This week, I learned that Lil Nas X tweeted about something I helped make. No, it wasn’t an article on The Verge.
It was an emoji.
It was an amazing way to start an otherwise normal Tuesday morning. I wanted to leave my stamp on internet culture someday, and my beloved, two-years-in-the-making yawning face had already done so, less than a day after Apple brought it to iPhones.
My quest started in August 2017, when I listened to the first few minutes of Mark Bramhill’s Welcome to Macintosh podcast series about making an emoji. Bramhill talked to Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge about how the colorful little pictograms first come into the world, and Burge explained that they’re born from proposals submitted to the Unicode Consortium — and that “literally anyone” could make one.
Including me, I thought.
The idea of submitting a proposal for an emoji fascinated me. How could something so intrinsic to internet culture, and so widely used across platforms, be that simple to make? But when I found the proposal requirements, they looked like something I could actually pull together — and it was then I knew I had to try it.
Literally anyone can make an emoji
But which emoji to make? I remember spending a few hours sitting at my kitchen table with my laptop, studying the emoji that were available at the time. I wanted to make something that could stand proudly next to the classics, like the emoji with tears streaming down its eyes, or the wad of cash with wings, or the flame.
At some point, I looked over at my cat. As cats do, he yawned.
I was going to submit the first yawning face emoji.
Motivated, I dove into a proposal, spinning up a meticulously researched, data-backed argument for why a tiny yawning face needed to exist on just about every modern computing platform in the entire world. My key argument: because people yawn all the time, it deserves to be an emoji. It only took a few hours!
My now-fiancée’s sister even chipped in some reference images over the next couple of weeks, which was a lifesaver for me, because I can’t design worth a damn.
I think the final proposal speaks for itself:
I submitted my first draft to the Unicode Consortium in mid-September, leaned back, and prepared for the accolades. I had grand visions of Twitter wars ended (or started) with a well-placed yawn.
Except that within 40 minutes, my visions crashed around me, as Unicode replied that I was missing required info, like a Google Trends search data comparison, that I apparently forgot — and linked me back to the proposal guidelines page I’d already used. Ouch. I resubmitted my proposal a few days later, and then I got to lean back and wait.
And wait. And wait. I
desperately politely asked Unicode for an update in early November, a couple months later, but they couldn’t say when I’d even get feedback. Finally, in mid-November 2017: “The proposal seems well formed,” they said. Well formed! They suggested minor edits, which I submitted three days later.
“The proposal seems well formed”
Then, after more waiting, I heard back in January 2018 — I had been assigned a document number. I didn’t know what that meant, but it sounded official! Like my apartment’s rental agreement. From then on, the yawning face was out of my hands — but it wasn’t long until I got the itch to make another emoji.
My fiancée and I make waffles almost every Saturday, and one day we realized that to our extreme disappointment, there was no waffle emoji. There were already characters to represent a stack of pancakes, a bagel, and a croissant. Where was the waffle, the greatest of all breakfast foods? Having submitted the yawn emoji, I realized I could fix this grave injustice.
I whipped the proposal together in a single day. I asked my fiancée’s sister for help again on a design, and she graciously contributed a few images of waffles, even though the yawn hadn’t been officially approved yet — the potential to be a part of emoji history was enough for her to help. I added my personal waffle recipe to the end of the proposal for a little flourish, and sent it off to Unicode just a few weeks before the deadline for what would become the official set of new emoji for 2019. I got a document number two weeks later, no edits needed, whatever good that might do me.
Here’s the Waffle proposal:
It was back to the waiting game. But one day, during my weekly checks of Unicode’s website to see if there had been any movement on the yawn and the waffle, I stumbled upon a tracker of all of the proposals that have ever been submitted to Unicode, and it had some surprising data.
For how widely emoji are used, I was blown away at how few proposals had been submitted. At the time I’m writing this, that tracker lists 1,120 proposals. But for how widely emoji are used — Emojipedia reported in 2017 that, on Facebook Messenger, an average of five billion emoji are sent every day — you’d think there would be more?
