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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
Emojis have been called the fastest-growing language in
the world. Is it a language and why do you think itís
become so popular?
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
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?
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.
Are there any dark sides to the use of emojis? Some
people say it creates a digital mask.
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.
Are there any new tasks that the Unicode Consortium is
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.
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.
Do you think thereís going to be a more expressive
form of communication in the digital world beyond emojis?
Thatís an interesting question. Iím not going to
look into my crystal ball for you, which is an emoji by
date: Sept. 13, 1952
place: Riverside, Calif.
Internationalization Architect at Google; President and
co-founder of the Unicode Consortium.
jobs: IBM, Taligent, Apple, Systime AG, Stanford
B.A. in Math from the University of California, Irvine
and a PhD in Philosophy from Stanford University
Wife and two daughters
FACTS ABOUT MARK DAVIS
originated the term "patent troll" with his
wife, Anne Gundelfinger ó winning an Intel contest for
picking the name.
had his shirt unbuttoned by a gorilla while attending
lived in Switzerland for a total of seven years and
worked for Google for 10 years.
was one of the two Apple engineers who developed the
first Japanese Macintosh.
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