Many of us haven’t thought much about where the word “emoji” comes from. (It’s Japanese for “picture character.”) Far fewer have given consideration to how emojis land in our smartphones in the first place—sometimes becoming more meaningful than a word or more powerful than punctuation. And, yet, what happens when there isn’t one to represent our actions, our emotions or even ourselves?
A new documentary shows just how much red tape can entangle something as simple and as whimsical as emojis. Aptly titled Picture Character, the movie—which premiered last month at Tribeca Film Festival—tells the story of how we perceive and express ourselves as part of our increasingly digital existence.
The film follows three groups as they create and lobby for three different emojis: the hijab, the South American caffeinated drink mate and a drop of blood to symbolize menstruation. All had to go through the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit in Silicon Valley tasked with standardizing the text and emojis installed in phones.
Another subject of the documentary is Jennifer 8. Lee, founder of the literary studio Plympton. Several years ago, while eating dumplings with a friend, she realized there wasn’t a dumpling emoji—despite the food’s ubiquity and variety around the world. Like many of us, she made a brief note of it. Unlike many of us, she looked into changing that.
“I thought, ‘Oh, Apple doesn’t have a dumpling emoji’ … and then I moved on the way things do with conversations,” Lee told Adweek.
After some research, Lee learned of Unicode and decided to pay the $75 fee to become a nonvoting member to learn more about the process. At the time, the group deciding the fate of each emoji was mostly white and mostly male, she said. It’s at that point that she texted her friend Ian Cheney, a filmmaker who directed the documentary with Martha Shane.
“For us it felt like the process was really lacking transparency,” Shane said. “But a lot others compared it to the secrecy that a lot of Silicon Valley companies have when developing their technologies.”
Rayouf Alhumedhi, co-founder of The Hijab Emoji Project, was just 15 years old when a WhatsApp chat group with her friends inspired her to create the hijab emoji. She said her friends had symbols that looked like them. However, because there weren’t any options for an emoji wearing a headscarf, none of them resembled her and her hijab—a piece of clothing that’s common for millions.
“For every generation, they learn how to use emojis before they can learn to read and write,” Alhumedhi said. “What’s on the keyboard is what they can imagine and envision. And to add that to the keyboard does encapsulate how they see the world … the more representation it is, the more realistic the keyboard of the world.”
While the stories of the groups and individuals involved in their own emoji quests are both endearing and inspiring, perhaps equally as fascinating is the number of experts Cheney and Shane brought together to talk about the evolution of emojis and what they mean to various cultures and global communications. In addition to linguists who put emojis in the context of the history of other languages, the filmmakers also spoke with the founder of Emojipedia, the inventor of emojis and even an “emoji etiquette” expert.
Of course, there are plenty of emojis that are still waiting for approval. A group of Canadians is building a case for a beaver, while the California wine company Kendall-Jackson is hoping for a glass of white wine.
“The reason why Unicode emoji regulation takes so long is you need a group of people to come together and decide on emoji real estate,” Lee told Adweek. “If there is a sort of flexible way across all systems all at once, that could make it possible.”
So should one group have the final verdict on the future of how we communicate? It’s a question that’s asked in the film, but there is still no clear answer. And, if not, what should become of each emoji’s fate?
Perhaps the shrug emoji is all we can muster for now.