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Emoji diversity is improving but needs work

There’s always a buzz of excitement from Apple product users when a new set of emojis is released, with some additions being more impactful than others.

When Apple released a range of skin colors for emojis in 2015, consumers were excited with the progression in representation. There’s still quite a long way to go, however, before the tiny digital depictions properly represent all groups and people.

Saumya Pant, a media arts and studies lecturer who focuses on communication strategies for social change, thinks that in a world filled with such diversity, it’s important to view your differences as strengths instead of weaknesses.

“I think we have shied away from issues of difference for a long time, because we think there’s weakness in difference,” Pant said. “If you look at it from an angle of strength and empowerment and feeling comfortable in my own skin, then I want to be represented for exactly the way I am.”

Pant believes the addition of more inclusive emojis can be a small change in the digital world that may prove to be extremely important. 

There are different types of people when it comes to relating to technology. First is a digital native, or someone who was brought up in a time in which technology was thriving and has been familiar with it and the internet from an early age. The second is a digital immigrant, or someone who was raised in a time without technology and has needed to transition into the age of technology and become used to it.

Pant feels that emoji representation is especially important for digital natives, who overly use emojis as a way to emote and reflect on how they’re feeling when they use them. Pant believes it’s the job of an emoji to have multiple settings and variations to more accurately act as a language.

Pant also feels that because the world is motivated through a profit-making lens, every small action has an impact on the way someone makes money. 

“The people who create emojis want their dollars out of it,” Pant said. “My concern more is, how are they representing me in their money-making emoji innovation? Are they really putting their money at work to represent the people who are paying?”

Apple can be applauded for its progress in the representation field, though it’s no secret that there are emojis that should be available that are missing from the library altogether. Aside from the missing emojis, there are still some key problems in the sense of unintended discrimination.

When selecting an emoji that requires a certain skin tone, the process requires clicking on the emoji and changing the setting to be one of five skin tones, ranging from pale white to dark black. 

Though the limited choice of only five skin tones can pose a problem altogether, the main issue with the setting is the default before the skin tone is officially chosen. The default skin tone is a light yellow, which leans a little more toward a white color. That begs the question of why the default automatically leans toward white.

“How is that default creating a world where we appreciate and accept difference?” Pant said. “To me, that is saying ‘The default is that color, now I welcome you to adjust it to your skin tone.’ It’s not helping us to talk about diversity and acceptance, and it’s just giving me an added color to shut me up.”

Faith Lucas, a freshman studying integrated media, believes the people who spend between $500 to $1,000 on a device should have their culture or something as simple as their skin tone represented, and thinks there’s more work to be done beyond the five skin tone options that are offered. 

“It doesn’t make sense for more skin tones to not be an option when there’s clearly ways of accomplishing that,” Lucas said. “It seems very exclusive at the moment. Progress is progress, and yes, they have been adding stuff, but there’s still a long way to go.”

Olivia Mayernik, a freshman studying communication studies, thinks emojis have done a good job at expanding its library, but they need more representation in other groups like gender and hair. 

“I think the inclusion of personalized skin tone is a huge part of representation that Apple can improve on,” Mayernik said. “However, I think they can do better in other aspects, too, like gender and hair styles to relate better to all different people.”

In the future, Pant hopes to see more representation and diversity, and a larger connection to various emotional statuses. Pant expects to see more representation in terms of gender, sexuality, class and socioeconomic status. She also thinks more people should be included in the conversation of what to create next, like the current petition going around for Apple to create an emoji with an afro that was started by a freelance writer named Rhianna Jones. 

“I don’t think their research goes beyond their own office and standard, when they should be thinking about who needs it and who it’s satisfying,” Pant said. “It’s imperative for emojis to convey feelings in ways that are sensitive, sensible, mindful, but also joyful.” 

Lucas also would like to see more change and progression in the emoji library, particularly with expanding the choice of skin tone.

“On Photoshop, there’s a wheel where you can mix colors and choose them by creating them yourself, so people could create their own personal shade of their skin instead of choosing between a super light or super dark emoji,” Lucas said. “It’s not good for the culture and progression in America and around the world to lack proper representation.”

Pant knows that though there’s a long way to go in completing emoji representation, emojis are still an infant language that is evolving. Their development will continue to be an ongoing process. 

“You are breathing technology, you don’t even think about it and you click it,” Pant said. “So take a second every now and then to pause to contemplate, because you are the creators of this future, and it’s right at your fingertips. These are very important conversations, and let’s applaud emojis for trying to be diverse and representative, but let’s not so quickly settle into it and be comfortable, that we stop trying to push them to be better than what they’re doing.”


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