Show Hide image

Emoji update features 250 new pictures, including Vulcan salute and raised middle finger

The body that regulates the standards for language on the web has announced a host of new emojis.

The international standard for language type on the web is Unicode, maintained by the aptly-named Unicode Consortium, and details of the next major release have just been announced. For many people, the headline news is that there are going to be 250 new emojis - here are nine of them, to give you a flavour of what we're in for:

It's great news for fans of thermometers, chipmunks and "that hand signal that Spock does", then.

The usefulness of Unicode is that is prescribes a standard for rendering character texts regardless of geography or context - that is, it makes sure that text looks right on the screen. It means that web browsers all agree on how to turn the 0s and 1s of a website into different scripts, whether it's Latin or Hindi, Cyrillic or Arabic. If you're browsing the web and see a string of boxes (like this: "□□□□□") instead of text, it's either because the text is non-standard or the browser needs a plugin to be able to comprehend what those characters are supposed to be.

The 7.0 updates includes new support for 23 "lesser-known and historical scripts", such as Linear A (one of the oldest written languages in the world, as-yet undeciphered, in use as long ago as 1,800BCE on Crete) and Duployan (a stenographic script invented in 1850 for writing French shorthand). It also "extends support for written languages of North America, China, India, other Asian countries, and Africa".

While emoji have been around for years - they're the basis of Microsoft Word's Wingdings fonts, for instance - their recent popularity has been driven by Apple, which gives iPhone users their own brightly-coloured, characterful set featuring such favourites as "smiling pile of poop" and "dancing lady in red". While Apple's emojis have been unified with Unicode's since 2012 - meaning that an iPhone will render a Unicode emoji string as an iPhone emoji, and vice versa - they've also been singled out for a lack of diversity. There are multiple white faces and characters of different ages and genders available, but only two people of colour: one brown-skinned man wearing a turban, and another who appears to be east Asian.

More than 4,000 people signed a petition in March asking Apple to add more people of colour to the emoji sets, and, in fairness, the company responded by agreeing that "there needs to be more diversity" and it would work with the Unicode Consortium on developing a greater range of characters for the 7.0 update. Yet having looked through the full list of new characters, that doesn't look to have happened. There's a man in a suit levitating, fog, a weightlifter and lots and lots of directional arrows, but no new people. Since Unicode only specifies a character and not a font - like "smiling face", rather than the actual look of the smiling face - Apple is free any time to convert one of its existing white faces to a different ethnicity (or it could, y'know, ignore Unicode and create its own extra faces).

This is undoubtedly one of those issues where opinions of its importance split reliably along generational lines. Younger people love emojis. They've come to replace txt spk as the specifically fluid vernacular of youth. It makes perfect sense for most people under the age of 30 that someone made this music video for Beyonce's "Drunk In Love" using emojis (and what the joke with the aubergine is):

Quite where the Unicode 7.0 update leaves the Twitter account @everyunicode at is unclear, too. It's currently working its way through the Unicode 6.2 standard, with an estimated finishing year of 2076. Will it then begin tweeting everything else that's been added since it started? Is it even possibly to tweet "every" Unicode character, or does it represent a real-life Xeno's Paradox, always getting closer but never quite reaching the finish?

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.