In a world that feels more divided than ever, there are very few things in existence that allow some sense of cohesiveness. One of these universal concepts is the emoji. Emoji have actually been around for quite some time, but the past decade has proved their prominence in ways unimaginable. With Picture Character, which translates to emoji in Japanese, filmmakers Martha Shane and Ian Cheney delve into just how complex these charming icons have become. Not only that, but the documentary poses very crucial questions about the future of emoji, as well as showcasing just how important some of them are.
Yes, emoji may seem childish at first glance and used mainly in text messages to elicit certain emotion. It wouldn’t seem as if it could be impactful in any way other than making jokes using the eggplant or the peach. But in reality, emoji can, and should, be viewed as a form of language. Linguists have compared them to hieroglyphs of ancient Egypt, and in a way, they are on a similar path. One linguist in the film poses the thought, “Humans have an innate urge to create language”, and emoji is simply the product of this necessity.
Where Picture Character diverts from simply being a playful documentary about emoji and its creation is where it shines. Three individuals from different corners of the globe are followed in their quest for representation through emoji; a Saudi teenager hopes for a hijab emoji, an Argentinian group looking to get maté added, and a foundation dedicated to children’s rights petitioned for period pants to be included. Of course there was backlash from the general population because of the Internet’s fundamentals, yet all three prospects are successful, some more than others. And many will question why something like this is so important, so Picture Character does its best to show exactly why. There are two paths of thought with the future of emoji. It will either destroy language as we know it, or could blossom into a more universal language that benefits all.
Emoji is already used by ages that range from those in kindergarten to those upwards of 70. It is a massively beneficial tool for language barriers, technological barriers, and more. So if emoji are used on such a scale, shouldn’t everybody in the world be able to see his or her culture or skin tone represented in this language? Where this problem hits a major roadblock is the Unicode Consortium, the committee that approves all proposed emoji. A language controlled by committee is something that hasn’t been seen before, and it seems that changes need to be implemented. One member jokingly theorizes bias from members towards vegetables, thus not allowing those certain emoji to be passed. Whether this is truly a joke or not, it speaks to a fundamental problem with the idea of a committee dictating an entire language.
Michael Everson, a linguist who is responsible for many emoji, including the middle finger, provides a claim that speaks for Picture Character as a whole. He says “The Internet was founded on a libertarian ethos, so anyone should be able to input any emoji that they want”. Freedom of speech is the foundation of the Internet, and in a way, emoji being rejected could be seen as a violation. But quite frankly, as the head of the Unicode Consortium points out, not much can be done. The language is limited by the technology it resides on. If every emoji were added, it would become impossible to find simple ones, therefore reducing the overall ease of the language. The problem presented is one with no proper solution as of yet, and attempts to solve it seem moot currently. But that isn’t to say petitioning for diversity within emoji is wrong.
On the contrary, that seems like the most logical first step in the equation. As it currently stands, this predicament is unsolvable. Yet the small victories Picture Character follows are wildly powerful and serve as a testament to the power of representation. While the addition of certain emoji may be minuscule to some users, it empowers entire cultures, countries, and genders to have a sense of belonging in one of the most used technologies ever. From songs about emoji to films like The Emoji Movie, emoji can serve as a basic form of entertainment. Yet on a larger level, they can clearly represent much more. Nobody can confidently say in what direction emoji are headed, but Picture Character does a fantastic job at showing where the modern language resides at this very moment.
Picture Character is celebrating its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival and is part of the Spotlight Documentary section.