With new, more diverse emojis coming soon, could those cute little smiley faces have a bigger cultural impact than we thought?

Emojis have come a long way since their humble beginnings at the end of the last century. What started as a set 172 basic images used in texting in Japan have evolved into the cultural phenomenon we know today. They’ve been on the up and up ever since Apple fully embraced the pictograms by adding an emoji keyboard to iOS back in 2011.

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Some early emojis from 1999

Since then we’ve seen bizarre literary translations like Herman Melville’s Emoji Dick and even an unexpected foray into Hollywood with the upcoming Emoji Movie. Not to mention that fact that Face with Tears of Joy (😂) was crowned “word of the year” by the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015. What a time to be alive!

It’s easy to scoff at the farce of that last paragraph, but it just goes to illustrate the insane reach of those little pictograms. Not only is emoji is an expressive form of communication, helping to counter the lack of gestures and tone of voice in the written word, it’s also the fastest growing “language” of all time. Though popularized by young people, emojis have wormed their way into almost every demographic with an estimated 92% of internet users taking part.

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These designs should be a bit more familiar

Beyond a playful form of cartoonish punctuation, the ubiquity of the emoji means they have a pretty wide impact on the world – but as we know, with great power comes great responsibility. In that vein, let’s look at what the guys in charge of picking new emojis have in store for us.

Improved diversity

A new emoji pack has recently been finalized for 2017 and will find its way onto devices in the coming months. Inclusivity and diversity are major themes this year, with emoji’s creators aiming to expand the scope of their pictograms to better represent the full range of people using them.

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This year’s pack finally completes the task of adding a full range of skin tones to all human emojis. The basic smiley emojis have always been a deep yellow, a kind of race-neutral skin tone reserved mainly for LEGO figures and residents of Springfield, but the more realistic depictions showing jobs or activities haven’t always catered to the full range of skin tones. Thankfully that’s no longer the case with these recent changes.

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Among the new suggestions in this year’s final pack are people with beards and headscarves, two huge slices of the population entirely unrepresented until now. Also of note is a new breastfeeding woman emoji – though, like the pregnant woman emoji, that one doesn’t come with a male equivalent. Science has a way to go until we see those enter the fray.

Gender representation

The latest update also improves on gender representation – when many of these emojis were first launched, they had just one version apiece and predominantly followed gender stereotypes. Men were used to showcase most of the work-based activities while women were mainly seen getting massages and haircuts. With emojis used so frequently by so many – especially young people – they ran the risk of perpetuating these stereotypes. To combat that in a positive way, alternate versions of these characters have gradually been added to show that women can be construction workers and men can be dancers.

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Going a step further, the new pack also includes suggestions for a series of gender-neutral emojis without typically masculine or feminine features. This would not only please those who don’t align with the conventional binary genders, but also provide a more neutral set of emojis for all, stripped of the inherent implications and biases of gender. Sometimes you just want to portray somebody waving or shrugging or smiling or running, and it’s not important whether they’re a man or a woman. Perhaps these will form a new ‘base’ emoji going forward, with users switching to a specific gender representation if they feel it’s relevant.

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That said, it’s worth noting that although the official emoji list for the year has been finalized, that doesn’t necessarily mean everything in it will be used – at this stage they’re merely suggestions from Unicode, the consortium responsible for keeping emojis and other text characters consistent worldwide. If you’ve ever noticed emojis looking different across platforms, this is because Unicode ensures that all characters represent the same things but doesn’t control precisely how they look on different systems. The new emojis shown in this article are in fact mockups in the iOS style by Emojipedia.

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Major vendors like Apple, Google, and Facebook (seen above) can choose their own implementations of Unicode’s suggestions, and time will tell whether they embrace some of the potentially controversial new designs seen this year. Apple is in a uniquely powerful position to take a stand on certain issues, and while it will be wary of alienating any of its user base by getting too political, we’ve seen in the past that the company isn’t afraid to make changes. Remember when it subbed out the gun emoji for a water pistol?

Other additions

So what else is new? For those of you who can’t wait to get your hands on the latest emojis, you’ll be pleased to hear that plenty more have been added besides the ones mentioned above.

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New foods have been added including broccoli, coconut, and a great steaming pie, while new action poses cover the gamut from climbing and yoga poses through to people relaxing in the sauna. In the animal kingdom we now have access to giraffes, zebras, and the powerful T-Rex. Those of you reading from the UK will be please to know that the England, Scotland, and Wales flags are finally on their way.

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The latest emojis are even inclusive to the clinically nerdy among us: a range of fantasy creatures such as vampires, wizards, and mermaids should make it much easier to replicate scenes from your favorite fantasy films. A wispy new “genie” emoji is exempt from the skin tone variations, as it was deemed not to possess any skin – though there are at least male and female versions of the magical being. Phew.

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Finally, there are some new basic smileys to cover a wider range of emotive actions. These include slightly unsavory faces cursing and being sick, right through to a face with sarcastic eyebrows and the long-awaited “shh!” smiley. About time for that one.

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These new emojis are set for official release in June, and will make their way onto iOS some time after that – most likely in September, to coincide with the release of iOS 11 and this year’s new iPhones.

What’s next?

So what’s the future of emoji? Do they keep on growing indefinitely until its impossible to keep track? We already have more than 2,000 of the things, and wading through them can be a nightmare.

Perhaps as the growth of emoji rolls on, we’ll find new and better ways to organize them and to use them. Apple already started this trend with emoji suggestions in iOS 10, and we may be due more advances in the same vein when iOS 11 rolls around later this year.

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More of this to come perhaps?

Or perhaps in a few years they’ll be rendered obsolete by the next big thing – virtual eye contact or holographic handshakes, perhaps – and we’ll look back on this decade as a fleeting fad for the friendly faces of the emoji kingdom.

Whatever happens, for the time being all these additions mean it should be easier than ever to represent your feelings without having to, you know, resort to actual /words/ like our luddite forefathers did.