Just Watched: Our Transgender Pride Flag Emoji Proposal is Now in a Documentary: Where Emojis Come From

Where emojis come from - VPRO copy 828
Where emojis come from – VPRO copy 828 (View on Flickr.com)

Thanks to the team at @VPRO and @VPROBroadcast for producing this documentary that unravels the secrets of how emojis are born.

Transgender Pride Flag vs White Wine – tale of two emojis

The protagonist in the piece is the transgender pride flag emoji born from designer Tea Uglow (@Teaulieu), later joined by a global team of collaborators, who is the spokesperson for the movement. Her (our) effort is compared to an effort funded by business interests, with a staff, budget, and access to principles on the committee that we did not have.

I have a small, tiny cameo (see the image above). We wanted to ensure that people with lived experience are the people telling the story of why this is important, and as you watch, you’ll see that this is what happens.

The evolution of human language

In my mind, the piece highlights some of the disparities we noticed in the process. Most importantly, it underscores what emoji is becoming – the evolution of human language.

Here’s a link to the time code when Tea appears in the film. I thank the producers for respecting her experience and telling a compelling story about what it means to be visible (or not) in human expression.

People shouldn’t want to kill themselves because they are different … part of feeling differently is not understanding that lots of other people actually feel the same way as you … any step towards fixing that saves lives … we just don’t have numbers because people don’t leave notesTea Uglow, Where Emojis Come From

Unicode and Disparities in Technology Leadership

In addition to this quote of Tea’s from the film, I’m including a letter she wrote to the principles of the @Unicode consortium.

The story told about Unicode in the piece is probably going to challenge some. I believe it’s an accurate representation of what we experienced, as well as congruent with many other descriptions of the lack of diversity in the technology industry in general. For these times, I enjoy sharing this quote:

Notice your defensiveness and accept the discomfort of unlearning and relearning. To be competent in this arena is the same as learning to be competent in anything else. It requires a desire to know, motivation to become informed, opportunities to practice and the willingness to correct your mistakes.

I believe Unicode has as awesome an opportunity as any organization to learn and grow. More humans depend on their work than I think has been recognized until now.

…this is a really positive letter for us to receive at an incredibly taxing time for the community. Thank you.

It has, if anything, turned more political and darker since we first got in touch with Mark Davis & Unicode in 2016 (what feels like forever ago).

For comedy value more than anything, I am attaching the proposal that we first put to Google’s leadership that later became the initial ‘unfinished’ proposal – so you can see we’ve come along way! – it’s been a difficult journey. Ted has been the most extraordinary ally in keeping this moving and pushing – and I am not sure we thank him regularly enough. Bianca and Vigdis worked so hard for so long. Olly and the Nailit crew have also lit a fire under the issue with their populist approach in the UK – but we have repeatedly fallen short without explanation.

So it is wonderful to hear that you haven’t actually found dissenting voices within Unicode Emoji Committee. Likewise I agree that having Google and Microsoft showing real commitment will help.

We do understand that it is actually easier to agree on an otter than a symbol for a marginalised community – and that Unicode may be wary of raising the hopes of other marginalised communities.

The only feedback would be that when those communities come with their proposal that they are treated distinctly from corporation-sponsored groups or individuals requesting less emotive emoji. The issue for us has been that the symbol proposed is our only visual representation in the world – and it has not really been afforded much dignity. We’re not asking for a pizza slice or a fire hydrant.

We are probably not the last community in the world who will request this sort of representation – and it might be worth Unicode considering a protocol for ‘minority’ concerns wherein there is a more consistent and transparent chain of communication. Even when the communication is one of regret.

That doesn’t seem to be an active process and it would make a huge difference for future petitioners.

Best wishes and HUGE thank you’s.Tea Uglow, email communication, Feb 13, 2019

The most documented emoji proposal in human history

I’ve been documenting our progress along the way, because it’s been so fascinating.

Transgender Pride Flag Emoji – Adopted by Unicode January, 2020 – Information for Media

The transgender pride flag emoji is now a draft candidate in the standard, and we’re hopeful it will be accepted for inclusion in 2020. In the film it’s revealed that white wine was not accepted as an emoji character. I am sure that is not the last we’ll hear about that one.

In the meantime:

Every day we send seven billion emojis worldwide. Although the colorful icons called emojis can no longer be ignored in our daily communication, little is known about it. Who has power over the emoji? Where are emojis coming from?

There is one “High Council” of online communication that is difficult to access and has the power over our emoji selection on the keyboard: The Unicode Consortium. This group is difficult to access and meets four times a year on the west coast of the United States. This tech giants committee makes decisions about language and shapes the infrastructure of the online world. Representatives from Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, IBM, Netflix, Amazon, and Intel set the global standard for symbols, characters, and fonts in digital (visual) language so that all our devices can communicate with each other effortlessly.

Part of Unicode is the twelve-member “Emoji Commission.” Director Mea Dols de Jong got a foot in the door during the quarterly meeting at Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, Seattle, but also ran into the shocking closedness of the tech sector. The deeper she delves into the world behind the seemingly little icons, the better she sees that this micro-world is a reflection of the “real” world. What does it take to get a new emoji on the phone’s keyboard? Take a look at the campaign for a new white wine emoji. Why is the LGBTQI rainbow flag emoji in the keyboards, but not the one that stands for transgender people? Where lies the power to make such decisions?

Where Emojis Come From

Ted Eytan, MD