Published 01 December 2017 Category: Compass Leisure

The Surprising History of Emojis

We encounter emojis on a regular basis in our 21st-century, tech-savvy lifestyle, but what is the history of emojis? They’re all over the place, and you really can’t interact with any device or platform these days without someone sending you an emoji or you sending one out yourself. This speaks to the ubiquity of this form of communication.

Spend some time on social media, and emojis are all over the place, whether it’s through Facebook’s Reactions that debuted earlier this year, or on Twitter’s platform with its extensive list of emojis or in our text messages, emojis are a popular feature of communication mediums, today.

So how did things get this way that, in the 21st century, we’re completely crazy about and absorbed with emojis? Here’s your comprehensive walkthrough on the fascinating and relatively new history of emojis in all their smiley and expressive glory.

Emojis are distinct from emoticons! There’s a big difference between the two.

Emojis are real images and symbols that are rendered on your devices, whereas emoticons are simply expressions and faces created with basic characters from your keyboard. For instance, the yellow smiley face and all its variations that’s rendered on your smartphone is an emoji.

This expression that indicates a smile— :-) is called an emoticon.

The origins of emojis
As the 20th century drew to a close, Japanese mobile-phone companies were under increasing pressure to support Japanese users’ obsession with images. They began to remark on a trend where a lot of picture messages were being exchanged by their Japanese client base. So instead of just ignoring this and focusing on how they could charge their customers more money, these Japanese mobile-phone companies actually gave their users more of what they wanted.

Take NTT DoCoMo, the biggest mobile-phone operator in Japan. In 1999, the company was already hard at work on something called i-mode, which is now an Internet service that’s extremely popular in the Land of the Rising Sun. i-mode was to be revolutionary for its time, combining email, news, weather forecasts and entertainment reservations as part of the planet’s very first mobile web platform.

The man we can thank today for emojis is Shigetaka Kurita, the father of the emoji. As an employee of NTT DoCoMo back in the day, he was part of the intrepid i-mode team that sought to revolutioniSe Japan’s means of communication.

However, he soon realised that digital communication - whether it’s email or, at the time, pagers - robbed human beings of the ability to communicate emotion. His solution was the emoji, which literally comes out to “picture” (e) and “character” (moji).

 Emojis introduced to Japan’s carriers
After Kurita had finished his initial designs, he took them straight back to the major tech companies that initially rejected his suggestion that they design these emojis themselves. This time around, though, sensing that Kurita was on to something profitable that would catch on with Japanese consumers, they were more agreeable.
Enter Apple
If you want to thank a single company for popularising emoji globally, look no farther than Apple. The company that gave us Steve Jobs’ leadership style, super in-demand handhelds like the iPhone, and the simplicity of everything syncing together seamlessly, also ensured that emojis would catch on all over the world.

How did they do it?
Wikipedia credits the global spread of emoji to the international inclusion of these symbols in Apple’s iPhones. Starting in 2007 with the first iPhone that was released, Apple wanted to make inroads into the tough Japanese market, so they thought to themselves what better way than to include emojis in our iPhones! After all, emojis had already been well-established in Japan by that time and were a cultural phenomenon there.

After Apple adopted emojis on their smartphones (and didn’t hide it from users outside of Japan!), the other big player in the mobile OS world soon followed suit: Google’s Android. With Android jumping on board the emoji bandwagon as well, emojis are today a standard in digital communication across all platforms.

The Unicode standard
The Unicode Standard is a computing industry standard meant to ensure the consistent handling and encoding of text expressed in a majority of the globe’s writing systems. Which, in layman’s terms, means: For you to be able to send that cute pile of poo emoji where you live in the U.S. to your chum in Asia, who’s using a totally different OS and platform, the Unicode Standard had to come into play. Otherwise, we’d still have that early chaos in Japan when its three biggest mobile carriers failed to standardise emoji sets - and, as a result, the emojis sometimes wouldn’t show up on competitors’ devices.

So today, when you’re on Android, using Facebook and want to send that hot dog emoji to your mom, but she’s using an iMac and doesn’t really use mobile all too much, she’ll still get your lovely hot dog emoji in all its glory without any interruptions or problems. Ah, the glory of standardisation in digital communication!

What does the future hold in store for emojis?
Known in Japan since 1999, emojis have only gotten popular globally since about 2011, thanks to Apple’s inclusion of them in their smartphone keyboards. In just a few, short years, people have taken to emojis like nothing before! When everyone including your mom texts them, then you know you have a global phenomenon on your hands.

The father of the emoji, Kurita, still works in the tech industry as part of the online services of Namco Bandai games. No one could predict that emojis would take off as they did in only a relatively short time, not even Kurita. However, it’s perhaps the innate, human connection of these emojis that transcends mere cultures that explains why the emoji has done so well.