Why 140 Characters, When One Will Do? Tracing The Emoji Evolution

Jun 30, 2014
Originally published on June 30, 2014 7:01 pm

You may have heard that 250 more emojis, the little smiley face icons and other symbols you can send in text messages, are coming to a cellphone near you.

The story of the emoji starts in Japan in the mid-1990s. Back then, pagers were all the rage with teenagers.

The ability to send an image of a cartoon heart was one of the special features on Docomo pagers. That's widely believed to be the first instance of an emoji.

"I first used emoji in the late 1990s," says Takehiro Ariga, an editor at the Japanese trend magazine Nikkei Trendy. "I was a high school student, and that was my first mobile phone."

Ariga says emojis caught on like wildfire in Japan because they helped clarify the meaning of text messages and avoid misunderstandings. "It is very natural that people want to communicate in other ways other than normal characters," Ariga says.

Docomo added more and more symbols. But back then, Docomo emojis worked only on Docomo phones. The company's competitors had their own characters. And when texts were exchanged across different devices, users saw "garbage characters."

Enter the Unicode Consortium. The group manages the Unicode Standard, which contains code for displaying characters like letters, math symbols and Chinese pictograms. It's meant to ensure messages sent on phones and computers appear the same on both ends.

"It's intended to cover all characters for all languages that have ever been written down through all of history," says Ken Whistler, a technical director at the Unicode Consortium.

That means everything from the letter A to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. So the problems faced by Japanese consumers when their kitten emoji text messages showed up as junk characters on their friends' phones spurred the consortium to add emojis to its Unicode Standard.

"The work on that actually started in 2007 and it took until 2010 when the first big collection of those got added to the standard," Whistler says.

Since then, the collection has been updated. Apple added a Unicode emoji keyboard to iOS 5 in 2011. And the rest is history.

As for the new batch of emojis? There are 250 being rolled out over the summer. Some of the new ones: a "chipmunk," a "man in business suit levitating" and the Hindu religious symbol "Om." There's also one that promises to be universally understood: "Reversed hand with middle finger extended."

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Next up in tech something infinitely lighter.


That's right a very brief two eyes, at the earth globe of smiley faces.

SIEGEL: Melissa, please translate into English.

BLOCK: OK Robert, that's emoji speak for a very brief look at the world of Emoji. And for those unfamiliar with emoji, they're those cartoonlike images used on smart phones and the Internet in place of text.

SIEGEL: A heart, winking eye, a cheeseburger - the most familiar one's are yellow smiley faces, all variations.

BLOCK: A winking smile for instance. Emoji are standardized just like every other language on your phone and this month the Unicode Consortium approved some 250 new emoji. Unicode is an international nonprofit that sets the industry standard for computer text and here are some of the new characters, try using these in a sentence Robert.

SIEGEL: A hot pepper, a chipmunk, a camera with a flash.

BLOCK: A passenger ship, an oil drum, a golfer.

SIEGEL: Fork and knife with plates, derelict house building.

BLOCK: And man in business suit levitating.

SIEGEL: As one does so often in a business suit. Now there's also an overt insult included in the new characters, that's something new. It's called reverse hand with middle finger extended.

BLOCK: Aha. But where did emoji come from? For that we'd need to trade in our smart phones for pagers and head back to the 1990s. A Japanese telecom company called DoCoMo was the first to use Emoji. The ability to send an image of a cartoon heart was one of the special features on DoCoMo pagers.

SIEGEL: And Japanese teenagers hearted it. Shigetaka Kurita was working at DoCoMo, is credited with creating the first Emoji in the late 90s. We asked him about his inspiration and he told us...

SHIGETAKA KURITA: (Japanese spoken).

SIEGEL: I designed them myself he says, based on pictograms commonly seen around the city or from Japanese cartoons.

BLOCK: One early user of emoji was Takehiro Ariga, he's now editor of the Japanese trend magazine Nikkei Trendy. He says people loved it because it resolved miscommunication.

TAKEHIRO ARIGA: Japanese hate direct communication. So saying my emotion by using emoji or picture is better way to express myself in more gentle, softer way.

SIEGEL: Well fast forward now, more than a decade and emoji are on nearly every phone. Apple added an emoji keyboard to its operating system for the phone in 2011 and the rest as they say is...

BLOCK: symbol for an open book.

SIEGEL: I was going to say history.

BLOCK: This is NPR News.

SIEGEL: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.