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Why Unicode is approving fewer and fewer new emoji

A person holds an iPhone with the emoji keyboard displayed
Tengku Bahar/AFP via Getty Images
It’s getting junky.
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The new emoji selection season is upon us, and 31 candidates have made it to the final round. If approved by the Unicode Consortium, pictograms like a hand fan, a discombobulated face, a pair of maracas, and a knob of ginger will appear on our devices in September 2022, adding to the 3,633 we already have.

Compared to the 112 last year, Emoji 15.0 is bound to be the smallest set of new emoji since Unicode began working with developers to standardize them on various platforms in 2015.

In our interview this week, Jennifer Daniel, chair of Unicode’s emoji subcommittee, explained that the dwindling number of new emoji signals a stricter, more discerning vetting process within the standards organization.

“My hope is that it’s becoming more apparent to the public that we’re encoding fewer emoji year after year—less things that are theoretical,” Daniel says, underscoring that once an emoji is approved, it cannot be deleted.

Unicode is leaving behind its “experimental phase”

Daniel, a designer at Google, describes the years of Unicode releasing avalanches of new emoji as “an important experimental phase.” This year, the group is focused on making sure that scrolling through an emoji keyboard doesn’t feel like ransacking a “junk drawer,” as Daniel puts it. That means only approving new symbols that will end up being widely used.

For instance, Unicode announced that it will no longer entertain proposals for new flag symbols, citing low usage compared to other categories of emoji. Nonetheless, submissions for new emoji are open to anyone who follows the proposal guidelines. The deadline to submit proposals is July 31.

Combining and remixing emoji

Instead of looking for new emoji, Unicode has observed that people are creatively combining them to convey ideas.  For example, “solar energy” can be ☀️⚡ or ☀️🔋. Quartz has seen Venmo users paying for utilities with 💦🔌🔥 and sandwiches with 🍞🐷🍞. Emoji watcher Jeremy Burge describes his current life on a houseboat as 🦆🛟.

And in absence of a cannabis emoji, which the committee has rejected six times, people are using substitutes like 🌿, 🥦 or 🌳 or even 😳🍃 (feeling high) or 😳🔥 (blazed).

“It doesn’t require you to code every concept, every food, or every ingredient in the world. People can combine existing ones to mean something completely new,” says Daniel. “That is true self-expression.”

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