It’s been a trying year for the world’s most visible institutions. Congressional gridlock, partisan divide, and federal indictments torment Washington. Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are under scrutiny — and even headed to Capitol Hill — for their role in foreign interference during the 2016 election. And meanwhile, over at the Unicode Consortium, there is a contentious debate over a scowling pile of shit.
Digital shit, of course.
According to public consortium documents, Unicode, the technical organization in charge of selecting and overseeing emojis, is embroiled in a fierce debate over a series of proposed emojis, including, but not limited to, “Frowning Pile Of Poo” and “Sliced Bagel.” The heated discussions are the latest in a long-simmering dispute over the future of the 24-year-old organization, which has been — somewhat unexpectedly — tasked with governing what some see as the first digital universal language.
The debate appears to be between some of Unicode’s most prolific contributors and typographers (Unicode was initially established to develop standards for translating alphabets into code that can be read across all computers and operating systems), and those in the consortium who focus primarily on the evolution of emojis. The two chief critics — Michael Everson and Andrew West, both typographers — say that the emoji proposal process has become too commercial and frivolous, thereby cheapening the Unicode Consortium’s long body of work.
Their argument centers around “Frowning Pile Of Poo,” one of the emojis under consideration for the June 2018 class. In an Oct. 22 memo to the Unicode Technical Committee, Everson tore into the committee over the submission calling it “damaging ... to the Unicode standard.”
“Organic waste isn’t cute,” Everson wrote, aghast that the technical committee would even deign to consider additional excremoji. “It is bad enough that the [Emoji Subcommittee] came up with it, but it beggars belief that the [Unicode Technical Committee] actually approved it,” he wrote. Everson continued:
“The idea that our 5 committees would sanction further cute graphic characters based on this should embarrass absolutely everyone who votes yes on such an excrescence. Will we have a CRYING PILE OF POO next? PILE OF POO WITH TONGUE STICKING OUT? PILE OF POO WITH QUESTION MARKS FOR EYES? PILE OF POO WITH KARAOKE MIC? Will we have to encode a neutral FACELESS PILE OF POO?”
Everson concluded his remarks on the emoji suggesting it might be abused by bad faith actors. “As a representative of the National Standards Authority of Ireland,” he wrote, “I have to wonder what possible good could come of encoding such a character. Bullying, perhaps?”
Everson also seemed to take issue with the original Poo emoji’s cartoonification, which he suggests is the result of early vendor (companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and others whose platforms emojis appear on) decisions. “It is a pity that Apple followed Softbank rather than KDDI in its reference glyph, since a coil of dog dirt with stink lines and flies is surely the only proper semantic,” he wrote.
West, echoed Everson’s comments forcefully in a similar — and entirely serious — rebuttal:
“I'm concerned that this character will open the floodgates for an open-ended set of PILE OF POO emoji with emotions, such as CRYING PILE OF POO, PILE OF POO WITH LOOK OF TRIUMPH, PILE OF POO SCREAMING IN FEAR, etc. Is there really any need to add a range of emotions to PILE OF POO? I personally think that changing PILE OF POO to a de facto SMILING PILE OF POO was wrong, but adding F|FROWNING PILE OF POO as a counterpart is even worse. If this is accepted then there will be no neutral, expressionless PILE OF POO, so at least a PILE OF POO WITH NO FACE would be required to be encoded to restore some balance.”
This isn't the first time Everson has objected to the Consortium's emoji proposal process. In April 2016, BuzzFeed News reported on a schism in the group known by some members as “Emojigeddon.” Everson, who the New York Times once described as “probably the world's leading expert in the computer encoding of scripts,” suggested at the time that the Consortium's focus on emojis undermined the work of scholars more interested in encoding ancient and obscure alphabets for broad use on the internet.
This year the complaints have evolved, explicitly calling out the Emoji Subcommittee for proposal, voting, and implementation processes he and West argue are both too short and too opaque.
“Emoji are among the most controversial characters that get encoded, yet they are rushed through with the minimum of scrutiny and public consultation,” West wrote. “Why the rush?” Among the suggested improvements the pair makes is a two-year review and consultation period intended to avoid problematic emojis (emojis are usually proposed and accepted and implemented all within the span of a year).
The fear that the Emoji Subcommittee operates without impunity extends further than just strongly worded criticisms of swirling poop. In May, West and a few colleagues submitted an official proposal for checks and balances on the group. Titled “Request for greater transparency in the Emoji Subcommittee,” the document argues that the subcommittee has little accountability because its working documents are not publicly available and “it is not clear to outsiders who the Emoji Subcommittee are and why they have a mandate to choose and reject Emoji.” A month later, the Emoji Subcommittee replied, suggesting it is well within its rights to operate confidentially and noting that, since it is only an advisory group, it lacks full approval power over new emojis.
For some members of the Consortium, this call and delayed response was frustrating. Said one longtime Unicode observer, “To many people who have spent a good chunk of the last few decades on Unicode, emoji being fast-tracked, not having external oversight, and being under the control of relatively small committees is troubling to say the least.”
Unsurprisingly, that frustration has bubbled over onto Twitter, where Everson and West frequently make tongue-in-cheek comments at the Emoji Subcommittee’s expense. Earlier this month West referred to the subcommittee as “a secretive cabal” for not having public minutes. And in response to an Oct. 20 thread complaining that the subcommittee’s public review for recent emoji proposals was far too short (less than eight days, by the commenter’s count), West responded, “Yes, we're a bunch of renegades and misfits waging a hopeless campaign against a ruthless totalitarian regime.”
In an email to BuzzFeed News, West stressed that relations between individual members of the technical committee and the Unicode standards working group are pleasant and “that there is conflict between the two committees.” (West noted that he attended an “amiable” lunch with Unicode Technical Committee chair Lisa Moore in Inner Mongolia in the last week of September.)
More than anything, the breathless debates and snarky Twitter threads over glyphs of frowning poop demonstrate the awkward position that long-time linguists and language encoders find themselves in when it comes to emojis. Both accomplished experts in their fields, Everson's and West’s debates over the important minutiae of ancient and obscure language, glyphs, and symbols sound much different, for example, when applied to swirling feces or a dispute over whether to a change to the name of the proposed emoji “T-REX” to “TYRANNOSAURUS REX” or “TYRANNOSAURUS.”
For now, the public criticism appears to be having some effect. “Frowning Pile Of Poo” is being held for the time being (though it might come up at a later date). And the Emoji Subcommittee is taking the criticism to heart.“We are always trying to make the emoji approval process more transparent, inclusive, and efficient," said Jennifer 8. Lee, a self-described emoji activist who has found herself one of new vice chairs of the Emoji Subcommittee.
But that doesn’t mean the battle for Frowning Poo is over. On Tuesday morning, the Frowning Pile of Poo emoji proposal was added into Unicode’s official register. West noticed it immediately on Twitter. “We thought it was dead, but it has come back to haunt us,” he wrote.
“Why would they bother to publish it now I wonder,” one onlooker commented. West’s reply was appropriately ominous. “In preparation for raising it from the grave.” ●