Flag emoji are having a moment amid World Cup nationalism. The Spanish flag, for instance, surged in popularity on Twitter, even though Spain’s team was eliminated.
But all that flag tweeting has exposed a quirk of emoji, the Japanese pictographs that are popular on mobile phones and rely on the Unicode standard of handling unusual text. Most emoji are only a single character, but flag emojis take up two characters each. That matters to patriotic Twitter users who are limited to 140 characters per tweet.
Tom Scott, a person who explains things, explained the nuances of flag emoji in a new video:
Flags are treated differently than other emoji because of their political sensitivities. Rather than play United Nations, deciding which flags to recognize and which to shun, the Unicode Consortium left that diplomacy to others. Unicode merely supports special letter characters that can represent flags (DE for Germany, for instance). It’s up to the makers of mobile operating systems and apps to decide how the characters are represented on phones.
Apple’s standard keyboard for iPhones and iPads supports just 10 flags: Japan, South Korea, Germany, China, United States, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Great Britain. Separately, Twitter is supporting “hashflags” for all countries in the World Cup, but those require four characters.
The next version of the Unicode standard won’t include any national flags but will include a white flag for when your team is finally knocked out of the tournament.