System update: Are emojis making the world more tolerant?

Emojis are not just pictures but a sophisticated manner in which we communicate with symbols

Emily Jardine
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Iphone fans are well aware that Apple has just rolled out iOS 10.2. While most people are seemingly unconcerned with tech updates and the like, this one is an important one for all smartphone users as it will include over 100 new emojis.

This is no small thing. The emoji process is a long fraught one that can take over two years from idea to implementation. So for there to be a change in the emoji keyboard, it means that the it has surpassed a tricky approval process. So why should we care that we now have 1,851 emoji over the 1,724 emoji we used to have.


For those not in the know, emojis are not just pictures but a sophisticated way that we communicate with symbols; emoji follow grammar and have meanings that go beyond the 2D picture we send out in our whatsapp messages.

Tyler Schnoebelen, linguist and head data scientist who wrote his dissertation for Stanford on emoji, explains to Bustle, “emojis function a lot like dialects or regional accents, varying by geography, age, gender, and even social class.”

Why emoji matters

And this is why emoji matters. We need emoji that are as colorful and diverse as the world around us so that individuals feel represented in a basic mode of modern communication. The truth is that emojis matter and are becoming more and more a part of not only our daily conversations but how we express our view of the world.

This latest rollout of emojis takes that sentiment to heart and among the over 100 new emojis are ones that show the diversity and opportunity in our ever-changing world.

As James Titcomb writes for The Telegraph: “New emoji depicting characters wearing hijabs, breastfeeding and with beards have been proposed for use by mobile phone makers, reflecting a growing diversity in the colorful icons.”

One example that is especially critical for Muslim emoji lovers is the recent proposal by 15-year-old Rayouf Alhumedhi, a Saudi teenager who currently lives in Germany, for a hijab emoji.

As Alhumedhi explains to Motherboard, “Emojis can seem like a trivial topic but people use emoji to represent themselves and their lives. When the different couples and different skin tone emojis were added there was a huge buzz, and this was because people finally felt represented and acknowledged, which is the same case with the headscarf emoji.”

Tech author Kaleigh Roger concurs as she explains in Motherboard: “Considering millions of women around the world wear a hijab or other form of head covering, and emojis have become such an integral part of our daily communication, a headscarf emoji would be a logical next step in Unicode’s push to make emojis more diverse and inclusive.”

The hijab emoji

And although this latest rollout will not include a hijab emoji, the emoji has been approved by Unicode and is slated to join our phones in 2017. These new emoji, though, do include many positive changes that will allow more people to feel represented by their very expensive smart devices including a female version for each profession, and six skin tones for each.

This is not the first time that emoiji have taken on political significance. After a rise of gun violence in the States, Apple opted to replace the gun emoji with a water-pistol.

As Kate Miltner, a researcher who has spent years researching the connection between emojis and an individual’s worldview explains to The Guardian, “Emoji may seem trivial, just silly little faces, but when you aren’t represented by something that’s so widely used, it’s a problem. The values either intentionally – or unintentionally – baked into the systems we use on a daily basis can deeply impact people and how they navigate their world.”

This is no small thing. The number of smartphone users around the world is expected to reach 2.1 billion by the end of this year and as smartphones and emoji only become more ubiquitous, having symbols that represent as many people as possible becomes that much more important.

As Marissa Higgins explains to Bustle, “At the end of the day, when we talk about different kinds of privilege, visibility can make a huge impact in how people see themselves. For many people, feeling more included in their community can help people feel more safe, confident, and comfortable in themselves.”

“Diversity also helps inspire people young and old that they too have a space in traditionally white or male dominated spaces. Diversity matters, and visibility through technology — and within our day-to-day language — is just one more way of approaching it.”

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