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Emojimania: Fans and brands crying tears of joy

Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, demonstrates the new emoji icons. With more than 270 billion text messages sent a day, those tiny pictures and symbols have exploded beyond their initial fan base of 14-year-old girls. Now businesses, charities and events are scrambling to come up with their own.
Julie Zhuo, product design director at Facebook, demonstrates the new emoji icons. With more than 270 billion text messages sent a day, those tiny pictures and symbols have exploded beyond their initial fan base of 14-year-old girls. Now businesses, charities and events are scrambling to come up with their own. AP

When it comes to emojis, the future is very, very ... Face with Tears of Joy.

If you don’t know what that means then you: a) aren’t a 14-year-old girl. b) love to hate those tiny pictures that people text you all the time. Or c) are nowhere near a smartphone or online chat.

Otherwise, here in 2016, it’s all emojis, all the time. And Face with Tears of Joy, by the way, is a bright yellow happy face with a classic, toothy grin as tears fall.

The Face was chosen by Oxford Dictionaries as its 2015 “word” of the year, based on its popularity and reflecting the rise of emojis to help charitable causes, promote businesses and generally assist oh-so-many-more of us in further expressing ourselves on social media and in texts.

So what’s it all about? Here’s a look at the past, present and rosy future of emojis.

Where did they come from?

While there’s now a strict definition of emojis as images created through standardized computer coding that works across platforms, they have many, many popular cousins by way of “stickers,” which are images without the wonky back end. Kimojis, the invention of Kim Kardashian, aren’t technically emojis, for instance, at least in the eyes of purists.

In tech lore, the great emoji explosion has a grandfather in Japan, and his name is Shigetaka Kurita. He was inspired in the 1990s by manja and kanji when he and others on a team working to develop what is considered the world’s first widespread mobile Internet platform came up with some rudimentary characters. They were working a good decade before Apple developed a set of emojis for the first iPhones.

Emojis are either loads of fun or the bane of your existence. One thing is sure: There’s no worry they’ll become a “language” in and of themselves.

“Words aren’t dead. Long live the emoji, long live the word,” laughed Gretchen McCulloch, a Toronto linguist who, like some others in her field, is studying emojis and other aspects of Internet language.

The emoji overseers

Back when Kurita was creating some of the first emojis, chaos already had ensued in trying to make all the pagers and all the emerging mobile phones and the newfangled thing called email and everything else Internet-ish that was bubbling up speak to each other. And also to allow people in Japan used to a more formal way of communicating make themselves understood in the emerging shorthand.

Enter the Unicode Consortium, on the coding end. It’s a volunteer nonprofit industry organization working in collaboration with the International Organization for Standardization, the latter an independent nongovernmental body that helps develop specifications for all sorts of things, including emojis, on a global scale.

Unicode, co-founded and headed by Mark Davis in Zurich, has a big, big mission, of which emojis have a place: making sure all the languages in the world are encoded and supported across platforms and devices.

The key word here is volunteer. Davis has a whole other job at Google, but he has dedicated himself to the task above.

At the moment, Unicode has released 1,624 emojis, with more options when you factor in modifiers for such things as skin tone. The emoji subcommittee fields about 100 proposals for new emojis a year. Not all make it through the vetting process.

Emoji lovers and haters

Meet Elle Brown. She’s a 9-year-old “kidpreneur” from Plant City, Fla. She makes emoji-theme jewelry and key fobs that she sells at school and church, and that her mom sells from her desk at an insurance firm.

“My favorite one is the ‘poo’ emoji, and the money emoji,” said Elle.

People of all ages buy from her mom, Zee Brown.

“It’s like having Girl Scout cookies. People come to me,” she said.

While marketers are all over emojis these days, professional brander Kevin Winslow in Boise, Idaho, was a reluctant adopter.

“I thought they were rather silly. It didn’t seem to me like something a grown-up would use,” he said. “Now they’re a necessity in social media campaigns. Sometimes they help do away with the exclamation point, which I also despise.”

Vivian Rosenthal is founder and head of Snaps, a platform on which keyboards full of branded images are launched, including marketing campaigns intended to support social causes, such as the plight of refugees.

Rosenthal estimated somewhere around 6 billion emojis and stickers are sent every day across devices and services.

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