Honey walnut, please

Apple recently stirred up a bit of controversy when they revealed that their bagel emoji lacked cream cheese. Which is a ridiculous thing to get salty over, but ultimately they relented and added cream cheese to their bagel. Which should be the end of this post, and then I should delete this post, because none of that matters. But it isn’t the end, because I saw a lot of comments pop up following the redesign that reminded me: people really don’t seem to get how emoji work. Specifically, I saw a lot of things like ‘Apple can fix the bagel, but we still don’t have a trans flag’ or ‘Great to see Apple put cream cheese on the bagel, now let’s get more disability emoji’. Both of those things would, in fact, be great1, but they have nothing to do with Apple’s bagel suddenly becoming more edible.

Unicode is, in its own words, “a single universal character encoding [with] extensive descriptions, and a vast amount of data about how characters function.” It maps out characters to code points, and allows me to look up the division sign on a table, find that its code point is 00F7, and insert this into my document: ÷. Transformation formats take on the job of mapping raw bytes into these standardized code points – this blog is written and rendered in the transformation format UTF-8. Emoji are not pictures sent back and forth any more than the letter ‘A’ or the division sign are – they are Unicode code points also, rendered out in a font2 like any other character. This is why if I go ahead and insert 1F9E5 (🧥), the resulting coat will be wildly different depending upon what system you’re on. If I didn’t specify a primary font for my site, the overall look of this place would be different for different users also, as the browser/OS would have its own idea of a default serif font.

This mapping, these code points, they are defined by The Unicode Consortium. The Consortium takes in proposals3, makes decisions on character proposals as well as technical matters, makes drafts, does all sorts of behind-the-scenes junk, and spits out the Unicode Standard. Major revisions to the Unicode Standard then become an ISO Standard (10646 Information Technology — Universal Coded Character Set (UCS)). And while Apple is a voting (full) member of the Consortium, adding new characters (even emoji) is a serious process, much different from having a graphic designer slap some paint on a doughy circle.

“How characters function” is an important aspect of emoji as well. Much like I can use the combining diaresis, 0308 ( ̈), with an ‘a’ to make ‘ä’, combinations of glyphs4 work to bring skin tones and gender markers to emoji. So, again, when I saw people (in jest, I truly hope) suggesting that Apple allow users to choose their bagel topping much like they would skin tone… well, it’s not a very effective joke when that too is a function of the Unicode Consortium.

Philadelphia Cream Cheese ran a handful of Twitter ads over the whole controversy, and now that the dust has settled, they ran one thanking Apple and the Unicode Consortium, which… is largely wrong in the other direction, since the glyph itself is entirely on Apple. Part of the Unicode Standard, however, is multilingual descriptive text for characters. Emoji are annotated under the CLDR Character Annotations, given a short name as well as comments that may offer other explanations. So, 1F404, COW, is helpfully also described as potentially representing ‘beef (on menus)’, and (likely against the wishes of some members)5 1F4A9, PILE OF POO, ‘may be depicted with or without a friendly face’. The notes on bagel do, in fact, suggest that it can represent ‘schmear’, so perhaps in some way Unicode was to thank by subtly suggesting that bagels are canonically coated.

All of this to say that, while Apple and Google are both (among others, of course) high-level members of the Unicode Consortium, it is just that – a consortium of contributors that go through an involved process to create a functional international standard mapping of characters from A-Z to hieroglyphics to the vegetable pictograms we pepper our sexts with. Changing the visual representation of a character in the emoji font is a much less daunting task than changing an ISO standard. Which is why shouting at Apple on Twitter is unlikely to get a trans flag emoji introduced, but submitting a proposal to the Unicode Consortium just might.

  1. A handful of disability emoji have been assigned code points as draft candidates, including prosthetics, an ear with a hearing aid, the ASL sign for deafness, and guide and service dogs. Hopefully these make it in! ↩︎
  2. Because of various compatibility/completion issues, some platforms seem to do their own thing as far as handling emoji. But when things are done as per usual, it’s just a font that is selected as the best choice when the font being used lacks its own TEACUP WITHOUT HANDLE glyph. Same thing happens for non-emoji characters that are missing from whatever the font at hand is. ↩︎
  3. Non-emoji proposals are discussed at ‘How to Submit Proposal Documents’ and ‘Submitting Character Proposals’. ↩︎
  4. A primer, just in case… The code point is a number in hexadecimal that maps a byte or series of bytes to a character: 1F351. A character is the definition of what exists at that code point: Emoji, Peach. A glyph is a graphical representation of a character, typically presented through a font: 🍑. ↩︎
  5. A frowning pile of poo was proposed for Unicode 11, and some members revealed their true horror that the poo was ever anthropomorphized in the first place. While the battle over the frowning poo is very on-brand for 2018, little about it is as satisfying as reading the original proposal. ↩︎