Chopsticks, pretzels and avocados, emojified

The report from Emojicon, a conference that took place in San Francisco last week that was devoted entirely to emoji.

Not a day goes by that we don’t throw a burrito, glass of beer or fried chicken emoji into a text message or Instagram post. Now that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) has acquired the first original set of emoji for its permanent collection, communicating with emoji has gotten even more legit.

There are currently about 1,800 characters in the lexicon. Emoji means “picture characters” in Japanese and the original set of just 176 characters was released in 1999. The Japanese mobile phone company NTT DoCoMo created the first set based on designer Shigetaka Kurita’s illustrations depicting hamburgers, beer, zodiac signs and waxing and waning moons. Emoji were translated into Unicode in 2010 and Apple adopted and integrated emoji into its iPhone messaging app a year later, according to Paul Galloway, an architecture and design collections specialist at MoMA.

The original set of 176 emoji designed by Shigetaka Kurita and created by NTT DOCOMO. Photo courtesy of MoMA.
The first set of 176 emoji was designed by Shigetaka Kurita and released by NTT DoCoMo in 1999. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art)

Galloway discussed MoMA’s emoji acquisition at Emojicon last week, a conference in San Francisco devoted entirely to emoji. Adding emoji to the collection fit into MoMA’s larger goal of addressing design in the 21st century, Galloway said. “If we’re going to do that we really have to focus on the tools of designers and how they’re expressing themselves. That’s including everything from video games to websites and interactive software-based works,” he said. “We acquired Björk’s Biophilia, the first app in our collection.”

At Emojicon, attendees were encouraged to pose with props depicting their favorite emoji. I couldn't find the fried chicken drumstick, so settled for 🍺 and 🍖.
Right out of the gate, we were encouraged to hop into the Emojicon photo booth with our favorite emoji. I couldn’t find the fried chicken drumstick, so I settled for the 🍺 and the 🍖.

Roughly 1,000 hackers, web designers, journalists, linguists and artists attended Emojicon. There was a photo booth, a marketplace selling sex toys inspired by food emoji, an exhibition of emoji-themed artwork, a hackathon and a film festival. Workshops and lectures covered subjects from the intellectual property framework of emoji to Taco Bell’s #TacoEmojiEngine on Twitter. Attendees took the stage for emoji karaoke and food was served from the emoji set.

Jeanne Brooks and Jennifer 8 Lee founded Emojicon. Lee already has two great pieces of food work under her belt: “The Fortune Cookie Chronicles” and “The Search for General Tso.” She has also successfully petitioned the Unicode Consortium to add chopsticks, the fortune cookie, the takeout box and the dumpling to the emoji set. Expect to see them on your cell phone and computer keyboards next fall.

Emoji that have a double meaning, are distinctive and popular and not already represented in the set have a good chance of being added, said Mark Davis, the consortium’s president who works on software internationalization at Google. (Don’t submit an application for a birthday cake, for example, because there’s already one of those in the set.) There’s no limit to the number of emoji the consortium is willing to green light each year, though Davis says roughly 70 proposals are filed annually, half of which make the cut.

Proposals are submitted to the Unicode Consortium each October. Applications that are approved are assigned to a committee which helps to flesh out the proposals. In March, beta versions of the emoji are made. In June and July, once the Unicode standard has been updated to reflect the additions, tech companies Google, Facebook, Apple and the like get to work designing their own versions and release updates that include the new emoji. This fall, expect to see emoji for a highball glass with an ice cube, an avocado, a kiwi, a potato, a carrot, a cucumber, bacon and peanuts.

Maksymilian Dabrowski is petitioning the Unicode Consortium to add a pretzel emoji because it is, “one of the most timeless and recognizable baked foods on Earth that is somehow sadly lacking in the emoji set.”
Maksymilian Dabkowski is petitioning the Unicode Consortium to add a pretzel emoji because it is, “one of the most timeless and recognizable baked foods on Earth that is somehow sadly lacking in the emoji set.” Courtesy of Emojicon.

Maksymilian Dabkowski, a linguistics, computer science and philosophy student at Brown University, is petitioning the Unicode Consortium to add a pretzel emoji because it is “one of the most timeless and recognizable baked foods on Earth that is somehow sadly lacking in the emoji set.” The pretzel emoji, he argues, would allow people to convey the feeling of being twisted, knotted or confused — all with a single character. “We even have the idiom of ‘pretzel logic.’ For example, the twist in the pretzel can stand for the a plot twist but it also can be used for other situations which involve some degree of uneasiness or confusion,” Dabkowski said.

Other contenders that you might see in Unicode 10 next year are the sandwich, a stalk of broccoli and one of our favorites here at KCRW, pie. Ricky de Laveaga, a web designer who lives in Los Angeles, is campaigning for the bowl of cereal. “If you look at what cereal is, it’s fascinating: Everyone eats some variety of this ‘something in a bowl’ every morning. That’s some sort of grain with some sort of liquid, or not. Congee, porridge, oatmeal, granola. It just goes on and on,” said de Laveaga. “For me, emoji will always have multiple meanings. They’re like a song or a painting, not something you can look up in the dictionary and get a precise definition for.”

What’s your favorite food emoji? Let us know in the comments below or find us on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Our handle is @KCRWGoodFood.