New emoji, a giant leap backwards

Yesterday Apple released iOS 8.3. Along with performance fixes, this update includes a dramatic (and long-awaited) redesign to the emoji keyboard.

Thumbs Down to New Emoji

I love emoticons. Originally a simple way to relay facial expressions in text, they’ve become words in their own right. Emoticons are a way for users to express creativity and nuance. Emoji has widened our emoticon lexicon even further: Was there ever another time in history when a drawing of a smiling pile of poop or a girl lifting her hair meant something so nuanced?

The release of new emoji is always exciting. How did we ever live without the tears-of-laughter face? New emoji offer new possibilities for our e-language of texting and tweeting, new crevices in which to carve nuance. But this update has me extremely disappointed. It’s a giant leap backwards for mankind. And yes, it’s that serious.

So what changed? Well, first there’s the interface. If there’s anything good about this update, it’s this. The new interface makes it faster and easier to find and use emoji. There’s also a new hand gesture (Live Long and Prosper!), several new flags, and a number of new combinations of “families” (groups of three or four people). All that’s fine. But then we have the really troubling thing: what is misleadingly called diversity, which really means skin-color diversity, because apparently diversity is only skin-deep.

Okay, elephant in the room: I am a middle-class white male. As such, you might be inclined to find my viewpoint bigoted and misinformed. That’s a topic for another venue. For now, hear me out.

In 2014 Unicode recommended changes to the emoji library that included visual ethnic diversity in the drawings of tiny people. They wrote in their report, “People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone” (Section 2.2). It seems that this really is the case, and it came into the limelight in online petitions as early as 2013. If there is a desire in the marketplace, it only makes sense for a company to respond in its offerings. If people want diversity in their emoji, then I’m all for it. But it has to be done right. And here, Apple did not do it right.

Here’s how it works in Apple’s new emoji keyboard: You tap on a character. If it is eligible for choice in skin tone, a context menu pops up, and you now decide whether to choose bright yellow or from a range of five human-looking skin tones (going from pale to dark). When you tap one of these six, your selected emoji appears.

Now let’s take a step back in order to understand what’s so wrong here. In language, there are distinctions. If there were no distinctions, then our speech would just be an endless stream of monotone: aaaaaaaaaaah. Obviously, we couldn’t extract much meaning from that. It’s the distinctions that determine meaning. K sounds different from G and that’s how we understand the difference between cool and ghoul. Different languages make different distinctions. In English, for example, we make two different L sounds. The L in animal and the L in lamp are different, but we don’t distinguish between them and thus they sound the same to our ears—yet in other languages of the world, these are as different as our K and G. Another example is tone: In Mandarin, for instance, tone can distinguish one word from an otherwise-identical one; this isn’t the case in English.

The way Apple implemented racial diversity, now race means something in our language. Skin color is now a meaningful distinction. And we have no choice. There’s no opt-out. Every time we use an emoji, we must discuss race. If you choose the yellow guy, you’re saying, “Hey, I don’t mean a particular race when I’m saying this.” That choice in itself has symbolic ramifications. On the other hand, if you choose a particular human skin tone, it begs the question: Why that one? In our new world, race becomes a differentiator in our language. And the only way we can opt out is by not using emoji at all.

First of all, is yellow really raceless? In my view, at least, it is just the cartoon version of white. Think of The Simpsons. In that show (and it has been extremely influential), all white people are bright yellow (like these new emoji). If a person in the show is not white (like the Indian convenience store owner), they are drawn in a different color. Other people, it seems, have interpreted the yellow emoji as supposed-to-be-Asian.

And then there’s aesthetics. The yellow-colored emoji are, in a word, hideous. Before, though they were admittedly mostly Caucasian, the emoji were designed nicely. The colors were harmonious. Given the skin tone used, the people’s hair and accessories were colored in a complementary way. Though ostensibly racist, they were visually pleasing. Now, though, Apple seemingly just made the skin bright yellow without adjusting anything else (or if they did, they didn’t do enough). Bright yellow skin begs brighter accessories. But as of now, everything just looks ugly and washed out. I thought Apple was supposed to be the paragon of great design. Maybe they’re so busy working on their Watch that they had to have the janitors do these emoji. (For the record, I’m not the only one who thinks they’re ugly.)

To speak of usability, now it takes two taps to choose a character, whereas before it only took one. It takes longer. But not only that: Now there’s an extra decision involved. Do we really want to contribute to our decision fatigue for something so trivial?

Next, once we decide to implement race, it opens up a whole can of worms. In the new emoji keyboard, race is only an option on some of the characters. Why not all of them? Why can’t I have two dancing bunny-costume girls who happen to be black? Why are the smily faces still only available in yellow? On that note, why don’t we get different color animals? Why can’t I have a brown bunny? Or a purple fish?

