Here’s where new emojis come from

Ever wonder who gives permission for that ever-expanding list of emojis on your phone?

As comedian Stephen Colbert, who got his very own emoji this year aptly explains, a group of technology executives called the Unicode Consortium approves applications and carefully reviews them for release.

The Unicode Consortium began almost three decades ago and is responsible for standardizing the representation of text — letters and characters — for software. Its members include major technology company executives from places like Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Facebook (FB), Microsoft (MSFT) and SAP (SAP).

Someone with an Android phone can read a text or emoji you sent from an iPhone because of the standards set by a consortium subcommittee that examines and approves emojis before they’re freed from the minds of developers.

Emojis were first used by Japanese companies, and initial proposals for their acceptance by the Unicode Consortium began in 2007. Then Apple joined in 2009. Emojis have been included in the consortium standards since 2010.

This method of ensuring compatibility across devices and software platforms will get only more important in the future: More than 6 billion smartphones will be in use by 2020, up from 4 billion last year. Messaging and communications apps will reach 7.5 billion users in 2020 from 5 billion last year, according to estimates earlier this year from IHS Market.

The emoji subcommittee, which meets weekly by phone, sifts through submissions for Unicode approval — a process that can take nearly two years.

Anyone can submit a detailed application. For 2018, the deadline shifted to July from September to make it easier for developers to prepare for release next year. According to a sample proposal posted on the Unicom Consortium website, a proposal submitted in the first quarter of any given year might be released after a lengthy process in the second quarter (or later) the following year. So it takes at least 18 months before an emjoji might be added to the list.

For 2017, the final list for Emoji 5.0 was released in March. Developers then spent the next several months creating the characters for each of their own platforms before release. In the biggest release so far, Apple unleashed this year’s crop of emojis with a system update in October.

In Colbert’s case, the emoji, a flat-lipped, round, yellow face with an arched eyebrow, was submitted in 2015. It’s called the “face with open raised eyebrow.” Mark Davis, the Unicode Consortium president, dubbed it “The Colbert Emoji” in a 2016 tweet announcing the year’s candidates.

That same year, co-founder of literary studio Plympton and former New York Times reporter Jennifer 8. Lee showed up at a committee meeting in her quest for a dumpling emoji (also announced in Davis’ tweet), according to a 2015 interview with Buzzfeed. She’s now listed as a vice chair of the emoji subcommittee itself.

Selection for emojis at first depended on software compatibility, according to the Unicode website. That has been broadened to include, among other things, how widely the emoji will be used. A shark emoji, for instance, could also be used in other phrases like “loan shark.” A particular geographic market, like North America or Latin America, is also taken into consideration, according to the website.

Emojis can’t be brand names, logos, signs, specific people or dieties. Nor can they be “overly specific.” The application instructions use a sushi emoji as an example. The sushi emoji “represents sushi in general, although images frequently show a specific type, such as Maguro. Adding SABA, HAMACHI, SAKE, AMAEBI and others would be overly specific,” the website says.

The Unicode Standard had 2,666 emojis as of May 2017, according to Emojipedia (yes, that’s an encyclopedia dedicated to emojis).

The crop for 2018 sparked its own, shall we say, storm around the frowning poop emoji. Time recently detailed the cheeseburger emoji controversy. And even The Washington Post ran a column on the social implications of a proposed flat shoe emoji.

As the characters grow in popularity and use with each software update, some in the tech world have asked if the consortium should have so much power over what gets standardized.

“Look, the reason they’re popular and the reason they work is because they’re on every keyboard … and they work on every app,” Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge recently told Axios, “and if Unicode’s not involved in that, it doesn’t work.”

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc.. All Rights Reserved.

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