Emoji are replacing flags as the most important regional symbol of the digital era

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On a sunny Saturday in July, the second-ever Emojicon was held in a dimly lit venue on a quiet street in Brooklyn. One thing quickly became clear: Some of the most interesting geopolitical developments of the present day revolve around the tiny icons on our phones. 

The unlikely heroes of the day, a team of five Argentinians lead by New Media researcher Florencia Coelho, had flown 12 hours to be there. Their recent bid for mate (often spelled “maté” in English), a popular tea infusion of yerba mate, is now one small step away from becoming Latin America’s first emoji. Meanwhile, a representative from Maine senator Angus King’s office was there to attest to the importance of the lobster emoji approved in 2018, following up on the letter King had already sent to the Unicode Consortium. 

These were far from the first regions to elbow for a spot on digital devices. In 2016, the government of Finland proposed a set of sauna emojis (🧖‍♀️🧖‍♂️), while a Saudi Arabian teen proposed the hijab emoji (🧕) to represent Muslim countries. A Diya lamp, a kind of oil lamp popular in India, is currently under consideration for inclusion. 

Emoji, it turns out, matter to people a lot. That’s why former New York Times journalist Jenny 8. Lee co-founded Emojination, a grassroots community to promote emoji inclusion. The group, which organized the first Emojicon in 2016, is a response to the decidedly top-down way in which the ubiquitous symbols are chosen. While anyone can submit an emoji proposal, submissions are selected (and rejected) by a group of just a dozen members of the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit in Silicon Valley that standardizes characters across digital platforms and devices. The mostly white male engineers pay $18,000 each for the privilege of voting. Today, Lee sits on the subcommittee and works to balance the emoji needs of different parts of the world.

In Lee’s words, emoji “does transcend written and spoken language in a way that can actually let people communicate across cultures even if they don’t speak the same language.” Increasingly, they represent flags for the digital era—flags meant less to broadcast a single identity than to be shared by a diaspora of people, and moulded over time.

This focus on universality enters prominently into the emoji design process. Consider, for instance, the dumpling emoji (🥟). As Fast Company explains, the dumpling emoji was designed to also resemble an empanada and a pierogi in order to maximize its functionality. Meanwhile, the Argentinian mate team researched regional differences in yerba mate color, cup design, and placement of the bombilla, a metal straw used to filter out yerba, before settling on what they considered to be the average.

Why does regional representation in the form of an emoji icon matter so much? Part of it is a public-relations effort: Martín Zalucki on the mate emoji team suggested in an interview that perhaps new people would try mate after discovering it on their keyboards. But mate’s cultural significance extends beyond the attempt to get novices to indulge in a cup of tea. As the team says in its proposal, “Mate is a bridge. A bridge between ages, socioeconomic classes, and beliefs, and stories. No beverage means as much.”

With the mate emoji likely to make its global debut in the summer of 2019, perhaps the icon will begin to spread its philosophy across culture and language. In team leader Florencia Coelho’s words, “it is an emoji that is keeping us out of the cell phone to share some time together.”