Rant: Emoji

You may have heard about a recent proposal to include gendered profession emoji. If you have not, the basic idea is to allow the woman (U+1F469) and man (U+1F468) emoji to be combined with others to represent various professions. While I do not have a reason to oppose profession emoji (other than the common complaint about there being too many emoji), I do oppose pushing these emoji in the name of diversity and representation.

Unicode 8.0 skin tone modifiers
Unicode 8.0 skin tone modifiers (from Mac Rumors)

Issues of representation and diversity in emoji were in the news not that long ago when Unicode 8.0 introduced skin tone modifiers. Until Apple's color emoji gained popularity, most computers rendered emoji like any other text—in the text's font color. The font color could, of course, be set by whatever software was rendering the text. Want to honor the Wicked Witch of the West? Set the font color to green and give her a thumbs up (U+1F44D). After all, the percent sign (U+0025) does not tell you what color it should be; why should any other character?

Color emoji took considerable control away from content creators. Suddenly, if you wanted to use the “back with leftwards arrow above” (U+1F519) emoji, you were out of luck on the platforms on which it always rendered in blue unless that fit with your app's color scheme. For the first time, a huge number of characters had the ability to tell font rendering programs what color they wanted to be, and designers and content creators had no say in the matter.

Even with the introduction of various color emoji sets (or “smilies”, as we used to call them in the U.S.), emoji remained gender- and racially-neutral. The yellow smiley face used to be virtually universally recognized as representing a happy human face without any indicators of gender, race, or any other physical traits—it remained as unbiased as the classic “:)”. It was only when Apple released emoji with caucasian skin tones that people took issue. To be perfectly clear, I think people were absolutely right to oppose Apple's change—by explicitly representing one racial group, Apple had implicitly excluded all others. I do, however take issue with the Unicode consortium's solution.

The introduction of skin tone modifiers suddenly made font color selection a choice that could be made by the typeface, and while emoji were no longer limited to a single skin tone, they were still limited to six. Once again, by including selected groups instead of opening emoji to the full range of possible font colors, every other group had been implicitly excluded.

Google police officer emoji
Google's gender-neutral police officer emoji

This brings me to this newest proposal. In the past, profession emoji, such as the police officer (U+1F46E) have not had specified genders, and while some fonts contanied gendered versions of the character, others, such as Google, kept them as androgynous as the first smilies, and that decision is important. As I stated before, as soon as you modify emoji to explicitly represent specific groups, you implicitly exclude all others. By gendering profession emoji, you implicitly exclude non-binary individuals. Additionally, you exclude anyone whose definition of his/her own masculinity or femininity does not match Google's representation. These modifiers do not include long-haired males, short-haired females, people who express gender identity with facial hair, and, obviously, anyone without brown hair.

Instead of continuing to add and add until emoji capture every person's unique traits, consider moving emoji back toward the more abstract representations they once were, and stop letting the text tell the application how it should look. The more emoji cease to be neutral and try to represent specific traits, the more it becomes apparent just how many more unique traits exist in humanity than can possibly be represented, and the more groups get implicitly excluded.