their devices – even before third-party keyboard support came along in iOS 8. Within the Settings, they just needed to tap Keyboard, and add it as another language.

New Emoji icons are added with each iOS release and as of iOS 8 there are more then 845 of them, from buildings and vehicles, phases of the moon, plants, flowers and animals, and to a whole range of facial expressions, including the smiley face we all know and love.

That addition of third-party keyboard support also gave Emojis an even more expanded audience. These apps vary wildly in quality, but includes apps like Emoji Keyboard 2 – which allows users to use animated Emojis, and create more elaborate art using the icons, while an app like Emoji++ aims to improve usability and type faster with Emojis.

Of course, Emojis, like any cultural runaway hit, have faced controversy – due to  a lack of diversity. In current incarnations, Emojis generally follow the same shading, but plans are afoot to expand diversity. The Unicode Consortium is planning on including a font modifier into the Emoji set which will allow for five different skin tones for existing Emojis. This will likely appear in Version 8.0 of the standard, which is planned for June 2015.

Is this the diversity we're looking for?

Is this the diversity we’re looking for?

So while it may seem like Emojis have finally settled, finding their place in the world, the rich history of emoticons demonstrates how much has already happened to bring us the Emojis we have today. It looks like they will keep expanding, and become more diverse. But what’s next? How about Emojis you can interact with – with some voice recognition? Perhaps we’ll see whole new languages spawn – like latin, a language that can only be written down. Some will say we already have that. But to really know where Emojis will go in the future, we’ll just have to sit back and watch, with a smiley on our face.

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