Between art and application: Special issues on emoji epistemology
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Emoji culture is simultaneously becoming more “universal, particularistic, and personalizable” . In recent years, the technology, art, and media industries have instituted and legitimized emoji cultures through various milestone events: 2015 saw the move towards visual racial diversity as a skin tone modifier bearing five skin shades was added to all Apple operating systems (Tan, 2015); 2016 saw the original set of 176 emoji being officially adopted into art history by the Museum of Modern Art (Galloway, 2016); and 2017 saw the release of an entire movie starring anthropomorphic emoji characters in The Emoji Movie by Sony Pictures Animation (Box Office Mojo, n.d.).
As a relatable and cryptically humourous vernacular for engaging with an audience, politicians from countries such as Australia (Di Stefano, 2015) and the U.S. (Alt, 2015) have also adopted emoji use in their popular correspondence, albeit not without some backlash (McDonald, 2015; Medhora, 2015). Likewise, brands like Swedish furniture company Ikea (Lomas, 2015) and Canadian cafe chain Tim Hortons (Huffington Post, 2015) have released app-specific branded emoji that iconize their products. Celebrities, too, are cashing in on the widespread use of emoji by commissioning personalized emoji apps after their own image (Hua, 2016), and even getting into debates around originality and copyright over these visual artefacts (Fisher, 2016).
Commerce aside, emoji culture is also experiencing a resurgence in representational politics on the grassroots level. Trans activists who have been petitioning to have the trans flag incorporated into emoji vocabulary kick started the ‘Claws Out For Trans’ campaign calling for people to ‘hijack’ the lobster emoji as an “unofficial, official” trans symbol (Gil, 2018); 15-year-old Saudie Rayouf Alhumedhi successfully petitioned for Unicode to include emoji of women wearing a hijab through her campaign ‘Hijab Emoji Project’ despite widespread racist reactions from several users (Al Jazeera, 2017); to curb visual representations of gun violence, tech companies Apple, Samsung, and Google, and platforms WhatsApp and Twitter replaced their pistol and handgun emoji with water guns (Ong, 2018); and Chinese users have been adopting the ‘rice’ and ‘bunny’ emoji as homophones (mǐtù) to ‘#MeToo’ in a “tactical response to circumvent online censorship” on platforms including Sina Weibo and WeChat (Andersen, 2018; Zeng, 2018).
As users petition for and programmers work towards diversity for platform interoperability, cultural universality, and social inclusiveness, emoji culture is becoming a placeholder for people to distil their identities and politics into distinctive — but at times, reductive — icons.
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