Category Archives: Sociopolitical issues

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?

Visual bias in the characterization of knowledge

We live in a world that privileges written information over oral information.

It’s a bias of the eyes over the ears, and it seems to include our entire conceptualization of knowledge. Just look at the metaphors we use in our everyday language: A bright person is a smart one, as is a brilliant person. (Brilliance has all but lost its meaning except that denoting intelligence.) We talk of the Enlightenment as the birth of modern science and enlightened people as the smartest among us. We say, “Do you see what I mean?” and “Can you picture it?” even when there’s nothing to be really seen or pictured.

Why is this? Of course, it’s an apt metaphor: In the dark, we can’t see, and we don’t have knowledge of what might be lurking. In the light, we can see, and we know. But why privilege the eyes over the ears? Human language is, after all, primarily manifested as sound.

Perhaps this bias has roots in the traditional permanence of records. Things that were chiseled in stone, brushed in ink or set in type were meant to last a long time. The letters couldn’t fritter off into oblivion, get easily erased and be rewritten, etc. But nowadays, more and more of our written information is not recorded in the same way. Electronic information is malleable. Sure it’s redundant over any number of Google-sized caches (and, if you put stock in the 2014 novel Whisky Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, perhaps being stored at the bottom of the ocean for future nefarious purposes), but in everyday cases, words can be reappropriated, edited and republished with supreme ease. If I change my mind about a blog post, I can revise or even unpublish it. If I am angry with a commenter, I can change their words. On Facebook, if I am embarrassed by something I posted earlier, I can delete or change it. Moreover, we have just so much information streaming by in blogs and social media, that what’s here today can be very difficult to find tomorrow.

Maybe today’s written information isn’t much more permanent than oral information after all. (And that isn’t even to speak of sound and video recordings.) I think that means it’s time to put more stock in other modalities of information transfer, don’t you?

As spell-check evolves, what are we losing?

Spell-check has been around for decades, and despite some improvements, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Simply put, it doesn’t always know what’s best. On the iPhone, for example, the autocorrect feature is simply blunderful. And it still can’t really help us when we type to instead of too

Ginger is bringing spell-check to the next level. Not only does it offer spelling and grammar checking, but its newest software offers a Sentence Rephraser. (Incidentally, rephraser is marked as a spelling error in Ginger. They must have meant to name it Sentence Refresher.) It’s a pretty sophisticated language processor that relies upon a corpus of “high-quality” Web writing to offer context-sensitive suggestions. As an aside, I think this software wins where iOS’s autocorrect fails because it makes suggestions rather than auto-corrections.

As quoted in a recent VentureBeat article, Ginger CEO Maoz Schact says, “We see ourselves as trying to raise the level of English from the pre-mobile days. We’re able to make you look good on your mobile with minimal effort” (emphasis mine).

Of course, when he says “pre-mobile” days, he really means “pre-mobile-post-print” days. As I’ve written about before, the obsession with spelling and grammatical correctness only came about in the past few hundred years. Before the printing press was invented, we were a lot more lenient.

Ginger-iOS

This is an interesting, if predictable, reaction to the text-speak, typos and other casual constructions that have arisen in the speed-over-accuracy mobile age. True, it’s a natural extension of the iPhone (and maybe Android… I’m not familiar enough) autocorrecting r to are and u to you. It shows that, at least among certain groups, such neographic shortcuts are still looked upon disparagingly.

At least from some perspectives, and in some places. I, for one, find it overly pedantic when someone on IM insists on capitalizing every proper noun and including all their periods, and I know a lot of other people do, too. Such “errors” are not simply errors—to regard them as such would be to take too limited a view. They are actually information in themselves: They indicate the register (that is, the level of formality) of the speech, reflecting the relationship between the interlocutors, and they offer important contextual information. For example, if you receive an IM from your boss that’s rife with spelling errors and has no punctuation, you probably wouldn’t conclude that he’s a dumbo who doesn’t know how to spell follow-up, but rather that he’s in a big hurry and whatever he’s asked you for is urgent.

If we try to be “correct” at all times, we lose out on all this paralinguistic information. And that’s a shame: In speech, we can rely on speed, tone, facial expressions and gestures to provide this type of information, but in writing we have a lot less to go on. When we don’t have access to bold and italics, we (perhaps unconsciously) rely on “errors” to convey deeper shades of meaning. So in some cases, being “correct” can actually lead to misunderstanding. What we have to remember is that the type of writing that’s best always depends on the context. It doesn’t matter who you are: Diction appropriate for an academic paper is not appropriate in a text message to your significant other. In fact, language that feels overly formal for a given situation is likely to be interpreted as distancing. For example, we understand that sentences are “supposed” to end in periods, but if you end your text messages in periods, you’ll probably come off as angry.

Ginger wants to move from a standalone app to an OS-pervasive helper (and in Android, it already is), but that may not be for the best. Ultimately, it’s up to us humans to modulate our language… and, as in so many other instances, technology that we attempt to use as a shortcut might only screw things up.