Emoji, part 3: go west

In 2011, Apple became the first big tech company in the West to visibly embrace emoji. The detailed, glossy symbols that appeared that year on the iPhone’s on-screen keyboard were a far cry from Shige­taka Kurita’s lo-fi efforts and they went on to become the de facto standard for modern emoji design. But though Apple holds the emoji 👑, it was Gmail, Google’s email service, that had first dragged emoji out of Japan and onto the world stage. And drag it had to, for emoji did not come quietly.

In the mid-2000s, as Google sought to expand its reach in Asia, it prepared to make Gmail, its email service, available to users in Japan. Emoji were as unfamiliar outside their native country as they were beloved inside it,* but Take­shi Kishimoto, product manager for Google in Japan, knew that a successful launch would depend on their inclusion. His bosses agreed in principle but balked at one symbol in particular: Takeshi was adamant that Gmail must include a poo emoji.2 Promptly, the “💩” hit the fan.

The poop emoji was based on a character from a 1980s anime series called Dr. Slump. “Poop Boy” was one of a parade of poo-related characters in the series, appearing alongside “Manure Boy”, “Bird Poop Boy”, “Old Man Poop” and “Soft-Serve Ice Cream Boy” (whom the others mistake for a pile of faeces), and he went on to appear both in other anime series and a set of related video games.3 Poop Boy’s digital alter ego was introduced in 2000 by KDDI AU, one of NTT DOCOMO’s competitor networks,4 and it was embraced by younger users as a synonym for the word unchi, a childish exclamation meaning “poop” or “shit”. It was the visual equivalent of the word “doo-doo”, in other words, with all the earnest utility and gleeful mischief that implies.2 Users loved it — and Takeshi could prove that they loved it, showing his bosses a study that ranked “💩” as one of Japan’s most popular emoji.5 His appeal to the data won the day and the poop’s place in Gmail was assured.

But Google’s engineers faced another problem when implementing “💩” and its sibling emoji. Each of Japan’s mobile networks supported more or less the same set of emoji as the others, but the binary numbers that identified those emoji differed from one company to the next. Send a “📺” from your NTT cellphone to a friend on KDDI AU and they would see “💡”; your colleague on the SoftBank network, “🌄”. The result was what the Japanese called mojibake, or garbled characters.6 It was left to Google to cajole emoji into working across all of Japan’s mobile networks and Google, in turn, sought the help of an organisation called the Unicode Consortium.

Unicode’s roots stretch back to the 1980s. At that time, most computers understood only a limited set of characters, and the characters that they did understand were often specific to a single country or language. Opening a file that had been created on a computer in a different region often resulted in a mess of misinterpreted text — mojibake before emoji ever existed. Finally, in 1987, the leaders of multilingual computing projects at Apple and Xerox joined forces to develop a single universal character set they hoped would replace the era’s cacophony of regional standards. They called it “Unicode”.7

Since its incorporation in 1991, the Unicode Consortium’s cabal of engineers, linguists and government apparatchiks have worked to codify more or less all forms of writing known to humanity.7 The group’s achievements include such noble works as making the ancient Linear B alphabet available to scholars across the world; preserving archaic Egyptian Coptic for posterity; and enabling once-marginalised scripts such as Cherokee to flourish online. All this has been done by asking and answering the same question, over and over again: what number should be assigned to this character, that character, and the one after that?8

Now, fifteen years after the consortium’s founding, Google knocked on Unicode’s doors and asked these éminences grises of computerised language: “What number should we use for ‘💩’?”

Unicode was unfazed. In fact, the organisation had unwittingly made a head start on the task of encoding emoji thanks to a hangover from the old days of metal typesetting.

In part two we saw how some of the more flamboyant characters to appear on the printed page were under pressure from both cultural and technical factors. Printers and book buyers preferred a neat, clean page with few adornments and, upon its arrival in the late nineteenth century, the typewriter’s utilitarian keyboard made it incrementally harder to use such characters in the first place.

But that is not the whole story. Even under the combined assault of the QWERTY keyboard and the minimalist aesthetic of the modern book, special typographic characters never really went away. Many such marks survived in the typographic priest holes called “pi fonts” — collections of symbols too niche for mainstream typefaces but too useful to die out entirely. The origins of the term “pi font” are elusive, but it may come from the phenomenon of “printer’s pie”, where an inattentive worker knocks a page of movable type onto the floor in a jumbled mess.9 If true, it would be an appropriate label: the typical pi font is home to an oddball mix of mathematical and technical symbols (∑, √, ƒ, %, ‰, º and more), currencies ($, ¥, £ and so on), fractions (½, ⅓, ¼), and a generous smattering of ancient and medieval characters (¶, ☞, ❦).10

Typographic smileys in Carmen of the Golden Coast
Typographic smileys in the 1935/1936 edition Carmen of the Golden Coast by Madeline Brandeis. (Image courtesy of Jenny Kalahar.)

