Why 140 Characters, When One Will Do? Tracing The Emoji Evolution

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You may have heard that 250 more emojis, the little smiley face icons and other symbols you can send in text messages, are coming to a cellphone near you.

The story of the emoji starts in Japan in the mid-1990s. Back then, pagers were all the rage with teenagers.

The ability to send an image of a cartoon heart was one of the special features on Docomo pagers. That's widely believed to be the first instance of an emoji.

"I first used emoji in the late 1990s," says Takehiro Ariga, an editor at the Japanese trend magazine Nikkei Trendy. "I was a high school student, and that was my first mobile phone."

Ariga says emojis caught on like wildfire in Japan because they helped clarify the meaning of text messages and avoid misunderstandings. "It is very natural that people want to communicate in other ways other than normal characters," Ariga says.

Docomo added more and more symbols. But back then, Docomo emojis worked only on Docomo phones. The company's competitors had their own characters. And when texts were exchanged across different devices, users saw "garbage characters."

Enter the Unicode Consortium. The group manages the Unicode Standard, which contains code for displaying characters like letters, math symbols and Chinese pictograms. It's meant to ensure messages sent on phones and computers appear the same on both ends.

"It's intended to cover all characters for all languages that have ever been written down through all of history," says Ken Whistler, a technical director at the Unicode Consortium.

That means everything from the letter A to ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. So the problems faced by Japanese consumers when their kitten emoji text messages showed up as junk characters on their friends' phones spurred the consortium to add emojis to its Unicode Standard.

"The work on that actually started in 2007 and it took until 2010 when the first big collection of those got added to the standard," Whistler says.

Since then, the collection has been updated. Apple added a Unicode emoji keyboard to iOS 5 in 2011. And the rest is history.

As for the new batch of emojis? There are 250 being rolled out over the summer. Some of the new ones: a "chipmunk," a "man in business suit levitating" and the Hindu religious symbol "Om." There's also one that promises to be universally understood: "Reversed hand with middle finger extended."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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