Silicon Valley is notoriously lacking in diversity. But tech giants are making major progress in at least one area of inclusivity: emoji.
On Wednesday, Apple and Google revealed the designs of new emoji including depictions of a service dog, a prosthetic arm and leg, wheelchairs, hearing aids, and a person signing that they are deaf. The companies also introduced new versions of people holding hands, with Apple adding 75 new combinations based on skin tone and gender.
The new emoji — released in honor of “World Emoji Day” — are expected to arrive on iPhone and Android phones later this year. They have already been approved by the nonprofit Unicode Consortium, which maintains character software standards.
The greater diversity in emoji is significant because of the way the characters have replaced words in much digital communication and cross language barriers. Representation by emoji validates identity, cultural experts say. Emoji are used by 92 percent of the global population online, Unicode says.
”There are a lot of different kinds of couples out there, and our emoji should reflect that,” Google said in a blog post.
The first widely used set of emoji was created for a Japanese mobile phone operator in the late 1990s, and hundreds of emoji were incorporated into the Unicode Standard a decade later. They gained significance about a dozen years ago with the widespread adoption of smartphones.
But both Unicode and tech giants have been slow to add a more diversified collection of emoji, despite years of criticism from users. Unicode spends months evaluating new emoji proposals, which are often submitted by tech employees as well as ordinary users. In recent years, they have adopted images depicting women in professional roles such as doctors to address criticism that the symbols reinforced gender stereotypes.
Apple requested the consortium add accessibility emoji in a 2018 proposal, arguing that “the current selection of emoji provides a wide array of representations of people, activities, and objects meaningful to the general public, but very few speak to the life experiences of those with disabilities.” In that document, Apple suggested the inclusion of many of the newly added designs. The proposal was approved by the consortium a few weeks later.
In addition to more-inclusive emoji, Apple and Google also have added new animal-themed emoji, including a sloth, skunk, flamingo and orangutan. Plus, there’s a plate of butter, a waffle, a yo-yo and a yawning face, among many other additions.
Ryan McDearmont, an Austin-based social media manager who co-hosts a podcast on emoji aesthetics, said the most controversial addition among consumers may be not be one aimed at righting emoji’s long history of homogeneity, but rather one that is meant to depict a plate of falafel.
With both the Apple and Google versions of the falafel emoji, McDearmont said, “it looks like a good emoji at a large size, but when it’s smaller it looks like spaghetti and meatballs."
Others have compared the falafel emoji to a plate of rocks, potatoes, coconuts or worse.
According to the Jerusalem Post, the falafel emoji was submitted in April 2018 by Ben Klemens, who noted that “falafel would be the first [vegan, halal and kosher] Middle Eastern food represented in emoji.”
The new falafel is in good company. In previous years, users have criticized the design of Apple’s bagel and paella emoji, as well as Google’s hamburger emoji. On the Android hamburger, the cheese was placed below the meat instead of on top of it.