Some pi fonts harboured even rarer characters, as can be seen in the 1935 edition of Madeline Brandeis’s book Carmen of the Golden Coast.11 These are honest-to-God typographic smileys, printed thirty years before Harvey Ball got the credit for inventing them and sixty before Shigetaka Kurita immortalised them in pixels. Why are they here? As with typefaces in general, individual pi characters were occasionally commissioned for use in a particular work, and this may be how Carmen’s singular smileys came about. Certainly, this is the only pre-emoji printed work I’ve come across that contains “🙂” and “😭︎” as individual glyphs, which suggests that these were one-offs. Even Little Tom of England, a similar book by the same author, published a year earlier, lacks them.12 But tempting as it is to draw a line of descent from Brandeis’s printed book to Kurita’s electronic icons, the evidence is not there to support it.

Even so, pi fonts can rightly claim a role in emoji’s emergence on the world stage. When Apple unveiled its LaserWriter printer in 1985, as a companion to 1984’s Macintosh computer,13 it came with a set of built-in fonts selected by none other than the company’s chairman, Steve Jobs. Three of those fonts came from the International Typeface Corporation, or ITC — a big win for the then-young type foundry — and two of those ITC fonts were products of a renowned type designer named Hermann Zapf. The first, Zapf Chancery, was designed to convey a handwritten feel (it was the only such “script” font that Jobs could bear to put on the Mac); the second, Zapf Dingbats, was a good old-fashioned pi font containing hundreds of miscellaneous symbols such as stars (✯), arrows (➽), crosses (✞), snowflakes (❄) and aeroplanes (✈).14 Together, the Mac and the LaserWriter brought high-quality printing to the masses and Zapf’s typefaces became mainstays of desktop publishing.

Characters comprising the first part of Zapf Dingbats.
The first part of Hermann Zapf’s Zapf Dingbats typeface, as featured in issue 2 of volume 5 of U&lc magazine. (Courtesy of Monotype ITC Inc. ITC and Zapf Dingbats are trademarks of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.)

In 1991, then, when the Unicode Consortium published their first stab at a standard character set, a keen-eyed reader would have noticed the inclusion of a sequence of characters taken directly from Zapf Dingbats. To create Unicode 1.0, the consortium had simply selected what it considered to be the most common extant character sets and typefaces, resolved the most obvious conflicts, and unified them into a single all-encompassing character set.15 Zapf Dingbats’ hallowed place in the Apple ecosystem and beyond meant that it was one of those industry standards, and so in it went. Another section in Unicode 1.0, “Miscellaneous Dingbats”, augmented Zapf’s symbols with yet more glyphs such as chess pieces (♛), warning symbols (☣, ☢, ☠), musical notes (♫, ♬), playing card suits (♠, ♣, ♥, ♦) — and a pair of smiling and frowning faces (☺, ☹).16

Thus, when Google came to Unicode a decade later, looking to standardise a disparate collection of emoji, Unicode had seen it all before. Aeroplanes? Hearts? Pointing hands? Smiling faces? Why yes, said Unicode, we’re way ahead of you.

Characters comprising the second and third parts of Zapf Dingbats
The second and third parts of Hermann Zapf’s Zapf Dingbats typeface, as featured in issue 2 of volume 5 of U&lc magazine. (Courtesy of Monotype ITC Inc.)

Emoji’s admission into the Unicode standard, progressing as it did through layer after layer of discussion, procedure and committee, was slow but steady. The first formal step was taken in 2006, when Unicode co-founder Mark Davis (late of Apple; now at Google) proposed that the organisation take a look at Japan’s popular picture-writing symbols, explaining that:

There are a number of symbol sets that are in widespread use, but currently can only be mapped to private use characters on input. The UTC [Unicode Technical Committee] should consider whether or not it would be useful to encode these, or some subset.17

Davis did not mention emoji explicitly, but his meaning was clear and the ball was set rolling. A first draft of a unified emoji character set followed in 2007,18 and in 2010, the publication of Unicode 6.0 made it official: 722 emoji were added to the more than 100,000 other characters then in the standard. Thanks to Zapf Dingbats and the other pi fonts on which Unicode had been founded, 114 of those emoji were already present.19

Finally, Google could add emoji to Gmail without worrying that its users would suffer from the dreaded mojibake. And where emoji went, so followed the poop: Gmail’s unchi emoji was an evocative, faceless turd surrounded by circling flies, its scatalogical impact blunted only by its diminutive 15-pixel-square dimensions.2 Moreover, the poop emoji and its kind were now free to roam the internet at large. First Apple, then Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and many others followed Google in adding support for emoji to their applications, web pages and operating systems. Emoji had gone global, and it has not looked back since.

