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The invention of emojis: A brief history

Hack Reactor

Emoji History

By Brittany Anas for Hack Reactor

Emojis, which infuse flat text with personality, are everywhere. More than 900 million emojis (without text) are sent on Facebook messenger every day. Half of Instagram comments contain emojis. On Twitter, the most used emoji is 😂 Face With Tears of Joy, and one in five Tweets contains an emoji, up from one in 10 in 2014, according to Emojipedia.

However, emojis aren’t just a part of our social media lexicon. They’ve gone mainstream. The White House Council of Economic Advisors, for instance, released a report about millennial debt and education, sprinkling emojis throughout the report. In Slack, remote workforces are adding custom emojis to their conversations to help personalize communication in a dispersed environment. 

Further proving that emojis have successfully embedded themselves in pop culture is the fact that they have their very own day. Mark your calendars (preferably with the emoji that has a party hat and horn): July 17 is World Emoji Day. The reason? July 17 is the date that’s famously displayed on the 📅 Calendar Emoji. (By the way, it’s not random. July 17 was the date that iCal for Mac was first announced at MacWorld Expo in 2002). 

Ahead of July 17, you can vote on the “most anticipated emoji” and the “most 2021 emoji.” Find out more information here

Here, a look at how emojis emerged and how they’re evolving, plus some fun facts about these pictograms.

A history of emojis

Really, the concept of emojis isn’t all that new as cultures have used different forms of pictograms as a part of human expression for centuries. The ancient Egyptians, for example, used hieroglyphics to record their stories and history.  

The modern-day emoji can be loosely traced back to chatrooms in the 1990s, when primitive emojis were used in conversations, like : ) to signal a smile or ; ) to punctuate a joke or sarcastic jab. 

But designer Shigetaka Kurita is considered to be the founding father of today’s emojis. In 1999, NTT DOCOMO, a Japanese cell phone company, released a set of 176 emojis for mobile phones and pagers. Emoji is the blend of two Japanese words: picture and letter. (It's a mere coincidence that “emoji” sounds like it was derived from the English word “emotion). Kurita used Japanese graphic novels and Zapf Dingbats typeface as well as illustrations and pictograms to create the first emoji library. The pixelated designs that ultimately gave way to today’s expansive emoji database are on display at the Museum of Modern Art

In 2015, and for the first time ever, Oxford dictionary deemed an emoji its “Word of the Year.” The “Face with Tears of Joy” 😂 emoji earned the title because it was the most frequently used emoji worldwide. In general, the dictionary noted, the word emoji saw a large increase in use that year.

Today, more than 3,000 emojis exist, including 117 new emojis that were introduced in 2020. Some of the newest arrivals include a toothbrush, green bell pepper, people hugging, bubble tea, Transgender flag, a black cat, and more.

Emojis in today’s remote environment

Already, many companies in the tech space have dispersed workforces. But at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many more workforces went remote—not knowing when (or if) they’d return to the office. 

Helping ease the transition were emojis. 

With the absence of face-to-face interactions, emojis help lighten the conversations on virtual platforms like Slack, says Brad Touesnard, founder of SpinupWP, a modern cloud-based server control panel designed for WordPress.

“Written messages can come across as cold and abrupt,” Touesnard says. “To counteract this we encourage the use of emojis to let people express their personality and humor.”

Over time, his team, which is fully remote, has developed their own custom emojis based around company culture and inside jokes. 

Research backs the idea that emojis can help build camaraderie. If you get a warm feeling when you see a smiley emoticon it could be linked to the fact that our brains process emojis in a similar way that we process human faces, according to research. Also, eight of 10 people surveyed for  Adobe’s 2019 Emoji Trend Report believe that emoji users are more friendly and approachable.

So, what’s next for emojis? 

Software engineers and developers have been working to make the database of emojis more inclusive. The iOS 14.5 added new emojis in 2021, with mixed skin tone support for variations of the kissing couple emoji and the couples with a heart emoji. Up until now, they had been available in a default Simpson yellow on most major platforms.

Also, you can now create your very own emoji. Imoji is a free app for iOS and Android that can morph any picture into a custom emoji that you can share with your friends.

Top 10 emojis

While new emojis are rolled out every year, some are classics. These are the Top 10 emojis sent on IOS, according to Emojipedia.org.

  • 😂

  • ❤️

  • 😭

  • 😍

  • 😘

  • 🙄

  • 💀

  • 😊

  • 😩

  • 🤔