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Welcome to the Era of the Woke Emoji

When the easiest way to make a statement is without a word

Ringer illustration
Ringer illustration

Earlier this week, Apple made a sly political move. In preparation for the premiere of iOS 10 this fall, the company announced that its emoji keyboard would be getting a massive revamp. Apple will both redesign existing characters and integrate more than 100 new emoji that have been recently approved by the Unicode Consortium, the gatekeeper of the tiny illustrated symbols.

“This exciting update brings more gender options to existing characters, including new female athletes and professionals, [and] adds beautiful redesigns of popular emoji, a new rainbow flag, and more family options,” Apple said in a post that included a small gallery of the new entries.

The announcement failed to mention the dramatic makeover of one particular emoji: The pistol character — the same symbol that courts have deemed a legitimate way to threaten someone — will now be a comically harmless neon green squirt gun. (The change applies only to iOS devices, at least for now.)

Though most major tech companies have been aware of the public interest in emoji since they became a digital phenomenon in the late aughts, Apple’s spaying of the handgun emoji — a controversial gesture in the wake of America’s ongoing gun violence — marks a new turn in the storied history of the encoded characters. Gone are the days when companies were pushed by online petitions and Miley Cyrus tweets to explain why the emoji set doesn’t include more diverse representations of race, gender, or cultural traditions. Public relations teams now recognize that by simply redesigning, nixing, or advocating for certain emoji, they can make a high-profile statement about their values. In a prominent example, Apple, Facebook, Google, Adobe, and Twitter last year collaborated to create a new emoji — an eye in a speech bubble — for the “I Am Witness” campaign to combat online bullying. (We all know how helpful that was.)

Before Apple redesigned its pistol, it lobbied the Unicode Consortium for the exclusion of a rifle emoji from a forthcoming update and won. Google has been vocal about its recent efforts to push for more gender equality and diversity in the occupation emoji. And Twitter even designed a special emoji to bookend the activist hashtag #blacklivesmatter: three fists that recall the iconic black power salute from the 1968 Olympics. We have officially entered the era of wokemoji — a safe way for Silicon Valley’s biggest players to demonstrate their progressiveness via adorable illustrations without explicitly saying or doing anything else.

“Apple and Google in particular have realized that people really care about emoji and they maybe need to be on the front foot with the messaging around them,” Jeremy Burge, the founder of Emojipedia, told me. “Companies are are saying, ‘Hey, we believe in this. We’re Google and we believe in rights for women, and women equality. So we want this.’”

This isn’t to say Silicon Valley hasn’t sought to address the fact that its engineers and executives are largely white and male in plenty of other well-meaning, if largely ineffective, ways, even before emoji got woke. Throw a dart at a map of the Bay Area and it’ll probably hit a tech company that has funded STEM-education programs, put women and minorities onstage at high-profile events, or hired a diversity-outreach czar. But when it comes to establishing a progressive image, the sheer volume of media attention garnered by emoji has become too great for press teams to resist. That awareness has spread, not only to the companies whose products allow people to use emoji, but to the Unicode Consortium subcommittee that is tasked with approving (and rejecting) new emoji.

“Now, there’s a consciousness,” Jennifer 8. Lee, a nonvoting member of Unicode’s emoji subcommittee, told me. “It’s like, ‘Did you see this commercial from Always talking about girls who notice that the only four emoji they can be are like a princess, bride, dancer, and Playboy bunny?’ Or, ‘Did you see this essay about why a single-parent family isn’t represented?’ A lot of the conversation in the media kind of feeds back into the committee.”

Lee, CEO of the literary startup Plympton and a former New York Times reporter, recognizes that these conversations have become more frequent as emoji have nudged their way into pop culture. She first sought to understand how the consortium approved emoji last winter, when she and a friend realized that a dumpling symbol had been left out of the set. The quest led her to start a Kickstarter-funded organization named Emojination, that would allow her and fellow organizers to pay for a nonvoting associate membership on the consortium board and maintain a presence on the committee, which she says could benefit from including more voices in the process. Since taking on the role, she has lobbied for the approval of takeout box, dumpling, fortune cookie, and chopsticks emoji. She’s currently planning Emojicon, a convention that celebrates the increasingly rich world of emoji culture. (Lee’s path into the committee was first paved by Katrina Parrott — the creator of a diverse emoji app called iDiversicons — in 2013. Frustrated by the lack of emoji that looked like her, Parrott paid $75 for an individual membership, joined the subcommittee, and gave a presentation about the importance of minorities’ representation within the set.)

“I’ll never forget, after I got up and gave my presentation, some of the feedback I received was: ‘Katrina, I don’t think anybody was taking this diverse emoji seriously until you came and gave your presentation to the committee,’” she told me in 2015. Soon after she spoke, the subcommittee began discussing how it could implement different skin tones. They were approved and pushed out to major systems later that year.

These days, inclusive emoji campaigns originate on the checklists of corporate public relations teams, and also with people within the system itself rather than as organic, grassroots efforts. With Google’s campaign for more gender equality among emoji professions, both Burge and Lee are predicting that major companies will push to find ways to elegantly depict and code transgender emoji or add a third, gender-neutral option to existing characters.

“Gender is an issue, and race is an issue,” Lee said. “There’s thoughtfulness about that, but technically it’s tricky to do these things. How do you create a system that is not brittle or fragile — that’s elegant? It takes time to do that.”

As to whether tech companies will be bold enough to claim this issue as a badge on their woke vests remains unclear. When I reached out to Apple to explain the meaning of its water-pistol redesign this week, the company had no comment. Can you blame them? Sometimes it’s easier to send an emoji.

An earlier version of this piece included a previously published quote from Jennifer 8. Lee on the makeup of the Unicode Consortium emoji subcommittee that no longer reflects her views; the quote has been removed and the sentence updated to better reflect her opinion.