A History of Emojis

History of emojis
History of emojis

It’s really tough to tell the story of the emoji in order. A time machine might do it better. In order to understand the history of emojis, we have to get into emoticons. Contrary to what your mom says, they are not the same thing.

Stage 1: The Emoticon

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, an emoticon is “a group of keyboard characters (such as :-)) that typically represents a facial expression or suggests an attitude or emotion, used especially in computerized communications (such as e-mail)”.

It took me a lot of time to break this down, but I’ve got you covered. We need to look at three (3) things that will help show how emojis have become what they are today.

They are:

The graphic itself
What it represents (function)
What medium it is used on

As far as the dictionary goes, the emoticon is a group of symbols, usually typed on a keyboard. It is not colorful, and you have to try hard to see it’s a face.

Like our present-day emojis, emoticons were, and are used for attitude or emotion. However, they are mainly used in email, or on computers.

Through many questionable examples of pre-1970s emoticons, facial illustrations in 1881 magazine Puck suggests their use as an art form.

Still, we can take this as proof that there is a human thought pattern gravitating towards interactive human expression.

And while emoticons as art are fascinating, they are a far cry from today’s emojis.

It’s Evolution, Man

The Internet will tell you Dr. Scott Fahlman is the inventor of the modern emoticon. But that’s not really true.

Here’s what really happened.

1972: Computer learning system PLATO held many portals that became the source for things we use today, including email, chat rooms, and our buddy, emoticons. Wide ranges were available, including objects and food items that were used the way we do today: to express ourselves.

1982: Computer scientist Scott Fahlman shared his take on the emoticon within Carnegie Mellon University message board, but was not the first to use them.

Stage 2: A Legend in Progress

Still with me? Impressive.

Merriam-Webster’s dictionary contains a separate definition and history of emojis, and it is a handful.

Emojis can be “any of various small images, symbols, or icons used in text fields in electronic communication (as in text messages, e-mail, and social media) to express the emotional attitude of the writer, convey information succinctly, communicate a message playfully without using words, etc.

Right away, the definition is different, and so complex compared to the emoticons. Sorry, Mom.

Emojis as a graphic is so varied. They can be images, symbols, or icons. Definitely not keyboard-based. Emojis are ideographs, a symbol independent of language.

How many things can we really say communicate, but are independent of language? The best ones, honestly.

Likewise, they pop into our lives on so many more platforms! On our phones, computers, and anywhere else we can get in touch with our friends.

History of emojis

How do we use them?

Emojis express the emotional attitude of the writer, similar to emoticons.

They help us out, say what we’re trying to say, and save our fingers a ton of work. But they do so much more.

Communication is different now. We send a note to a friend at 11 PM, she gets it at 9 AM. How do we make sure that message doesn’t fall apart across those distances?

Growing Up

The 1990s: Japanese mobile carrier NTT Docomo’s PocketBell, an early 1990s pager, is the first device credited with a proper emoji.

Senders had the option to send a phone or a heart, and the intention was simple — phone for a call, and a heart for…

It seems with the human emotional spectrum, things are not simple.

Unfortunately, NTT Docomo removed its heart and phone emojis, and users were not happy. In order to keep up with Japan’s hungry pagers, other companies developed emojis for their pager lines.

After a while, there were too many different emojis.

1997: Unknown designer released the SoftBank emoji set. It contained 90 emojis, including a steaming, smiling poop, a crowd favorite used today.

1998: NTT Docomo employee Shigetaka Kurita was tasked with creating emojis to launch on i-mode, Japan’s first mobile Internet network.

Kurita had the idea to create simple symbols to denote weather, location, and objects as well as faces. Featured in black and white, Kurita’s 176-character set is often noted as one of the first to promote the standard 12 x 12-pixel size used today. A different set was created by KDDI in 1999.

2008: Fast-forward 10 years, where Apple first launches its emoji keyboard, making emojis crucial to communicating in Japan.

2010: After a few years of collaboration, Unicode member Mark Davis and colleagues bring emojis to the Unicode global standard, making use of Kurita’s ideal 12 x 12 size (Unicode 6.0).

What’s Next?

New emojis are released in batches every year, including variations on skin color, gender, and animals. 2019 sent a line of differently-abled emojis our way, and 2020’s batch is on its way. A useful emoji database helps us keep up with it all.

If that wasn’t enough, there are tons of emoji byproducts and a semi-hit movie.

Canadian artists Jacob Blackstock and Jesse Brown created Bitstrips, a customizable comic, which eventually evolved into a Bitmoji mobile app that allowed users to create an emoji that resembled themselves.

Then, in November of 2017, Animoji was introduced with Apple’s iPhone X release. Through sensory technology, Animoji inserts users’ faces into 3-dimensional versions of the standard pre-2016 Unicode emojis. As of September 2019, iOS 13 offers Memoji, a feature similar to Bitmoji, but with 3-D capabilities.

The emoji has come a long way from Internet chat rooms, and it has so much more to become. If we can order a pizza via emoji today, who knows what we’ll be able to do tomorrow?

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