People forget that no more than a few years ago, if you wanted access to emoji, you had to dig into the dregs of your iPhone settings and manually add them to your keyboard. I still remember my aunt’s delight the day I helped her navigate from screen to screen until that collection of teeny illustrations was at her fingertips: “You’ve opened up a whole new avenue of communication for me,” she said at the time, and I was genuinely touched.
That’s a quaint and distant memory that I’ll probably pedantically recite to my grandchildren someday. Apple’s predictive keyboard now actively suggests emoji in place of words, so that when I type “peach” into my Messages text box, the shapely stone fruit automatically pops up. The Emojimovie is imminent. And nearly every one of my local pharmacies sells a variation of a plush poop emoji. In 2016, emoji are no longer an enchanting lingual relish, but instead have become something that every brand has learned to lazily exploit via ad campaigns, social media, and merchandise. The creativity that made them truly special has begun to wane.
The warning signs that emoji are So Over™ have been prevalent for a while now. For one, it’s practically a rule that nothing on the internet can stay good for too long before it is co-opted by desperate brands. Or as Luke Stark, a student of digital communication and psychology, told The New York Times earlier this year: “There is a constant push and pull between people finding new ways to express themselves online, and companies trying to make money off that expression.”
But there is a less obvious part of what drove the sudden corporate adoption of emoji: their mysterious origins and caretakers. Because emoji were invented by a Japanese telecom company in the 1990s and only much later encoded to American phones, the original set was culturally lopsided by American standards. It contained sashimi, ramen noodles, and multiple versions of a dragon, but no people of color. This wasn’t a big issue to the globalist-minded technologists who advocated bringing the characters to American gadgets in 2007. But a few years later, after curious smartphone users had discovered their glory, the absence of certain characters became a problem that they couldn’t ignore. “In hindsight, we may not have anticipated the power and popularity of emoji in America,” Katsuhiko Momoi, a Japanese Google engineer who lobbied to bring emoji to America, told me in 2015.
As a result, grassroots campaigns to amend the emoji set began. Some of these petitions, like the demand that the Unicode Consortium include people of color — or more recently, women in hijabs — were serious and necessary. Others, like the push to add hot dogs or tacos to the set, were jokey campaigns launched by brands to sneakily promote their products. (I’m looking at you, Superdawg and Taco Bell.) This was the window of opportunity that tech-savvy brands needed to insert themselves into the inevitably passionate online discussion surrounding emoji. The fact that our official emoji overseers, the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, work at a glacial pace to make changes only helped. The longer it took to add emoji, the more exposure brands received for keeping the issue afloat. In some cases, it gave them the window to create their own sets in defiance, as Dove did with curly haired characters in 2015.
This faux activism eventually led major social media platforms and ad companies to tighten the relationship between brands and emoji by literally combining them. In early 2015, Twitter began experimenting with hashtag-generated emoji related to major releases, like Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” video or The Force Awakens. A few months later, brands like Coke were paying for it. In June, I chronicled the ways some ad agencies and apps were using emoji data from Twitter and Instagram to directly target customers.
At the same time, the tech giants responsible for updating emoji within their operating systems realized that they could get easy points for working with the Unicode Consortium to make the set more inclusive. Microsoft, Google, and Apple all published press releases touting their respective efforts in making emoji more woke in 2016. In the case of Apple, these announcements came with high-resolution redesigns that made the emoji much more realistic than they had previously been. People were immediately weirded out that the cartoonish characters that they once loved were now uncannily detailed.
All this corporate meddling began diluting what was originally fun about emoji: their ambiguity. In a 2014 emoji-themed issue of Womanzine, Jenna Wortham wrote an ode to the “complete vagueness” of , arguing that “emoji have become an ever-evolving communal form of cryptography that change depending upon who we are talking to and when.” The inventiveness of the human mind is what led Drake to turn the emoji into a catchphrase, or how became the universal symbol for a penis.
Predictive emoji keyboards — like the ones you can find on Allo, Messages, and Venmo — add a rigidity to the emoji alphabet. It’s much easier to take a computer-generated suggestion than it is to spend a second or two brainstorming the best possible combination of illustrated symbols to express your feelings. If my keyboard had always defined a peach as a peach, would it have ever surreptitiously become known as a juicy butt in my mind? The fact that Apple temporarily redesigned the peach to look less butt-like suggests that brands don’t seem to value these double meanings as much as we do.
If the original emoji we were given were all designed to be nouns — applicable to a variety of situations and flexible within the confines of human language — then all these brand-sponsored illustrations and stickers are kind of like emoji pronouns. A Coke emoji is so specific and obviously can’t be interpreted in any other way than a Coke emoji, and the opportunity for fluid meaning is lost. Our own offbeat interpretations of these symbols start to dissipate when an endless number of them are at our disposal, whether that’s via a hashtag or an app you can download. There’s a reason people are delighted by haikus — they demonstrate skill in a frame of limitation.
I hope I’m wrong and that as new emoji are added to the set in the future, the internet will continue to invent poetic ways to use them. But judging from Taco Bell’s Twitter feed, this could very well be the year they were flattened forever.