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The neoliberal politics of emoji

Earlier this week, Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that his company would be offering consumers even more cute emoji options to its keyboard, expanding the number of hieroglyphs that consumers can use to express themselves. The new emoji announcement didn’t come as a surprise to those of us who follow these sorts of things: after all, the nonprofit Unicode consortium, comprised of many digital industry leaders, had already determined and approved the next set of emoji standard characters long ago. Still, many conservatives online immediately reacted with vitriol to Cook’s announcement, homing in particularly on the inclusion of a hijab-donning emoji.

The culture wars inspired by multicultural emoji are insipid at best, the last gasp of angry racists who falsely equate representation with exclusion. “An emoji wearing a hijab helps some people feel more included in culture — less strange, less othered,” writes my colleague Matt Rozsa in Salon. And yet both sides — the proud liberal multiculturalists praising emoji diversity, and the right-wing white supremacists who see multiculturalism as an attack on their very being — miss the point of the politics of emoji entirely. For if the current collection of 1,144 emoji symbols can be said to have one defining political stance, it is neoliberalism: the logic of the market applied to our communication medium.

In some ways, this is all we should expect of emoji politics. New emoji, like the hijab-wearer, come into existence only because they are voted on by people who work for some of the biggest corporate megaliths in the world, like Microsoft, Apple and Samsung. While anyone can join and vote on future Unicode symbol inclusion, full voting membership costs between $11,000 and $18,000). As a result, the Unicode Consortium’s board is “comprised largely of white men (and a few white women) whose first language was either English or another European language,” Aditya Mukerjee writes in a brilliant article in Model View Culture about the politics of Unicode.“We can’t ignore the composition of the Consortium’s members, directors, and officers, the people who define the everyday writing systems of all languages across the globe.” Mukerjee continues:

“Many of them work for one of the nine organizations that hold full membership in the Consortium. Seven of these nine are US-based technology companies: Adobe, Apple, Google, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, and Yahoo …  These companies have, by their very own admission, workforces that are overwhelmingly white, and leadership and tech teams that are even less represented by racial minorities. These reports lump Indians together under the broad umbrella “Asians”, so while it’s impossible to know exactly how badly various ethnic groups or native languages are actually represented, the data is far from encouraging.”

To Mukerjee’s point, I might add that there are no poor or marginalized people in the consortium and few from outside the worlds of tech or linguistics. This is an interesting technocratic construction for building a system of communication that billions of non-technocrats will use: one would think that in designing communication for everyone, the composition of the designers should be diverse in every possible way. What do a crowd of Western, rich tech executives really know about the communication habits and needs of the Global South, or really anywhere else in the world, for that matter?

The Unicode consortium is not a democratic organ, and thus, emoji are approved and produced via a top-down, technocratic hierarchy. They’re not by us, but they’re for us. But their politics will never stray beyond what is acceptable to their members.

This means that any feminism we read into emoji will be corporate feminism; any identity politics we try to find will be corporate-sanctioned identity politics. A hijab-wearing emoji is acceptable to the companies that promote emoji because a hijab-wearing emoji doesn’t change their ability to sell us products. I’ll eat my words the day I see a drone bomber, a picket sign, or any depiction of poverty in emoji form.

The ethnic diversity of emoji — or rather, the lack thereof — is slowly being corrected, but we can’t say the same for economic diversity. Indeed, we should attack the myth that emoji are “inclusive” in any non-superficial way. Looking at the state of our planet, around 800 million people, over 10% of humans, suffer from hunger — and yet there is no emoji to symbolize undernourishment. 17% of humans on Earth live in a region defined by conflict, and yet there is no warlord emoji, no grenade emoji and no tomahawk missile emoji. The scant symbols of violence are rendered as harmless cartoons: a Looney Tunes-esque bomb, a gun that looks like a green water pistol. The emoji for expressing illness are extremely limiting: there’s a person with a thermometer in their mouth, and one of someone with a bandage over their head.

When it comes to expressing our position in society, what do emoji offer to workers, to those who are marginalized? There are exactly twenty professions represented in emoji, though it’s not exactly a zeitgeist of the world labor market. Rather, the professions depicted are largely professional-class jobs: there’s a judge, a guard, police officer, detective, scientist, office worker, doctor, and laptop-toting “technologist.” There’s also a levitating businessman. For depicting only twenty-ish jobs — depending if you count all the sports emoji as professions — most are rarefied and high-paying careers. How many rockstars or astronauts do you know?


“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it,” George Bernard Shaw, playwright and political thinker, once wrote. The emoji universe offers ample room to express petty patriotism: indeed, there are over 250 flag emoji, meaning around one-fifth of emoji are devoted to the project of nationalism. Unsurprisingly, there are a number of colorful depictions of aristocratic culture, including a princess and a prince, a crown, a “women’s hat” that resembles what one might wear to the Kentucky Derby, along with a top hat and an array of symbols of shopping and consumption, from credit cards to money sacks to shopping bags to jewelry to lipstick to a purse, handbag, and a clutch. Wouldn’t want to confuse those.

Moreover, there are nine emoji that show different facial expressions, but on a cat. You know, like, for when you want to express your emotions — but as a cat.

Despite some interesting political applications — such as emoji being used to organize a strike among workers who did not all speak the same language — the emotions that emoji can express are shallow at best. More often than not they substitute for more vivid, refined ones: an emoji tear instead of the actual labor of sympathy. As they appear on our phones, there is no subtlety: emoji are a commodification of genuine expression. In that sense, they perfectly resemble the market economy that created them, and which has turned everything it can into a commodity. The market has come at last to commodify our feelings.

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