Tiny icons with big impact: New doc looks at the evolution of emoji

Martha Shane's new documentary, 'Picture Character', takes an in-depth look at the evolution of emojis (Japanese for "picture character"). Have smiling poops and heart-eyed faces become their own global language?

'Picture Character' asks whether emoji are really a 'language'

Linguist Tyler Schnoebelen with San Francisco's beloved poop rock. (Taylor Gentry)

They started out as a limited set of simple icons and became a way for billions of us to communicate. But there's nothing so simple about emoji.

Can cartoonish cats and heart-eyed faces actually become their own global digital language? And can you really express the range of diversity in the world through a set of symbols? A new documentary film, Picture Character, seeks to answer those questions. The doc traces emoji from their modest beginnings in Japan in 1997 to their status as a worldwide phenomena today.

Rayouf Alhumedhi, creator of the hijab emoji, in Vienna. (Lucy Martens)

Martha Shane is the co-director of the film which will screen at the 2019 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. She followed several quests to get new emoji adopted, including a teenage woman in Berlin campaigning for a hijab symbol, an Argentianian woman lobbying for a mate emoji, and an initiative in the U.K. to implement a period emoji.

Picture Character director Martha Shane (Submitted by Martha Shane)

Over the past several years, emoji have become more inclusive, and represent a wider range of identities. "Skin tone options for emoji was probably the number one biggest change to the emoji set," Shane told Spark host Nora Young. Now you can choose between five different skin tones in addition to the original yellow. "There has been progress. There's no doubt about that."

Despite being tiny, emoji appear to have a big impact. The people who campaign for new emoji are very passionate. "Ultimately what we saw was that it's really important to people to be able to represent themselves and see themselves represented," said Shane. "Certainly with the hijab emoji, that was a big part of it."

The film tracks how emoji have emerged as a global language of sorts. They definitely help add tone to text, but do emoji really constitute a 'language'? "I think that there are concepts that are really difficult to communicate with emoji. More abstract concepts like freedom or respect or chagrin," said Shane. "While I wouldn't say emoji is a language at this point, it does seem like it may continue to evolve in a more language-like direction."

Shane wonders whether emoji could be considered "something new," that only exists in our new digital universe. "It's not exactly a language, but it's not exactly a system of symbols either."

As for where Shane thinks emoji are headed? "I would be surprised if, [like emoticons], we just use a smaller number of emoji and then something else pops in to take their place."


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