Can Emojis Save Us In the Age of COVID-19?

Now, more than ever, we need emojis to connect and entertain us

Emojis are our tiny graphical society mirror. No matter what you’re saying, doing, or thinking, there’s usually 128x128 pixel image that illustrates it. We communicate in emoji when words are not enough, when they might convey too much, and when there are no words. In a time of global illness and suffering, they’re the universal language we need.

People with emoji heads
 Lifewire / Ellen Lindner

Ever since I saw my first homemade facepalm with surgical mask emoji, I’ve been thinking about the critical role emojis play in human communication and how our changing circumstance might also be changing them.

🤷‍♂️ What’s an Emoji?

Emojis, especially for those born after the turn of the century, are as much a part of language as punctuation. However, in the history of language, even relatively recent ones like English, emojis may be a high-impact collection of pixels with global implications, but they're just a digital blip, nonetheless.

Emoji’s lineage can be traced directly to emoticons, text-based iconography to indicate smiles, :-) , sadness, :-( , and mischievousness, :-P . Carnegie Mellon Scientist Scott Elliott Fahlman proposed the smiley emoticon in 1982 to quickly convey that something in email or on a message board was intended as a joke.

Emoji Movie
Emojis are our favorite thing, except when they star in their own movie.. This film got the equivalent of a Four Poop Emoji rating.  Emoji Movie / Sony Pictures Entertainment

More than a decade later, the Japanese, who have an entire language based on ideograms, turned those text-based emotion-signals into tiny graphics, and emojis (which means “picture and letter” in Japanese) were born.

Even though we think of emojis as images, they are still, at their core, text messages conveyed as graphics. In other words, when you send someone a smiley face or thumbs up, it’s still just a bit of code that tells the recipient platform, “please show a smiley face or thumbs up.” It’s up to the platform to decide what, for instance, the thumbs up looks like—they look slightly different on an iPhone, Android device, or Windows PC.

By maintaining a universal library of accepted emoji requests and leaving the display side up to platforms, the governing board behind emojis can allow the little images to operate as a truly global and universal language. Put simply, every platform knows what a poop emoji means, but each gets to decide how to display it.

📚 The Book of Emoji

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in emoji use,” said Jeremy Burge, Chief Emoji Officer for Emojipedia, a popular online dictionary of (intended and implied) emoji meanings. It was users, for instance, that started using the peach emoji as a stand-in for the human behind. Emojipedia recognizes both uses.

Burge and I met years ago during a podcast and I was struck by his voluminous knowledge of emojis, including the process for creating them. Unicode, the governing body that for decades has ensured that text is recognized across systems and platforms absorbed oversight of emoticons and then emojis. Burge has served on the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee for years (he founded Emojipedia in 2013). He also sits in on regular Unicode Technical Committee meetings, including one that’s taking place this week.

"Emoji didn’t replace text or words, but they are that emotional glue that we want to express one way or another."

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been to a remote Unicode committee meeting,” Burge, who lives and works on a boat in London, told me. Those meetings typically take place at one of a handful of major tech company headquarters (Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter). Unicode works closely with these companies to implement new, agreed-upon emojis and to work through proposals. Apple helped drive the push for the accessibility emoji set, while Google championed gender equality emojis.

😷 Communicating COVID

Even emojis could not escape the pandemic. A few weeks ago, the Unicode Consortium announced the delay of the new Unicode Standard, pushing out the update from March 2021 to sometime in the fall. That six-month delay means smartphone platforms like iOS and Android will not be able to implement new emojis in their 2021 OS updates and may have to wait until 2022.

Burge and his team, however, have been analyzing current emoji use, looking for trends. In some ways, usage hasn’t changed that much. The laughing (😂) and crying (😭) emojis, which are always among the two most popular, are still widely-used in everyday tweets (Burge and company have to look at publicly available sources, not your personal texts). This may indicate “some thread of normality,” said Burge.

In COVID-19 related tweets, however, the tiny green microbe emoji (🦠), which is more or less what the virus might look like under a microscope “flew up to number one. It was a stand-in for the coronavirus,” Burge told me.

