Language evolves. No matter how annoyed people were by the change of the Oxford English Dictionary to make ‘literally’ not quite ‘literal’, language is simply always reinventing and redefining itself. And as languages evolve, you often see a gradual convergence in shared concepts. Let’s take our latin alphabet:
Now considered quite standard, it used to be very different between languages and regions of the world.
Technologies like the written word, the printing press and others helped the written letter to converge on a more standard set of characters. As humans used the script, its usage shaped the script in return.
A newer invention, Emoji, are similarly evolving as they are used. There’s been a few articles in recent months lamenting the differences in emoji sets from handset and software makers.
Significant design differences in emoji can be a hassle at best, but at worst it completely alters the meaning of a communication, and creates a jarring disconnect between the intended meaning the sender is trying to convey to the recipient. Imagine if the letters of our latin script varied depending on the phone you used!
Here’s where emoji differ from latin script: While Unicode defines the meaning of the emoji, the makers of emoji ‘fonts’ — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and a few others — are left to interpret how to visualize these textual descriptions in an icon.
Of course, humanity doesn’t operate on standards. We operate by convention. In popular use, we’re seeing Apple’s set being the most ‘canonical’, partly thanks to popular culture and partly thanks to some applications like WhatsApp simply bundling the set across platforms to ensure people can communicate clearly.
People don’t dress up as Google’s jellybean emoji, but Apple’s dancing girls are a particularly popular Halloween costume. Interestingly, the Unicode standard actually specifies one dancer, not two.
Companies like Google and Microsoft are entirely free to attempt to reshape our popular culture by changing the way their emoji look. They could easily dig their heels in and refuse to change their emoji iconography despite jarring differences between sets.
Fortunately, this isn’t the case. What we’re seeing instead is that the new emoji sets from Google and Microsoft have converged to a look that is far more similar to Apple’s, often mimicking particular peculiarities in expression or design that Apple apparently chose on a whim.
Compare: the updated Android emoji and the iOS emoji:
now look at the changes Microsoft is making, with the previous icons shown above and the new icons below:
In doing this, they are essentially helping all of emoji-using mankind (by some estimates, several hundred million people) to communicate more clearly and with less ambiguity.
Emoji have become something that is out of the control of these companies. I wonder if Apple had predicted the main contemporary use of the peach emoji, for instance…
But, now that it is indeed the conventional use case, Google updated their peach to reflect its usage.
I am grateful that these companies swallowed their pride and decided to attempt to help create one visual language for us to use.
This evolution of emoji is a fascinating process that is shaping a contemporary visual vocabulary for everyday expression. If emoji are indeed to be around for a long time — which seems likely, considering its suitability for conveying complex concepts and emotion through digital communication — we are seeing its very grammar being defined before our eyes.
What a time to be alive. 💫