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A brief history of the Emoji: Origins and evolution

TL;DR: The history of emojis, from their humble beginnings as questionable punctuation pairings, to their ubiquitous use today, has transformed the way we communicate, understand each other, and the way we share what’s important as global citizens. This article traces the evolution of the emoji, highlighting key milestones that have helped to propel their journey into our minds and mobile devices.

In today’s digital+mobile age, emojis are a second-nature, integral part of how we communicate on nearly every channel. Each has a nuance we quickly learn, internalize, and leverage in our mobile conversations, across mobile apps, and with great ease. Looking closer at the history of the emoji, we uncover why we’re here.

Read along as we trace the history from the humble emoticon to the almighty, robust emoji library we use today.

From Emoticon to Emoji: A brief history of its beginnings 

1997: The (real) birth of the emoji. Despite broad acceptance that the first emoji library was introduced in mobile devices in Japan, the ‘father’ of the Emoji himself, Shigetaka Kurita, agrees that the origins of these creative and emotive icons actually hit the market in November of 1997 as part of SoftBank’s SkyWalker DP-211SW mobile phone. The library contained over 90 distinct black and white characters.

1999: A new language for the new millennia. Kurita releases his own emoji library, the much more comprehensive set of characters developed for DoCoMo. His idea to create an interface that easily conveyed succinct and simple information took the internet by storm. The first set of emoji to achieve widespread use, Kurita’s library included 176 color symbols to describe the weather, emotions, traffic signals, and technological devices.

Fact: The pixelated designs that ultimately gave way to today’s expansive emoji database are on display at the Museum of Modern Art.

2003: Emoticons go mainstream. In 2003, emojis made their migration from mobile devices to desktop platforms. MSN Messenger 6 introduced a collection of 30 emoticons — including animated symbols! — shaping how we express ourselves in the digital realm, on a commercial scale.

2009: Emoji integration grows. Google incorporated emojis into Gmail, while the groundbreaking Emoji Dick project commences, translating the entire literary work of Herman Melville's Moby Dick into a series of the symbols. This year also marked Unicode’s adoption of the first characters explicitly intended as emojis, paving the way for a standardized digital language. The line between cute characters and heavy weight communication channel begins to blur.

2010: It’s official - unicode universalizes emoji. Despite widespread and growing adoption for over a decade, emojis only found legitimacy in 2010 as developers from Google and Apple joined forces to propose their inclusion in the Unicode Standard, a consortium which maintains text standards across computers.

The group was successful in 2010 and, with 625 new emoji characters added, emojis were on the path to becoming universally understood symbols, transcending platform barriers and setting the stage for their soon-to-be ubiquitous use. This universalization also allowed brands to begin creating their own versions of emojis while ensuring consistency across platforms.

Did you know? Proposals for new emojis are subjected to rigorous scrutiny by the Unicode Consortium, taking up to two years for approval. The process involves detailed explanations of the emoji’s significance and appearance. The emoji subcommittee meets twice a week to discuss and approve or deny requests.

A global emoji language takes shape

Over this next decade, the emoji continues its rise in global acceptance and usage. Apple’s introduction of the official emoji keyboard in 2011 and the subsequent emoji launch on Android devices opened the floodgates to a worldwide audience.

The year 2013 marked a significant turning point as tools like Emojitracker, Emojipedia, Emojitranslate and Emojisaurus emerged, helping users decode the nuanced meanings behind messages. And, the Oxford Dictionaries recognized the growing influence of emojis by adding the term “emoji” to their dictionary.

2014: Emojis in the modern context. As emojis expanded their repertoire to include various aspects of life, glaring gaps in representation quickly began to emerge. In response, Apple makes a pledge to make emojis more diverse, leading the way when it comes to emoji representation for all.

2015: Emoji undergoes a diversity update. In 2015, emojis underwent a diversity update, introducing five new skin tones, same-sex couples, and more. This marked a significant step towards addressing the lack of representation in digital communications and each subsequent update has aimed at better reflecting the global world. 

The same year, Facebook joined the emoji movement by introducing “Reactions” on posts, offering more ways to express more emotions beyond the traditional ‘like’ button.

Did you know? In a landmark moment, the Oxford Dictionaries’ Word of the Year is awarded to the “Face with Tears of Joy” emoji — the first time a non-word has won the honors, confirming its widespread cultural impact.

2016: The great gun debate. Emojis entered into the realm of societal reflection in 2016 when Apple responded to growing debate about the gun emoji. Once depicted as a realistic revolver, the symbol was transformed into a water pistol, showcasing the emoji’s responsiveness to growing cultural sensitivities around weapons.

2017: Embracing culture and inclusion. The year 2017 marked a turning point in emoji development, introducing mythical creatures, animals, food and even greater cultural and identity representation. Notably, emojis of a woman wearing a hijab and three gender-neutral options were introduced.

Did you know? In 2017, emojis also transcended their linguistic role and entered the realm of public health. Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation proposed an emoji mosquito to help communicate about mosquito-borne illnesses like malaria and Zika. The Unicode Consortium recognized the mosquito’s significance, approving it along with 156 other icons in 2018. This development highlighted emojis’ power to convey essential information across language barriers.

2018: Shaping emoji norms. This year, emojis continued to evolve with significant advancements that solidified their cultural impact. Most notably, the long-standing debate surrounding the gun emoji was resolved as vendors universally adopted the water pistol in favor of the revolver, underscoring the importance of the emoji to pop culture and current events.

2019: Expanding emoji horizons. The emoji universe expanded even further in 2019, with the number of available emoji surpassing 3,000 symbols. This growth showcased the enduring relevance of emojis and their ability to capture an ever-broadening spectrum of human experiences and emotions. 

2023: Emojis enter legal terrain. In an unexpected turn of events, emojis entered the realm of legality in 2013 when a Canadian judge ruled that a thumbs-up emoji could serve as acceptance of contract terms, resulting in a legal obligation. This landmark ruling highlighted the trans-formative potential of emoji beyond communication.

A world-wide emoji language of expression 

From Scott Fahlman’s “first digital emoticon” to the 10th annual World Emoji Day celebrated on July 17, 2023, there’s no doubt that these characters have changed the way we communicate. Emojis have bridged cultural gaps, expressed complex emojis, celebrated individuality, and surprised us for over 20 years. 

SIDEBAR: What's the difference between an emoji and an emoticon? Emoticons are the quirky classics you may remember from the time of dial-up internet and text-only chat rooms. Born from varying combinations of punctuation marks, emoticons are read sideways due to the limits of old school keyboards and display capabilities. Emoji, on the other hand, are the emoticons’ vibrant and playful successor – colorful pictographs of faces, objects, symbols, and emotions, letting you communicate in a language many people understand: images!

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