“Search for ‘emoji’ Between 1999 and 2006”, Google Scholar
Lauren Schwartzberg, “The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)”, Fast Company, 2014. 
“Poop-Boy”, Dragon Ball Wiki
Caitlin Harrington, “Origin of a Feces: A Not-So-Brief History of the Poop Emoji”, Wired, 2017. 
Jeff Blagdon, “How Emoji Conquered the World”, The Verge, 2013. 
Ritchie King, “Will Unicode Soon Be the Universal Code? [The Data]”, July–2012. 
Laura Wideburg, “Early Years of Unicode”, Unicode.Org, 1998. 
“What Is Unicode?”, Unicode.Org
Richard Eckersley, “Pi Font”, Glossary of Typesetting Terms, 1994. 
“Pi Characters”, PrintWiki
Madeline Brandeis, Carmen of the Golden Coast, 1936. 
Madeline Brandeis, Little Tom of England, 1935. 
Jason O’Grady D, “Technology Timeline”, in Apple Inc., 2009, 72-75. 
Ilene Strizver, “The Story Behind Zapf Chancery”, Fonts.Com
The Unicode Consortium, “1.0 Introduction”, in Unicode Standard, Version 1.0, 1991, 1-6. 
The Unicode Consortium, “3.2 Symbols”, in Unicode Standard, Version 1.0, 1991, 72-97. 
Mark Davis, “L2/06-369: Symbols”, Unicode.Org, 2006. 
Kat Momoi, Mark Davis, and Markus Scherer, “L2/07-257: Working Draft Proposal for Encoding Emoji Symbols”, Unicode.Org, 2007. 
Mark Davis and Peter Edberg, “Unicode Technical Standard #51: Unicode Emoji”, Unicode.Org, 2018. 
A search for scholarly papers from the years 1999–2006 containing the word “emoji” returns only a handful of articles in English.1 
And a persistent one: the standard spanned 682 printed pages and contained more than 28,000 characters.15 
More followed in 2012 and 2014, and the yearly cadence of new Unicode releases has since morphed into “emoji season” — but more on that in later parts. 

Emoji, part 2: what went before

As we saw in part 1, emoji did not arise in a vacuum. In designing his suite of icons, Shigetaka Kurita selected subjects that would be both recognisable and useful in the context of NTT DOCOMO’s new mobile internet service. Smiling faces (😊) and broken hearts (💔) conveyed emotion; trains (🚆) and planes (✈️) called up ticket booking services; videogame controllers (🎮) denoted mobile games; and so on. But the way in which emoji were and are presented — embedded among our letters and words while simultaneously being distinct from them — has always been as important as their content. In this respect, emoji owe as much to ancient scrolls, medieval books and typewriters as they do to pagers and mobile phones.

It feels redundant to say so, especially on a blog about punctuation, but the letters both of our alphabet and of others have never travelled alone. There have always been a select few non-alphabetic characters along for the ride. Some are functional, such as the marks of punctuation that form part of our written language; others are decorative; and still more live somewhere between the two extremes. In ancient Greece, for example, elaborate coronides marked the ends of books and poems.1 In Rome, K-shaped capitula, or “little heads”, signalled the start of each new section of a work and would later evolve into the pilcrow (¶), or paragraph mark. And both Greek and Roman scribes were partial to using hedera, or ivy leaves (❦), to break up lengthy passages.2

P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem
A bird-shaped coronis marks the end of a section of text in P.Lit.Lond. 134: Hyperides, In Philippidem. (Image taken from Classical texts from papyri in the British Museum; including the newly discovered poems of Herodas (1891), page 43.)

Later, as the paged codex supplanted the scroll, writers added yet more auxiliary marks such as asterisks (*), crosses (✠) and daggers (†)3,4 with which they organised footnotes and other asides. Some symbols were so important that it was the job of specialist scribes called “rubricators” to add them in contrasting red or blue ink after the fact.5 Readers, too, could not resist embellishing the page with their own marks, many of which took the form of little inky hands, or manicules (☞), that danced alongside the text to point out noteworthy passages.

Typographic hedera in Konrad Peutinger's Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi
Typographic hedera in
Konrad Peutinger’s Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi, printed in 1505 by Erhard Ratdolt. Words are separated by wedge-shaped interpuncts that mimic ancient Roman inscriptions. (CC-BY-SA 3.0 image © Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel. Romanae Vetvstatis Fragmenta In Avgvsta Vindelicorvm Et Eivs Dioecesi [Conradus Peutinger].)