Even though Emojipedia didn’t see a dramatic rise in emoji use, they have seen a huge spike in traffic to their website this year (from roughly 35M monthly unique visitors to 50M). This may be because, Burge told me, more people are communicating remotely. It’s worth remembering that there are (or were) still millions of people who never used emojis. Burge often still gets asked, “How do I get into using emojis?”

“If Emojipedia’s traffic is any indication, perhaps [the true surge] hasn’t even come yet. People will send even more emojis. I see it evolving over the rest of the year.”

Jeremy Burge
Emojipedia Chief Emoji Officer Jeremy Burge is in charge of all content on the site. Jeremy Burge

🎨 The Creator

“I think the emoji sort of fill in that space of emotional connection,” said Angela Guzman, Founder and CEO of Tijiko, a web-based platform focused on helping people connect virtually through video via shared activities. I know, it sounds like something she might have launched this week, but Guzman’s been working on the site for a year (it’s still in beta).

Guzman, though, does have a knack for being at the right place at the right time. 12 years ago, she interned at Apple and, with her mentor, helped design and create 480 of iOS’s original emojis.

She recalls working on a lot of happy faces, the hearts so many of us are fond of using, some clothing-related stuff, and the celebratory party popper (🎉). “At the time, I had no clue what the word emoji was,” said Guzman who has enjoyed watching the evolution of her co-creations. Typically, Guzman uses a lot of emojis that express happiness or excitement. But there has, in our current stay-at-home culture, been a shift.

“A lot of people in quarantine have to improvise birthdays, so a lot of celebratory emojis being used,” said Guzman, who recently celebrated her own toddler’s birthday and saw many people using various birthday emojis to celebrate with them.
For Guzman, emojis play an important role in interpersonal communication.

“The reason we need a physical hug or wave is because it means a lot more than just words. Emoji didn’t replace text or words, but they are that emotional glue that we want to express one way or another. [Right now] we can’t do those emotional connections in person. It's important that these little icons let you express yourself that way,” said Guzman.

Angela Guzman
Angela Guzman helped create the original set of iOS emojis.  Angela Guzman

🖐Lasting Impression

We will eventually reconnect in person, but some things, even emojis, may be irrevocably changed.

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, at the height of “social distancing,” Burge saw a lot of requests for an elbow bump emoji, but as soon as people were asked to stay home, those requests evaporated.

“If they had added an elbow bump, is anyone wanting that in 18 months?” said Burge. It’s a fair question when you consider that the benchmark for new emojis is adding images that are timeless and universal.

There is already one face mask emoji. However, “it looks quite sick, not healthy,” and would not, said Burge, align well with current messaging, which says that mask wearing is to help stop the spread to or from you and not to indicate that you’re sick.
Adding an entire mask-wearing face library is also not practical since some platforms and phones, especially those in developing countries, could not support all those extra emojis.

Emojis in museum
The National Museum of Cinema Exhibition, which clearly recognizes Emojipedia as the home of emoji meanings. Jeremy Burge

While there’s no plan to discuss coronavirus at the upcoming Unicode committee meeting, future ones may have to deal, in some fashion, with the pandemic’s long-term consequences.

For the last few years, they’ve been trying to standardize emoji gender and skin options. One proposal, Burge explained, is for the handshake emoji to support two different skin colors (black and white hands, for example) to shake together. Will we even shake hands post-pandemic world?

“Right now, it’s all very new to us. We don’t know what things will look like in 5 years or 10 years. That’s the challenge for all of us, not just Unicode,” said Burge.

👍 So What

Guzman, who sometimes creates emojis for her own personal enjoyment, told me she can still see elements of her original designs in the new, higher resolution emojis. “The turquoise dress with belt is still how I created it.” She also thinks she knows what emoji we need to add for the pandemic: “Hand-washing emojis, actually.”

It makes sense that future emojis will reflect not the pandemic directly, but as Guzman suggests, habits and situations that have come out of it.

I offered Burge the idea of a “Binge Butt” emoji to indicate what happens to us when we sit on the couch and watch Netflix for 45 hours straight. “Love that one," he said, "[but] we already have the couch and peach emoji.”

Like this column? Get more like it delivered directly to your inbox. Sign-up for Untangled, a more sensible approach to technology.