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Emoji lovers create new designs: ‘Language is just as artistic as music’

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ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Emoji, the silly little pictorials that fill digital communication, are a fun way to deliver a message for many people. But for those who want to be enshrined in the cultural annals of face-palm, red heart and tears of joy by creating the next iconic emoji, this is serious business.

Those digital pictograms must get approval from a group known as Unicode, which standardizes written communication on the internet by maintaining a universal character set. There are limited spots available for new emoji, and each year, scores of emoji-lovers submit proposals to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee for review.

For one emoji creator-hopeful, this process has been filled with sad-face and eye roll. Caroline Morganti is a 28-year-old software engineer living in New York City and submitted her first emoji proposal to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee in April.

“I feel like there aren’t very many opportunities to make a defined cultural contribution in a way that has a very defined process,” Morganti told ABC News’ “Start Here” podcast. “Especially something that’s so widely used.”

Morganti’s proposed emoji was a smiley face representing nostalgia or imagination. She came up with the idea when she was scrolling through social media and realized she could not find an emoji to match her feelings.

“Nostalgia is such a big part of internet culture. Why isn’t there an emoji for that?” Morganti said.

Morganti spent over 30 hours writing an 18-page appeal to the Emoji Subcommittee. Unicode requires that submitters address a series of detailed criteria in their proposals, including the relevancy and uniqueness of their idea.

Emoji weren’t always decided this way. Many cellphone companies used to have their own unique, often arbitrary sets of emoji. In 2010, emoji were included in Unicode so that they could be universalized. But this setup has put Unicode in the often strange position of being the world’s emoji gatekeepers.

Recently, Unicode has been keeping that gate shut. The Emoji Subcommittee reviewed Morganti’s proposal through the fall and in early November, they notified her that it was rejected.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed. I thought my emoji had a lot of different uses and I thought the proposal was pretty thorough,” Morganti said.

Morganti isn’t alone. Out of the roughly 400 emoji proposals submitted during this cycle, only 10 were accepted, according to the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee. This is significantly less than the hundreds of proposals accepted annually for the past few years. What was once a deluge of new emoji is now a slow trickle.

Jennifer Daniel, the chair of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee, attributes this decrease to the strict criteria required to maintain Unicode’s character set, and the internet’s rapidly changing landscape.

“The internet of today is very different from the internet of 30 years ago. We may have been SMS text messaging then, but today we have rich media, we have short form video, we have memes,” Daniel said to “Start Here.” “Emoji is just one of many, but emoji is the only one that’s intended to stay still.”

Daniel, and her colleagues on the Emoji Subcommittee, have the challenging task of regulating the endless expressiveness of the internet.

With thousands of already-existing emoji and limited spots available, the group must be very choosy with its new additions, Daniel said. This all points to the difficult job Unicode has: balancing traditional communication with the ever-changing norms of the internet today.

“Language is just as artistic as music, but music is comprised of music notes. And those musical notes need to be standardized if they’re going to be digitized in some way,” Daniel said. “The beauty of emoji is that it doesn’t require editing software… but there’s so many things that people can do on top of Unicode that enable digital expression.”

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