Some of these marks crossed over to the printed page, although the difficulties of printing in multiple colours meant that rubricators were still called in to add them by hand.5 The pilcrow (¶) was one such mark, inked into blank spaces left by the printer at the head of each paragraph. But when the growing tide of printed books started to outpace the abilities of rubricators to decorate them, the pilcrow fell by the wayside to leave behind the modern indented paragraph.6,7*

The pilcrow’s disappearance was symptomatic of a broader change in typographic sensibilities. Not only did mass production put rubricators out of business but, in the pursuit of readability, many printers favoured an aethetic style notable mostly for its lack of ornamentation. Gutenberg himself used only letters, abbreviations and a handful of punctuation marks for his pioneering 42-line Bible, for example,8 while the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, active a few decades later, cemented the trend with a series of sparsely-decorated pocket-sized books that would set the tone for centuries to come.9

There was more trouble in store in the late nineteenth century when the invention of the typewriter dealt another blow to typographic sophistication. Conceived primarily as a tool for business, the typewriter’s QWERTY keyboard bore only letters, numbers, a few marks of punctuation and a dollar sign. Even the digits “0” and “1” were omitted: why waste the keys when the letters “O” and “I” would do just as well in their place?10,11 First, printers had deemed it recherché to use too many ornamental characters; now the typewriter made it impossible to type them in the first place.12 The era of the typographic special character seemed to be over.

As it happened, the arid environment of the typewriter keyboard was more fertile than it seemed. There might be no pointing fingers or ivy leaves immediately to hand, but the letters, numbers and symbols that remained could be combined to make entirely new designs. And so almost as soon as the typewriter had arrived, secretaries, stenographers and writers created the new medium of typewriter art, in which mundane typewritten characters became the raw material for increasingly creative graphic artworks.13

Typewritten portrait of Dorothy Gish
A typewritten portrait of actress Dorothy Gish made by Kenneth Taylor, an office boy at the Los Angeles Times, around 1919. (Image from Photoplay magazine, January-June 1919.)

By the early 1980s the QWERTY keyboard had become the interface to a new world of computers and networking, and typewriter art was along for the ride. Graphical user interfaces were still rare (Apple’s Lisa went on sale in 1983; the Mac a year later14,15) and computer users were accustomed to word processors, spreadsheets and games presenting themselves using only the ninety-five printable characters of the ASCII character set.16 (There was, inevitably, an accompanying fad for “ASCII pr0n” — titillating images composed of nothing more than the symbols on the computer keyboard.17 Who could have predicted that the internet would become a hotbed of such iniquitous material?)

It was into this text-only world that emoji’s first true ancestor was born. Comprising only a colon, a hyphen and a closing parenthesis, the emoticon, or :-), was perfectly designed to pierce the disinterested blankness of a CRT monitor. Granted, so-called emoticons have been discovered in many pre-digital sources, such as seventeenth century poems:

Tumble me down, and I will sit
Upon my ruins, (smiling yet:)
Tear me to tatters, yet I’ll be
Patient in my necessity.18

and transcriptions of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches:

…there is no precedent for your being here yourselves, (applause and laughter ;) and I offer, in justification of myself and you, that I have found nothing in the Constitution against.19

but these are almost certainly typographic missteps rather than intentional smileys. The consensus is that emoticons proper arrived in 1982 in response to a joke gone wrong on an electronic bulletin board at Carnegie Mellon University. We open the scene with a puzzle posed by CMU computer scientist Neil Swartz:

16-Sep-82 12:09    Neil Swartz at CMU-750R      Pigeon type question
This question does not involve pigeons, but is similar:
There is a lit candle in an elevator mounted on a bracket attached to the middle of one wall (say, 2" from the wall).  A drop of mercury is on the floor.  The cable snaps and the elevator falls. What happens to the candle and the mercury?

There followed a complaint that a mercury spill was no laughing matter, whether real or not. With tongues firmly in cheeks, Swartz and others took it upon themselves to discuss how such misunderstandings might be avoided in future. In the course of the debate, a colleague of Swartz’s named Scott Fahlman posted the immortal words:

19-Sep-82 11:44    Scott E  Fahlman             :-)
I propose that the following character sequence for joke markers:


Read it sideways.  Actually, it is probably more economical to mark things that are NOT jokes, given current trends.  For this, use


Enter the emoticon.

The genius of Fahlman’s suggestion lay in the fact that just about any image of a human face, however abstract, will provoke an emotional reaction on the part of the viewer. So elemental were Fahlman’s inventions that images just like them have been around for millennia: a 4,500-year-old carving found at Nîmes in France is claimed to be the world’s oldest smiley;20 a 1700 BCE urn discovered on the border between Turkey and Syria, daubed with a distinctive :), runs it a close second;21 and similar doodles appear everywhere from medieval manuscripts to comic books. Nor is the modern stereotype of a smiley face an especially new invention. Designed in 1963 by a graphic artist named Harvey Ball, the iconic yellow smiley (🙂 is the closest analogous emoji) has since been co-opted as a symbol for everything from Walmart ad campaigns to acid house record covers.22,23 Even Ingmar Bergman, the famously morose film director, got in on the smiley action. Of course, he chose a “frowny” instead, drawn in lipstick on a mirror in his 1948 film Port of Call: “☹”.24

A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061.)
A cheery face in the pages of a manuscript dated to the second half of the thirteenth century. (CC BY-NC 3.0 image of Conches-en-Ouche, Musée du verre, ms. 0007, f. 061, courtesy of La Bibliothèque Virtuelle des Manuscrits Médiévaux.)

