Inside “Emojigeddon”: The Fight Over The Future Of The Unicode Consortium

Internal emails offer a peek behind the scenes of the peculiar and little-known organization that oversees the development of a weird new universal language.

There’s trouble afoot inside the Emoji Council of Elders, or, at the very least, signs of a low-simmering schism that’s being referred to by some of its participants — perhaps with less humor than one might expect — as “Emojigeddon.”

Emails seen by BuzzFeed News reveal an emerging tension at the Unicode Consortium — the 24-year-old organization that was established to develop standards for translating alphabets into code that can be read across all computers and operating systems.

“And yes, obviously a burrito emoji will be more in use than medieval punctuation."

The series of frustrated messages show a deepening rift between those who adhere to the organization’s original mission to code old and obscure and minority languages and those who are investing time and resources toward Unicode’s newer and most popular character sets: emojis, a quirky periodic table of ideograms and smiley faces that cover everything from bemused laughter to swirling, smiling piles of poop. The correspondence offers a peek behind the scenes of the peculiar and little-known organization that’s unexpectedly been tasked with building what some see as the first digital universal language.

In a series of acerbic emails on a chain celebrating Unicode and emojis' mention on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert last March, legendary Unicode contributor and typographer Michael Everson railed against the consortium, suggesting that the organization’s focus on emojis is hurting the work of scholars like himself.

“It’s delightful that everyone is so happy about Mr. Colbert, but I can tell you that many people are thinking that the UTC has lost the plot,” he scolded. “Emoji, emoji, emoji. It’s all about emoji.”

Other emails on the chain express similar frustrations. “I've only really seen one or two emails that actually sparked any meaningful discussion on Unicode while the rest have either been barrages of announcements...or end up being 'Oh look, people talk about emoji!,' 'Should Father Christmas's beard be the same color as his hair?'" one younger member associated with the consortium wrote.

Everson, who has spent decades encoding characters for Unicode — a 2003 New York Times profile cited him as “probably the world's leading expert in the computer encoding of scripts” — says that his frustrations stem from the consortium’s failure to provide “actionable feedback” on a medieval punctuation proposal that he placed in front of the committee in 2007.

“I’m editing some documents in medieval Cornish, and I personally need some of these characters. Their absence is impeding my work,” Everson told BuzzFeed News via Skype from his home in Ireland.

Though Everson managed to get two characters of medieval punctuation accepted at the last UTC meeting, he was dismayed that those accepted, including “the triple dagger” (which looks like three small swords stacked on top of one another), weren’t “particularly important to medievalists or really medieval at all.” Meanwhile, the consortium has accepted 79 new emoji proposals as candidates for its next emoji release (many of which are expected to be inducted in June), including “drooling face,” “selfie,” “wilted flower,” “croissant,” “stuffed flatbread,” “shallow pan of food,” and “modern pentathlon.”

In one of his emails to the consortium, Everson takes issue mainly with the lack of feedback on his medieval punctuation proposal: “When ballot comments are reviewed, and something is rejected, a reason is given. Is that the case for PUNCTUS ELEVATUS MARK or PUNCTUS FLEXUS MARK? No. Nobody said a word about those,” he wrote.

Everson, who has been closely associated with Unicode since 1993, sees a correlation between the committee’s silence on proposals like medieval punctuation and the ever-increasing demands placed upon it by emojis' ubiquity. “I’m no enemy of Unicode — some of these people are friends of mine, but I’m quite frustrated,” he said. “I’d like to see more balance and focus.”

“What does it take to get your attention, folks? An April Fools' proposal for EMOJI PUNCTUS EXCLAMATIVUS MARK?” 

As emojis' popularity has exploded, so has their press coverage, which Unicode has embraced. In recent years the consortium has weathered and begun to resolve the backlash over a lack of diversity inside emojis' character set and now presides over an influx of proposals for new emojis from both invested private citizens and companies like Durex condoms. Last December it publicized an Adopt a Character campaign to let people sponsor emojis (and other Unicode characters), and in January, Unicode President Mark Davis informally named the "Face With One Eyebrow Raised" emoji after Stephen Colbert, which led to the Late Show mentions and subsequent press. While it might all seem like good fun, Unicode traditionalists like Everson see it as a series of distracting stunts.

“What does it take to get your attention, folks?” Everson wrote in a March email to the consortium. “An April Fools' proposal for EMOJI PUNCTUS EXCLAMATIVUS MARK?” He then attached his 23-page medieval punctuation proposal for good measure.

