Have you used the melting face emoji yet? Or the saluting smiley? The pregnant man? And have you discovered the troll yet? Once in a while, the emoji options are expanded and become available in communication apps and on social media. Of the new additions, the ‘melting smiley’ has quickly become a personal favorite, although not everyone understands it. “What does this emoji mean?” sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen wondered on Twitter.
The online reference book Emojipedia offers help† “Can literally be used to talk about extreme heat. Can also be used metaphorically to talk about embarrassment, shame, or fear.” This figure fits well with the present time. Despite the threat of a climate disaster, we still try to laugh. At least, that’s how I fill it. Emoji expert Lilian Stolk (she wrote a book about it) is also a fan of the melting face, she says on the phone. These and some other newcomers, such as a dotted-line face, have a certain ambiguity that she can appreciate. “It’s not quite clear what they mean and there’s a double layer in them.” Stolk is often asked whether this does not make the emojis too complicated. Are there misunderstandings in communication?
“I think it’s going to be okay. You use it in a certain context. Certainly with these new emojis nobody really knows the meaning, but as soon as you use it in a certain situation it is clear. That’s the attraction, that you can think for yourself what that emoji stands for.” The additions are preceded by a long process: newcomers are approved by the international Unicode consortium, which includes companies such as Apple and Google.
Stolk, also co-founder of the internet culture platform The Hmm, follows the updates of the Unicode Consortium critically. Much is being done today to reflect the diversity of the world, but the choices sometimes miss a clear line. And should the tech companies also have that much influence here? “Of course it is great that there is more diversity, everyone should feel represented. It is difficult that the illustrations are becoming more and more specific.” She gives the dance emoji as an example. “That was a flamenco dancer, initially a white woman with brown hair. Then more skin tones, hair colors and dance types were added.” There’s no other way, she thinks. “Google once came up with a sort of Barbapapa-esque figure who did a little dance. This can represent all kinds of people, genders and cultures. We should focus more on that. Because if you try to translate the whole world into pictures, it becomes a lot. And in the end you still miss things.”
More transparency in the selection process would help, according to Stolk. “For example, an emoji for menstruation was found to be too specific. While half of the world has to deal with that.” The proposal for underpants with a drop of blood did not go through. “In the end, a drop of blood was added, without underwear. The idea is: that drop can stand for more than just menstruation. That’s what I’m here for, you don’t want to end up with tens of thousands of emojis on our keyboard. But then you also have to make such a decision in other cases. I think it would be good if users were more involved in that process.”