Unsurprisingly, then, Fahlman’s happy and unhappy faces struck a chord, spreading first to other universities and then out into the world at large. As they did so, they multplied. In a November 1982 message sent to a colleague at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center, CMU’s James Morris expanded the lexicon:25

(:-) for messages dealing with bicycle helmets
@= for messages dealing with nuclear war
<:-) for dumb questions
oo for somebody's head-lights are on messages
o>-<|= for messages of interest to women
~= a candle, to annotate flaming messages

All very creative, and faithful to the spirit of Fahlman’s own typewriter art writ small. But one of Morris’s emoticons in particular anticipated a problem that still vexes emoji users today: when one group of people control a medium, it is easy to marginalise people outside that group. The o>-<|= emoticon, for “messages of interest to women” was as blithely exclusionary then as the preponderance of male emoji has been until very recently.

Emoticons got their first major upgrade in 1986 in the form of kaomoji, or “face characters”. In that year, a Japanese message board user named Yasushi Wakabayashi began signing his posts with his online alias, “Wakan,” follwed by a creative assemblage of characters forming a face: (^ _ ^). Like Fahlman, Yasushi maintains a modest web page describing his part in the invention of kaomoji, where he explains that he wanted to make a smiley that could be immediately understood by all readers. In particular, he wanted his mark to be “right way up” so that readers would see it as a face without having to mentally rotate it through 90 degrees. Perhaps coincidentally, this means that both emoticons and kaomoji are aligned perpendicular to their native scripts: traditional emoticons lie at right angles to texts written in the Latin alphabet, while kaomoji spring from Japanese characters that are more often written from top to bottom.26

At first, only a few people understood what the collection of characters in Wakan’s signature were supposed to mean and today, as kaomoji grow ever more complex, they can still be difficult to decipher. The archetypal “shruggie” ( ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ), for example, is relatively straightforward, as is the gloriously unhinged “table flip” ( (ノಠ益ಠ)ノ彡┻━┻ ), but others are not so easily parsed — consider ༼∗ღ۝ღ∗༽ (one of many kaomoji meaning “hunger”) or (#´∞`∫)∫ (“slow clap”), for example.27 And yet, after a slow start, suddenly Yasushi’s kaomoji were everywhere in Japan, taking their place alongside Scott Fahlman’s smileys as the new emotional currency of the internet.

At least, that is, until 1999, when emoji crashed the party.

If it was not immediately apparent that NTT DOCOMO’s little icons were destined for great things, their graduation in 2007 to Google’s Gmail and then, a year later, to Apple’s iPhone made it clear that something important was afoot.28,29 Google searches for “emoji” crept upwards just as those for “emoticon” tailed off.30 A drumbeat of tech news articles told Western iPhone owners how to unlock the hitherto Japan-only icons on their keyboards.29 The fate of the emoticon had been sealed, and today the likes of :-), ;-P, :-(, and :-D have been almost completely replaced by “🙂”, “😜”, “🙁”, “😀” and more.

And yet emoji’s seemingly effortless rise was anything but. More on that next time.

