On April 17, 2020, in response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Facebook rolled out a new a new reaction for “care,” which took the form of an emoji face hugging a heart in addition to a pulsing heart. These two new Facebook emoji reactions would appear alongside Facebook’s primary post reaction icons: the iconic “thumbs up” for like, the heart and the laughing, awe, crying and anger emojis. 

“We hope these reactions give people additional ways to show their support during the #COVID19 crisis,” a spokesperson from Facebook noted about the new emojis as reported by TechCrunch. “We know this is an uncertain time, and we wanted people to be able to show their support in ways that let their friends and family know they are thinking of them.”

Imagine if just a few people would decide what words we can use?

Only a week before, Transmedia Assistant Professor Kristin Lucas had invited Dutch artist, historian and emoji expert Lilian Stolk to visit her Expanded Media course via Zoom to share research into emojis at the outset of an assignment. Stolk shared her lecture, “Emoji Overload,” with the class, outlining how emoji came to be, the process and politics of emoji approval, and the cultural to global context surrounding issues of expression through the emoji keyboard. Emoji only appeared on phones in the western hemisphere as of 2014, and within six years 92% of smartphone users use emoji. Stolk asked: With more than 3000 emoji at our disposal, how critically do we think about the adoption of emoji? It turns out that the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit organization that digitizes scripts, serves as the official body that manage emoji, accepting or rejecting emotive characters submitted by individuals and corporations alike. 

“[Unicode Consortium makes decisions for inclusion of new emojis] with the help of their voting members,” said Stolk. “Companies like Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft yearly pay $18,000 to be a voting member at Unicode. The president of Unicode also works for Google. So the language we all use online is determined by only a few people. Imagine if just a few people would decide what words we can use?”

Ostensibly, the consortium that arbitrates our global visual language does so with the best interests of its users at heart, attempting to circumvent already represented emoji or emoji that are too political, negative or violent. However, Stolk offered examples of a consortium-rejected climate change emoji and an accepted redesign of a pistol emoji, where politics are still potentially present in the acceptance process or at the very least not transparent to those outside the consortium members. Stolk, through her work on a web-based Emoji Voter app, proposes a more egalitarian system of choosing new emojis by popular vote. 

With a newly broadened context in mind, Lucas asked her class to create an emoji out of available household materials or by using available software or apps. The assignment, originally not on the syllabus but a curricular pivot during social distance at home, provoked engaging progress critiques where Lucas’ class discussed how the systems and standards we build—as seen in a digital context through the emoji keyboard—augment our reality every day.

"I created Emoji Bush to play into some of the ideologies regarding emoji and digital culture," said student Abby Raffle. "I was interested in the way a basic, non-political symbol like cherries or butterflies can have their meaning changed to become something triggering or powerful when spread in a certain context. So I wondered how an inherently political symbol like [former President] George Bush could transform to mean something else entirely."

Raffle's Emoji Bush and the other students' resulting emoji resonate with cultural meaning, humor and heart, empowering them to see how the work of artists and designers can impact a universal language. To view the emoji created and read a bit of the thought process behind them, scroll through the image gallery below. 

April 27, 2020
Studio Art