In subsequent emails, Everson appears to have rallied some supporters. The younger member of the internal chain seems equally exasperated with Unicode’s embrace of emojis. “I was angered that an organization that essentially dedicates itself to the standardization of encoding the world's languages has been dumbed down to the organization that 'makes emoji,'" he wrote.

A number of strong leadership voices inside the consortium strongly disagree. On the email chain, John Hudson — another prominent typographer — shot down the idea that the consortium is letting emojis get in the way of its legacy business, suggesting that Unicode has always struggled to balance the old-school work of historical and minority scripts (dead languages) and newer, evolving language.

“They are problems that have been around for longer than emoji, and would persist even if emoji encoding in Unicode had not happened...even before Emojigeddon,” Hudson wrote.

In an interview with BuzzFeed News, Hudson explained that the reason emoji proposals are causing some consternation inside the Unicode consortium is simply because reviewing them is often easier (and perhaps more fun) than debating the peculiarities of, say, PUNCTUS ELEVATUS MARK. “These historic language proposals are complicated — there’s lots we don’t know and the process takes a long time, while things like the bacon emoji are moving briskly through committee,” he said. “I can certainly see how that's frustrating for the script workers who are being asked to constantly revise proposals.”

Everson's been public about his frustrations on Twitter.

But as Everson sees it, the glacial pace of the consortium is wasting crucial time that could be used to further language studies. In a recent email plea to the consortium over medieval punctuation like PUNCTUS FLEXUS MARK , he decried Unicode’s slow process while also taking a shot at the newly proposed (and likely soon to be accepted) dumpling emoji.

“We need these things encoded so we can USE them and we need them a lot more than we need a DUMPLING or even the Phaistos Disc [the latter is a reference to a 4,000-year-old clay disc that was found in Crete that no scholars can decipher],” Everson wrote.

While Davis, Unicode’s president, told BuzzFeed News that “the vast majority of what Unicode does is not emoji,” the attention and excitement has led the non-emoji crowd to feel that the work to which they’ve dedicated their time and expertise is inferior.

“The worst part is that even within this mailing list, discussions/comments/observations on emoji seem to be 1st class citizens where discussions about new language encoding end up second class,” the same young Unicode member wrote in an email defending Everson.

Emojis' popularity isn’t lost on Everson. “I like the fun of all of this emoji stuff well enough, and if I wasn't having a road block on some of the real encoding work maybe I'd have time to participate in the emoji subcommittee,” he told BuzzFeed News, noting that he’d personally encoded emojis in the past. “And yes, obviously a burrito emoji will be more in use than medieval punctuation, but, on the other hand, the universal character set is for the translation and representation of texts — not for cartoons.”

"Everyone knows eggplant is an erection and people sext with the vegetables, but that does not make it a substitute for language."

Ultimately, Unicode’s Emojigeddon boils down to a few essential questions: Are emojis a language? And if not, what exactly are they? Why are their regulation and evolution overseen by a bunch of language nerds and engineers? Typographers, linguists, and text-encoding experts including Unicode’s president generally agree that the character set does not rise to the standards of an emerging language.

“People have strategies for stringing them together, of course, and deriving greater meaning — everyone knows eggplant is an erection and people sext with the vegetables, but that does not make it a substitute for language,” Everson said.

But for others, emojis' ubiquity makes the character set a meaningful mode of expression that transcends traditional linguistic barriers — vegetable sexting included — and is quite the opposite of a dumbed-down “cartoon.” Language or not, they argue, when millions of people zealously adopt a new, authentic way to communicate, it becomes important whether Everson, Unicode, or any linguist, typographer, or academic agrees.

Part of the reason for Everson’s passion and frustration is the sense that ongoing encoding work is, in the internet age, akin to a human right. To demonstrate, he explains a tribal alphabet used in India that, until recently, had never been encoded.

“Now those people who use this alphabet have the right and ability — if they have a computer and electricity — to write their names in their language. There’s something powerful about that. I don’t know how many people are using the alphabet, but it is there now and their rights have been met,” he said. “And there are more like that. We're not finished.”

But Davis thinks emojis' popularity can ultimately help save the more obscure work — especially Unicode’s Adopt a Character program. “We're devoting the funds raised from the program to help flesh out support for digitally disadvantaged languages. And it’s proved to be successful largely because of emoji.”

Davis assured he was doing his part. “I adopted the comma with my wife,” he said before quickly correcting himself. “The Oxford comma, of course.”

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