F Schironi, “Book-Ends and Book-Layout in Papyri With Hexametric Poetry”, in, 2010. 
Robert Bringhurst, “Hedera”, in The Elements of Typographic Style : Version 3.2, 2008, 311-. 
M B Parkes, “The Technology of Printing and the Stabilization of the Symbols”, in, 1993, 50-64. 
R A Sayce, “Compositorial Practices and the Localization of Printed Books, 1530–1800”, 1966. 
Geoffrey Glaister A, “Rubricator”, Glossary of the Book, 1960. 
Andrew Haslam, “Articulating Meaning: Paragraphs”, in Book Design, 2006, 73-74. 
Jan Tschichold and Robert Bringhurst, “Why the Beginnings of Paragraphs Must Be Indented”, in The Form of the Book: Essays on the Morality of Good Design, 1991, 105-9. 
S Füssel, “Bringing the Technical Inventions Together”, in, 2005, 15-18. 
“Aldus Manutius, Scholar-Printer (c.1445-1515)”, nls.Uk, May–2012. 
C E Weller, “Home of First Typewriter”, in The Early History of the Typewriter, 1921, 20-21. 
Christopher Latham Sholes, “Improvement in Type-Writing Machines. U.S. Patent 207,559.”, August–1878. 
J L Bell, “Dash It All!”, Oz and Ends, March–2009. 
Maria Popova, “A Visual History of Typewriter Art from 1893 to Today”, Brain Pickings, 2014. 
Christoph Dernbach, “Apple Lisa”, Mac History, 2007. 
Christoph Dernbach, “The History of the Apple Macintosh”, Mac History, 2011. 
Vint Cerf, “RFC 20: ASCII Format for Network Interchange”, ed. Network Working Group, October–1969. 
K Mey, Art and Obscenity, 2006. 
Levi Stahl, “The First Emoticon?”, Ivebeenreadinglately, 2014. 
Jennifer 8. Lee, “Is That an Emoticon in 1862?”, New York Times
Danny Kringiel, “Millionen für Ein Lächeln”, Spiegel Online, 2011. 
Zuhal Uzundere Kocalar, “Ancient Pot Discovery in Turkey Contests Smiley Origin”, Andalou Agency, 2017. 
Jack Neff, “Walmart Brings Back the Smiley Face in Ads and in Store”, Ad Age, 2016. 
Christian Bernard-Cedervall and Antonin Pruvot, “How Did the Smiley Face Became an Icon of Rave Culture?”, Trax, 2016. 
Ingmar Bergman, “Port of Call”, 1948. 
Scott Fahlman, “‘Joke’ Conversation Thread in Which the :-) Was Invented”, Scott E. Fahlman
若林泰志, “顔文字の起源 ({\^{}}_{\^{}})”
“10,000+ Japanese Emoticons, Kaomoji, Text Faces & Dongers”, JapaneseEmoticons.Me
Lauren Schwartzberg, “The Oral History Of The Poop Emoji (Or, How Google Brought Poop To America)”, Fast Company, 2014. 
Arnold Kim, “IPhone 2.2 Includes Hidden Japanese Emoji Icons”, Mac Rumors, 2008. 
“Emoticon, Kaomoji, Emoji”, Google Trends
You can read more about the pilcrow here at Shady Characters
I’ve also written previously in more detail about Fahlman’s invention. 

Emoji, part 1: in the beginning

Sex! Conflict! International standards bodies! The brief history of emoji is far more interesting than it has any right to be, and over the next few months I’ll be taking a look at where the world’s newest language* came from, how it works and where it’s going.

It started with a heart.

In the mid-1990s, Japan found itself in the grip of a pager boom. Sales of “pocket bells”, or poke beru,1 ran at over a million per year, with the country’s largest mobile network, NTT DoCoMo, taking the lion’s share.2 Elsewhere in the world, pagers were the preserve of businesses and hospitals where they called trauma surgeons to the emergency room or managers to the telephone. In Japan, however, pocket bells were increasingly sought after by teenagers: by 1996, almost half of all female high school students owned one, and peak pager hours had shifted from during the working day to the late evening, when the airwaves buzzed with teenagers’ illicit messages.3

The first pagers were simple devices, designed only to receive numeric messages. The idea was that a sender would call a recipient’s pager at its own dedicated telephone number and then tap in their desired message as another string of numbers. This in turn would appear on the pager’s LCD display. Often, the message was as simple as the sender’s telephone number, but in the USA, where pagers had originated, younger users created a loosely-codified dialect comprising numeric codes, in-jokes, and more. “6000*843” can be just about read as “good bye”, for example; “99” meant “nighty night”; “831” (eight letters, three words, one meaning) stood for “I love you”; and so on.4

Across the Pacific, Japanese high schoolers had their own pager-cipher in which numbers could be pronounced either in Japanese or English to form sound-alike phrases. “724106” translated to “What are you doing?”, for example, while “114106” meant “I love you”.5,6 Still, though, there was demand for a more sophisticated pager experience. As such, when one of DoCoMo’s smaller rivals launched a 1995 model that could translate pairs of digits directly into Japanese characters, demand was so high that the company had to temporarily stop accepting new customers.3

DoCoMo had to respond. A year later, the larger company added a heart symbol to the repertoire of some of its pager models, and their younger customers went wild for it. Accessed by dialling “88” or “89” when leaving a message on a recipient’s pager, the heart became a fixture in high schoolers’ messages — but those same pager addicts were left bereft when, a few short years later, the “❤” abruptly disappeared from the newest pagers. Some claim that DoCoMo ditched the symbol in order to attract more serious-minded business customers; others say that the heart took up valuable memory that was better used to support Japan’s expansive kanji script and the Latin alphabet. Subscribers did not care. They deserted DoCoMo in droves.7,8

In the event, DoCoMo’s unwonted heart surgery was the catalyst for something much larger. Elsewhere in the company, and aware that DoCoMo needed a new killer feature to replace the erstwhile “❤”, an engineer named Shigetaka Kurita was in the midst of developing the first mobile internet service for the operator’s cellphones. Kurita was disappointed by the drab, text-only applications available in the USA and elsewhere and dreamed of somehow elevating DoCoMo’s nascent “i-mode” internet service above these distinctly lo-fi offerings.8 But how? He looked to his environment for inspiration.