Mark Davis, the president of the Unicode Consortium, told me after this story was published that the tracker doesn’t include “a lot” of proposals that weren’t well-formed or ones that never got updated after Unicode sent recommendations to the proposer. But even if there have been thousands of proposals that aren’t officially counted (and I would suspect that number is much lower), it still seems like there have been a shockingly low volume of submissions.
If I’m right that the volume of proposals is still pretty low, I may have actually lucked out — when I went looking for my own proposals, I saw there have been four different waffles submitted to Unicode, but mine was the only one still under consideration. When I asked the Consortium, they told me they don’t comment on specific selections. (I’m sure it was because of the waffle recipe.)
Finally, on February 5th, 2019, nearly a year and a half since my emoji quest began, I learned whether I would make my mark on the internet.
It was just after lunchtime. I was checking my email before settling into my post-lunch shift at Techmeme, where I worked at the time. Right at the top of my inbox, to my surprise, I saw an email from the official Emojipedia newsletter with the subject line: First Look: The 2019 Emoji List. I knew this email would fulfill my dreams or dash them to pieces.
Nervously, I opened it. 230 new emoji had been approved for 2019, the email read. I clicked the link to the full list, and there they were. Both my yawning face and waffle had been accepted — and were featured in the announcement post header. Elated, I went back to the email and scrolled down. Both emoji were on the thumbnail for Emojipedia’s video recapping all the new winners, too! I had to get to work in 20 minutes, so the celebration with my fiancée was short-lived, but I was happy to see Techmeme had already unwittingly recognized my work by the time I got there. (There was also ice cream later that night.)
My fiancée and I eagerly followed all the coverage of the new emoji in the days after the announcement. My favorite was an image BuzzFeed shared on Facebook of LeBron James surrounded by what are clearly his favorite new emoji of 2019:
Once the thrill of the fact that my emoji would actually be appearing on every major computing platform in the world wore off, I knew there was more waiting ahead. Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook, and other vendors take months to finalize their emoji designs and implement them on their platforms. And new emoji never really make much of an impact for me personally until Apple adds them to its devices.
I expected to have to wait until the fall to see Apple’s take on the new emoji, but the company did a surprise July reveal to show off its designs. It was really exciting to see — it was the first time I could really visualize what my emoji would look like when my friends and family could finally send them.
In my months of waiting, I regularly checked Emojipedia to see what the final designs looked like from each vendor. I’m happy with the yawning face, as it looks similar across platforms (I like Twitter’s the best because I think it almost looks standoffish, which seems perfect for Twitter), and it’s pretty close to the design in my proposal.
The waffle’s design is more... controversial
The waffle’s design is more... controversial. My proposal had a round waffle with butter on top, but most platforms opted to make a square waffle with butter on top. The designs look fine, but this isn’t how I make waffles — mine are round. Apple’s waffle is round, like my proposed design, though it has no butter — but I never have butter on my waffles anyway. (It’s too much work to spread, IMO.)
While waiting for the yawning face and waffle to come out, I kept my emoji-making skills sharp. I submitted more emoji proposals. I started a list of the many ideas for proposals I still want to do (as well as the dozens of requests slung my way by friends and family). I even helped somebody who emailed me out of the blue to mentor him on his proposal for a chainsaw.
And finally, this week, with the release of iOS 13.2, I got to experience something I had been anticipating for months — texting my family to update their phones, and seeing them all use the new emoji.
I will say that the proposal requirements have changed slightly since my first submission, and you can no longer use random people asking for an emoji on social media as evidence that particular emoji should exist. But Unicode’s guidelines are also better-defined now, section by section, with the exact list of what you’ll need to submit.
So, if you want to try your own emoji proposal — and you should! — it’s easier than ever. You’ll still have to wait a long time before you can actually use that emoji on your device, assuming your proposal wins out, but the process is well worth the chance to make your own little addition to internet culture.
And there’s not a lot of competition right now. 🧇
Update November 1st, 1:13PM ET: Added information about the proposal tracker from the president of Unicode.