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Mark Davis, president of the Unicode Consortium, on the rise of emojis

March 14, 2016 


MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. ó When cute smiley faces started popping up in text messages in Japan during the 1990s, software engineers like Mark Davis didnít know if the digital images called emojis were just a fad.

But by 2006, emojis were more popular and tech firms ó including Google, the company Davis works for ó wanted to operate with Japanese cellphone carriers.

"The problem was that there were three different carriers that all had different sets of emojis. They used the same code for different emojis," said Davis, co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, "and different codes for the same emojis."

Approving emojis sounded like a job for the Mountain View nonprofit, which has relationships with companies, governments, and other organizations worldwide. The volunteer group creates and updates global standards for every character displayed online, such as letters and symbols. This helps make sure that when people receive messages via a computer or cellphone, they see what the sender intended. Called the Unicode Standard, there are more than 120,000 characters defined.

Davis lives in Switzerland and works on software internationalization for Google. He sat down with the San Jose Mercury News via Skype to talk about the rise of emojis and the work that the Unicode Consortium does. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Symbols have different meanings in different cultures. How do you account for that when deciding which emojis to approve? When Apple introduced new racially diverse emojis, some praised the move while others raised concerns about racist comments.

A: We do have to consider issues like skin color when we make these decisions. We have a set of criteria to assess a proposal for new emojis. Suppose you wanted a mole emoji, for example. What you do is you fill out a form. We have a number of factors we ask you to supply information about, including evidence for why this would be a popular emoji. It doesnít need to be an emoji that would be popular in America or Europe. It could be an emoji that would really be popular in China or India.

Q: Emojis have been called the fastest-growing language in the world. Is it a language and why do you think itís become so popular?

A: The answer is no for me. You see that really quickly if you try to express anything very detailed in emojis like "letís meet at 3 oíclock unless my dentist appointment goes long and then we should go to the coffee house around the corner." Things that are tricky to express in English are very difficult to express in emojis. But emojis help to fill the gaps in short written communication. On video, you can see my expression, you can see my hand gesture, hear my tone. I can hear yours, and itís a much richer communication than just text. I think thatís why itís become so popular. It can add a lot of flavor and emotion, especially to text communication, which by its nature is very prosaic.

Q: Hillary Clinton once asked people on Twitter to describe how student debt made them feel in three emojis or less. It got some backlash. When is it appropriate to use emojis to express your feelings and when is it not?

A: I think like all communication it depends on the circumstance. If you write in English, youíre going to write differently if itís a formal setting, a workplace setting or when texting a friend. We have yet to see how itís going to play out and in which circumstances people are going to use emojis. But I expect people will use them in many casual settings.

Q: Are there any dark sides to the use of emojis? Some people say it creates a digital mask.

A: One of the myths is that emojis are universal. But the way these symbols are interpreted really depends highly on your culture and language. Thereís a certain amount of adapting to emojis as well. We look at these emojis and they bring something to mind. We start to send them to other people with that in mind and they gradually develop accepted meanings.

Q: Are there any new tasks that the Unicode Consortium is undertaking?

A: We are constantly extending what we do in terms of the number of characters we support and also in providing support for languages around the world.

Weíre also using emojis to shine a light on that work. For example, we just started a fundraising campaign called Adopt a Character where people can adopt their favorite characters, including emojis but also characters like the letter G. The San Jose Earthquakes just recently adopted the soccer ball, for example. Itís to help our work in extending language support throughout the world.

Q: Do you think thereís going to be a more expressive form of communication in the digital world beyond emojis?

A: Thatís an interesting question. Iím not going to look into my crystal ball for you, which is an emoji by the way.

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MARK DAVIS

Birth date: Sept. 13, 1952

Birth place: Riverside, Calif.

Position: Internationalization Architect at Google; President and co-founder of the Unicode Consortium.

Previous jobs: IBM, Taligent, Apple, Systime AG, Stanford

Education: B.A. in Math from the University of California, Irvine and a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University

Residence: Zurich, Switzerland

Family: Wife and two daughters

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5 FACTS ABOUT MARK DAVIS

He originated the term "patent troll" with his wife, Anne Gundelfinger ó winning an Intel contest for picking the name.

He had his shirt unbuttoned by a gorilla while attending Stanford.

Heís lived in Switzerland for a total of seven years and worked for Google for 10 years.

He was one of the two Apple engineers who developed the first Japanese Macintosh.

Heís a fan of the eye-rolling emoji and is looking forward to the face with one raised eyebrow, which is under consideration and he thinks of as the "Colbert" emoji.

 

 


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