More so than in some other countries, Japanese culture and public life are suffused with visual symbolism. Comic books, or manga, are read avidly and universally, and many of them make use of common visual tropes that express concepts or states of being. An oversized drop of sweat on a character’s face represents anxiety or confusion; a lightbulb above their head is a moment of enlightenment. As the first host country in the modern Olympic era to use a non-alphabetic script, the Tokyo games of 1964 pioneered the use of symbols (🚴︎, 🚻︎, ⛵︎) rather than text to help foreign visitors find their way.10 And that same non-alphabetic script itself provided inspiration: in kanji, the ideographic script that Japan inherited from China, Kurita saw how powerful it was to be able to express complex ideas like “love” in a single character.11

Drawing on all these influences and more, Shigetaka Kurita designed a font containing one hundred and seventy-six monochromatic but lively icons — symbols such as smiley faces, thunderous clouds, cartoonish bombs and gibbous moons — and embedded it into DoCoMo’s new i-mode internet system. Emoji was born.8,12

NTT DoCoMo's original emoji
The original 176 emoji that have been added to The Museum of Modern Art’s Collection. (© NTT DOCOMO, Inc.)

Eyecatching though they were, Kurita’s creations were also a pragmatic addition to i-mode’s online services. On-screen menus used emoji to highlight paid services or train tickets; weather applications employed suns, clouds, umbrellas, snowmen and lightning bolts to provide comprehensive weather reports in a few lines of text; and 250-character limits on emails could be mitigated by judicious use of an emoji or two.14

Each symbol measured just twelve pixels by twelve — a scant one hundred and forty-four dots to represent a hospital, an incoming fax, or a movie camera — and some icons came out of Kurita’s digital wash cycle either shrunken or simply inscrutable. As such, when Kurita sent his finished designs to DoCoMo’s hardware partners for inclusion on their mobile phones, the response was tepid: Sharp, Panasonic, Fujitsu and others were more concerned with getting i-mode right than they were in polishing Kurita’s icons of cocktail glasses and snowmen. When emoji went out into the wider world as part of the launch of the i-mode platform, each of its symbols retained the same quirky, pixelated design in which Kurita had first drawn it.11

By contrast, DoCoMo’s competitors understood the promise of emoji right from the start and, moreover, saw that Kurita’s symbols could benefit from a nip here and a tuck there. Responding to the 1999 launch of the Fujitsu F501i, DoCoMo’s first i-mode smartphone and the first phone anywhere to support emoji,15 rival networks KDDI AU and J-Phone each duplicated Kurita’s uncopyrightable 12 × 12 icons before giving them fresh coats of paint and adding a few new symbols of their own.11 The rest is history: after a wildly popular debut, DoCoMo’s i-mode service finds itself today to be the AOL of Japanese mobile internet providers, active only in its home market and largely the preserve of the over-50s. Emoji, on the other hand, were a bona fide hit. The affair of the heart was forgiven.

As a postscript, the pagers that sparked the emoji boom have themselves been memorialised in emoji form. The “📟” icon has its own unique number on each major emoji platform: Apple, Facebook and Mozilla all display telephone numbers starting with Hollywood’s favourite fictional phone number prefix: “555-3215”, “555-1212” and “555-5555” respectively; Google’s pager reads “88888”, mimicking an LCD display with all of its segments turned on; and Samsung’s displays “SUNMOON”.16 Twitter’s pager emoji has a more substantive message: “40404” was and is the SMS number via which many Twitter users interact with the service.17,18

Nicholas D. Kristof, “Japan’s Favorite Import From America: English”, The New York Times, 1995. 
Tamiko Lippit, “Japan Teens Flip for Private Pagers”, International Herald Tribune, April–1995. 
Mizuko Ito, Misa Matsuda, and Daisuke Okabe, “Youth Culture and the Shaping of Japanese Mobile Media: Personalization and the Keitai Internet As Multimedia”, in Personal, Portable, Pedestrian: Mobile Phones in Japanese Life, 2006, 41-60. 
Joe Mozingo, “Teens Create Language of Pager-Speak”, Los Angeles Times, November–1997. 
“Goroawase: Japanese Numbers Wordplay”, Tofugu, 2011. 
Adam Pasion, “Nippon’s Digital Numerology: The Pocket Bell”, Japan Daily, 2015. 
Colin M. Ford, “Emoji: A Lovely History – Making Faces (and Other Emoji) Part 1”, Medium, 2016. 
Justin McCurry, “The Inventor of Emoji on His Famous Creations – and His All-Time Favorite”, The Guardian, October–2017. 
“Tokyo Telemessage Seeks Protection from Creditors”, Japan Times, May–1995. 
Shigetaka Kurita, Mamiko Nakano, and Mitsuyo Inaba Lee, “Why and How I Created Emoji”, Ignition
Jeff Blagdon, “How Emoji Conquered the World”, The Verge, 2013. 
Mayumi Negishi, “Meet Shigetaka Kurita, the Father of Emoji”, Wall Street Journal, March–2014. 
“Emoji”, Oxford Dictionaries
“生みの親が語る「ケータイ絵文字」14年の軌跡と新たな一歩”, Nikkei Trendy, 2012. 
Taro Matsumura, “F501i, the First Smartphone in Japan 1999”, Mobile Native, 2009. 
Jeremy Burge, “Pager Emoji”, Emojipedia
Dom Sagolla, “How Twitter Was Born”, 140 Characters, 2009. 
“About Supported Mobile Carriers”, Twitter Help Center
NARRATOR: But is emoji really a language? Stay tuned. 
Tokyo Telemessage, the rival whose wildly successful katakana pagers had prompted DoCoMo to add the “❤” in the first place, kept the symbol as part of their pagers’ repertoire even as DoCoMo abandoned it. Ironic, then, that Tokyo Telemessage went bust in the same year that DoCoMo’s emoji-capable Fujitsu F501i arrived to save its 🥓.9 
The word is Kurita’s own, marrying e for “picture” and moji for “character”.13 

