Arts publicist and emoji enthusiast Floriane Hutchinson wears flats, not heels. But when she opens her emoji keyboard, her options are men’s shoes, sneakers or a stiletto. Concerned about gender stereotyping, she decided to take matters into her own hands and create a more universal option for women: the ballet flat.

Hijab emoji designed by Aphee Messer (used with permission).
Hijab emoji designed by Aphee Messer (used with permission).

Hutchinson seized upon the democratic aspects of emoji crafting and drafted a proposal to the Unicode Consortium’s emoji subcommittee.

The consortium works to ensure that all text appears standard across devices and languages worldwide. For the past decade, it has set a similar standard for the emoji keyboard, so that nothing gets garbled in transit from one device to the other.

According to Jeremy Burge, a member of the consortium, the emoji keyboard is on more phones than any language in the world. Thanks to Hutchinson’s efforts, the ballet flat is set to join that keyboard in 2018, along with a slate of new emojis ranging from an Andean llama to a Chinese moon cake.

Emojis offer a creative and universal form of expression that transcends language. They can even help bridge cultural and social divides as people develop vernaculars that are uniquely their own, yet accessible to all.

Anyone can propose new emojis to the consortium. Successful proposals become openly licensed emojis, freely available to the public. These two aspects of the process are a healthy way to approach the Internet’s language of choice: accessible, diverse and democratic. But there are gatekeepers.

The subcommittee is dominated by tech giants who pay $18,000 a year to become voting members of the non-profit consortium. As a final step, after the committee has voted on proposed emojis, it launches a six-month public comment process to ensure that anyone can raise concerns before the emojis are encoded and distributed.

In response to user demand and activism, the consortium is working to ensure that its lexicon is inclusive to all: it launched different skin tones in 2014, and in 2017 the hijab emoji was introduced. Critics argue that these inclusivity measures have the opposite effect of highlighting difference. After all, the text based smiley emoticon 🙂 has no race or religion.

But emojis are here to stay. So much so, that you’ll soon be using them in website domain names (just try clicking or copying ????❤✊.ws into your browser address bar).

The Internet is at its healthiest when it is created by diverse users. These grassroots campaigns demonstrate that individuals have the capacity to challenge decision-makers and ensure that emojis are as diverse (and sometimes silly) as the people who use them daily.