Since the 2010s, the characters known as emojis have pretty much evolved into their own language on our phones and computers. But the predecessors of the “picture characters” we know and use so regularly today are older than you’d expect.
Before emojis, there were emoticons, facial expressions made with punctuation marks. The first emoticons appeared in an issue of Puck magazine, all the way back in 1881. The magazine published four “faces”—conveying joy, melancholy, indifference, and astonishment—and called them “typographical art.”
They were first used as a way of communicating emotions online in 1982. When it became difficult for people to tell the difference between jokes and serious posts on a Carnegie Mellon University digital message board, faculty member named Scott Fahlman came up with a solution: add the symbol 🙂 to denote humorous posts, and add the symbol 🙁 to serious ones. In his announcement about this proposal, he even specified that readers should “read it sideways.”
So, what about emojis, the little pictures that now make texting so fun? Those were created in 1998 by Shigetaka Kurita, an engineer at the Japanese phone company, NTT Docomo. He was working on a way for customers to communicate through icons. The result was a set of 176 icons he called emoji. The name combines two Japanese words: “e” (picture) and “moji” (character). Kurita says that he drew inspiration for his emojis from manga, Chinese characters, and international signs for bathrooms.
Today, more than 1,800 emojis exist (and fortunately, they don’t have to be read sideways). How do new emoji’s make it onto our phones and computer screens? Believe it or not, that responsibility falls to an international organizing body called the Unicode Consortium. It’s the oversight group which maintains global standards for digital text display, and approves and accepts all new emojis, making sure there are no duplications and that new emojis are easily understandable to a large segment of the world. Have a clever idea for a new emoji that you think might express an idea in a unique way? Anyone can submit an idea to the Consortium between April 15 and August 31 each year. Who knows? Maybe a year or two from now, we’ll all be using what you thought was a throw-away doodle you scratched on an envelope as a standard symbol to communicate around the world!