The interrobang on 99% Invisible

Long-time readers will remember that 99% Invisible, the wide-ranging podcast hosted by Roman Mars and produced in beautiful, downtown Oakland, California, featured an episode on the octothorpe back in December 2014. It’s a great listen: 99PI producer Avery Trufelman managed to track down Doug Kerr and Lorne As­plund, two of the engineers at Bell Labs who were instrumental in placing the ‘#’ on the then-new telephone keypad and later christening it as the “octothorpe”, to get the story behind the mark’s rebirth in the computer age.

Well, I’m happy to report that 99PI has just released a new episode on another familiar shady character: the interrobang! I first spoke to 99PI producer Joe Rosenberg about Martin K. Speckter’s (in)famous mark of punctuation back in 2012, so it has been a slow and winding road for this particular instalment, but it is finally here and it was worth the wait. Joe interviewed Martin’s widow, Penny, to learn more about the interrobang’s creation, and also talked to one Judge Frank Easterbrook, perhaps the most distinguished person ever to use an interrobang in anger. The full episode is available now, and it is great. Many thanks to Joe for sticking with the subject for all these years!

The featured image here shows sketches for the extra bold weight of Richard Isbell’s typeface “Americana”. Thanks to Fritz Klinke on Flickr for the use of his image.

Housekeeping № 3: moving to HTTPS

A very quick note this week: Shady Characters now runs exclusively over HTTPS. What does this mean? Well, rather like my recent post about how references work here on the blog, my hope is that very little will change — other than an extra ‘s’ in the site’s address.

Briefly, “HTTP” stands for “HyperText Transfer Protocol”. This is one of the basic technologies on which the world wide web runs:* it comprises a finite series of verbs that describe actions and a near-infinite collection of addresses (“Uniform Resource Locators”, or URLs) describing the things on which those verbs act.1 As an example, the verb GET retrieves a resource such as a web page; conversely, POST and PUT create and update resources such as comments. When you type an address that starts with http:// into your web browser, you know that your computer will use the HTTP protocol to access it.

HTTPS”, then, stands for “HTTP Secure”.2 That extra ‘s’ signals that all traffic between your web browser and the remote computer, or web server, which sends those HTTPS pages to you, is cryptographically scrambled so that no-one else can tell what information is exchanged between the two. This is precisely why banks and other financial institutions were among the first to embrace HTTPS — neither the state of your finances nor your instructions as to what to do with them are vulnerable to eavesdroppers.

For Shady Characters, moving to HTTPS means two things. First, all shadycharacters.co.uk web addresses now start with https:// rather than http://. Second, no entities involved in the communication of data between this website and your web browser can inspect the data that flows between them. In particular, the exact address that you happen to be viewing at any given time (such as https://www.shadycharacters.co.uk/series/the-pilcrow/ or https://shadycharacters.co.uk/books/the-book/) remains hidden, as do any messages that you might send to me via the Contact page.

It could be argued that HTTPS is overkill for a blog like Shady Characters. That said, the web is inexorably moving in the direction of enhanced security and privacy and HTTPS is a non-negotiable part of that movement. I want to provide visitors with the same assurances of security that you would expect of any other responsibly-run site. Separately, HTTPS is a prerequisite for using the newest version of the HTTP protocol and, although shadycharacters.co.uk doesn’t support it yet, it should eventually provide a nice bump in performance. Web pages will feel snappier as well as being more secure.

And that’s it! Feel free to carry on browsing as normal. You don’t even have to update your bookmarks, since the site itself will automatically redirect you from plain old http:// addresses to shiny new https:// ones. Let me know if you have any questions or comments, and thanks for reading!

R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Semantics and Content”, 2014. 
R Fielding and J Reschke, “Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP/1.1): Message Syntax and Routing”, 2014. 
The other main web technology is HTML, the file format in which web pages are described. 
Comments are encrypted too, although of course once submitted they will become visible to all visitors.