I do get it. Before there were mostly white people. There was an Asian in a guan pi mao cap, and there was  a Middle Eastern–looking man in a turban. There were no black people. I get it. Not everyone was equally represented, and the representations that were there could be construed as stereotypical caricatures. People in these un(der)-represented groups must have felt, well, un(der)-represented. Should there be racial diversity in emoji? Sure. Was this the way to do it? Absolutely not.

What are some better solutions? Below are three I came up with off the top of my head. I’m sure if I dedicated two years or more to this, as Apple has done, I could think of even more.

  1. Assuming bright yellow is the default, that should appear on tapping. If someone wants to select a race, they can hold down the character and choose—just like with diacritics on the text keyboard.
  2. Maybe a setting somewhere to choose your default emoji skin color, and that’s the one you use. (Perhaps having the option of holding down and selecting a different color if you want.) This seems to be the thinking behind Africa-based emoji company Oju Africa‘s emoticon set, which is quickly becoming popular.
  3. Do the emoji need to be colored at all? Perhaps not. Could they just be transparent? Or, if we want color, why not use non-realistic colors, such as green and purple, as we see in Google Chat? Either way, this would remove the variable of skin tone.

Alpesh Patel, CEO of Oju Africa, mentioned above, had this to say about Apple’s latest release:

Look at their new emoticons—it’s all about skin colour. Diversity is not about skin colour—it’s about embracing the multiple cultures out there that have no digital representation.

If we really want to celebrate and respect diversity, making race into a meaningful distinction in our language is absolutely not the answer. By definition,  highlighting our visual differences like this will drive us apart. Shouldn’t we, instead, strive to see ourselves as all part of a singular, multifaceted human community? Can’t we realize—please—that there is much more to diversity than skin color?

Why are we so obsessed with skin color? It looks like Dr. King taught us nothing after all. How many more people have to die for us to realize this?

Great new book on scratching versus tapping: “Words Onscreen” by Naomi Baron

51avcgEYSSLI discovered (in the Columbian sense) linguistics professor Naomi Baron‘s work while I was doing my MA research, and I loved her book Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. Now she’s back with a new scholarly book sure to be of interest to readers of ScratchTap: Words Onscreen: The Fate of Reading in a Digital World.

In this new book, Baron considers the difference between reading on electronic devices and reading in print, calling upon a broad array of historical and scientific sources from diverse disciplines. She drives home the points that reading is becoming more social, that the “container” may be just as important as the content when it comes to reading, that the concept of ownership is getting more and more nebulous, and that, even in the digital era, vast swathes of the reading population still prefer print books. Though electronic texts certainly have their merits (for one, convenient search), Baron draws the general conclusions that digital texts generally discourage reading longer texts, rereading, deep reading, memory, serendipity and strong emotional involvement.

This final point—emotional involvement in experiencing documents—is exactly what I plan to pursue in my PhD studies, and I’m grateful to Professor Baron for having established so eloquently a further need for research in this area. Many who prefer print books point to “physicality” as the source of their preference. But how, exactly, does physicality contribute to experience? That’s my research area, so you can expect to see further related posts in the future.

If this sounds interesting, but not enough to actually read the whole book, check out this recent interview article with the author.

The (vestigial) influence of support on layout

I wrote before about the exhibition on historical books in India currently on view at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. If you’re in the area in the near future, it’s worth a look! There’s another interesting tidbit from this exhibition that I’d like to share.

I’ve considered before questions related to text directionality. Basically, what is it that determines how we write? We have text written upwards spiraling in fanciful directions, such as on the ancient Ogham monuments in Ireland. We have vertical texts and we have horizontal texts. And then we can consider all the supports writing has seen over the years: stone, turtle shells, clay, wood, leaves, paper, metal, skin, pixels… all of which have limitations with respect to size and shape. Did these limitations contribute to text directionality in the early days of human writing? Who knows.


One thing we can be sure of is that the support played a large role in how pages were designed. Above we see pages made from palm leaves. Of course, palm leaves are long and narrow, so the pages had to be designed such that they could be read in this format.

There are samples of similar texts elsewhere in the exhibit, with an interest twist-slash-historical-development. As the signage explains:

The earliest Jain manuscripts were made from palm leaves. Since the size of the leaf could not be changed, the text and images were designed to fit its surface. In these pages, a few lines of writing run from the left to the right margin. Images occasionally punctuate the text, each encapsulating an important episode. The hole in the middle of the page was for the string that once tied the pages together and secured their wooden covers. To read a book, a person would loosen the string and flip the pages vertically.

When paper replaced palm leaf in the 1300s, artists could change the dimensions of the page to accommodate more text and larger images. However, the long horizontal format was sanctified by religious tradition and continued to be used. Likewise, even though paper manuscripts were no longer tied together with string, artists regularly placed a red circle in the middle of each page to imitate the hole from the palm leaf tradition.

This, I suppose, is another example of skeumorphism, which I’ve discussed before. Now, religious sanctity is one thing, but taking advantages of the non-limitations when changing support is an important opportunity. So let’s consider: What are we missing out on when we model e-books after physical books?