The lack of diversity among Emoji is a legitimate concern that has necessitated a response from Apple CEO Tim Cook in recent years, and it hasn’t gotten better.
A little background for those of you who might have read that previous sentence and been totally confused: “Emoji” are icons that display on your phone/computer/etc that people who spend a lot of time communicating visually through those devices frequently use. When you text someone the characters “:)” and your phone translates it to the little smiling yellow guy? That’s an emoji. And despite seeming relatively inconsequential, emoji are big business, and an important part of how people communicate. Which makes the fact that all of the faces are the same shade of pale, which does not represent the diversity of the real world, something of a concern.
Complaints about the homogenous nature of emoji attracted attention last year when Miley Cyrus and actor Tahj Mowry began a Twitter campaign to call for an #EmojiEthnicityUpdate; and, surprisingly, Apple CEO Tim Cook issued a statement in March through the company’s VP of Communications agreeing with the stars:
Tim forwarded your email to me. We agree with you. Our emoji characters are based on the Unicode standard, which is necessary for them to be displayed properly across many platforms. There needs to be more diversity in the emoji character set, and we have been working closely with the Unicode Consortium in an effort to update the standard.
Still, whether dealing with humans or emoji, the drumbeat of progress has been known to move slowly. While Apple may agree that the faces of the cute little icons people text to one another ought to reflect the faces of the people doing the texting, they haven’t added to the spectrum of faces available. (There is, on the other hand, a video cassette emoji out there. And a fax machine.)
While Apple drags its feet, though, a Houston-area entrepreneur—with some spare time after she was laid off from NASA—decided to address the lack of diversity among emoji by launching “iDiversicons.” As the Houston Chronicle reports:
“One thing we wanted was an app that represented not just African Americans,we wanted one that represented the world,” said [Katrina] Parrott. Her own family is African American but “iDiversicons,” as they became known, grew to cover much more than that.
“We wanted all people to be able to find an emoji that looked like them,” she said.
In addition to different skin colors, her icons show different hair styles, head coverings and even piercings. Biracial and same-sex couples and family groups are shown.
Gender stereotypes are balanced with female construction workers and soldiers appearing alongside male nurses and artists.
The range of emoji offered by iDiversicons is impressive: there are over 900 different options, ranging from hands in a variety of fleshtones offering the peace sign to birthday cakes and puppy dogs to a black Santa Claus.
At the moment, the utility of iDiversicons is somewhat limited: to send the icons, users have to open the iDiversicons app, select the emoji they’d like to send, and then message or email it through their phone’s native apps, adding a step that means you have to really want to send the multi-racial fist-bump in order to bother with it.
But as Apple looks to lend its weight to increasing diversity among the emoji options, it’s possible that the extra step may end up eliminated: Parrott is meeting with the Unicode technical committee to pitch her emoji to the body that will decide the best way to meet the demand for diverse icons next month. If Apple, Google, and the other companies whose products are currently limited to the current array of icons want to throw their weight behind a solution, iDiversicons might be a good place to start.