Technology Column

Updated iOS emojis bring more messaging complications

/ The Daily Orange

The release of iOS 10.2, which is projected to likely come to iPhones around the world in December, will possibly be the biggest update to the platform’s emojis yet.

Emojis have been a staple of Apple’s mobile operating system since the 2011 release of iOS 5. And despite their short history in the United States, the icons are already a cultural phenomenon, earning Words of the Year, big-studio movie releases, pillows, UNO editions and online search engines in the few years they have been around.

But emojis are as central to iPhone as iPhone is to emojis. Apple’s introduction of the images to their mobile platform helped emoji to truly explode worldwide in the 2010s. One of the biggest selling points for iOS 10 in its September release was the updated emojis, with redesigned icons, greater representation and the replacement of the gun emoji with a green water gun. Apple adding new emojis to new updates are a fantastic way to keep emojis fresh and to help the “language” evolve as it needs to.

But an aspect to consider — more important and impactful than an avocado emoji — is the big recurring issue for emoji updates: the fact that emoji are hardly a universal language.

Emojis do technically have a universal language, as they operate under the same Unicode standards that every character in any written language need to play by. Rather than encompassing a different font, like different styles of the “@” symbol may show on different systems, emoji are ambiguous illustrations of expressions. They stand on their own as words rather than parts of a larger phrase and are left to individual interpretation by different users.

The iOS 10.2 platform is expanding the dictionary, bringing in more than 100 brand-new emojis to the library. These include signs of the times like a selfie, a facepalm and a gorilla, along with new and gender-inclusive professions like a scientist, an artist, a David Bowie-inspired singer and a technologist.

Apple’s already stumbled in a major way with this new release — long-beloved by iPhone users around the world, the peach emoji is a suggestive emoji, with a strange rounded “crack” shape running down its center. But in an earlier beta release of iOS 10.2, Apple changed the emoji to look like a more realistic peach, rather than the butt shape we grew to know and love.

If the emoji stayed, users of different versions of the mobile OS might misunderstand or misinterpret the meaning intended in the emoji. Luckily, Apple listened to feedback and changed the emoji back to a design more akin to its strange, original style.

But that doesn’t mean issues like these are so easily solved. Take the gun emoji, which was changed into a water gun in iOS 10. The logic behind the change was sound: reducing the presence of violent, hateful symbols in a generally-playful set of icons — save for the bomb, the cigarette or the sword, but I digress.

Instead, it drew a brand-new double meaning of this previously unambiguous emoji. Imagine a hypothetical scenario where, while inviting a relative to a pool party, you include a water gun emoji to pair up with the theme. If they haven’t yet updated to iOS 10, all they’ll see in place of that emoji is a gun — hardly the message you probably want to send.

And then there’s the case of new emojis. Probably my highest-anticipated new emoji addition is the shrug, which I have on my phone early thanks to the iOS 10.2 public beta. My girlfriend, however, remains on iOS 10.1, which doesn’t have the shrug emoji. Instead of seeing my expression of choice, she instead sees a pair of boxes with question marks along with the male-signifying Mars symbol.

My phone 

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Her phone 

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Kiran Ramsey | Digital Design Editor

This probably seems like a minor issue for now, especially since I’m on a mobile OS that hardly anyone has installed yet. But even when the update comes out, not all mobile users will see it. It’s been about two and a half months since iOS 10 went public, but according to Apple, 37 percent of iOS-running devices are on iOS 9 or older. Don’t expect that group’s reluctance to update to go anywhere once 10.2 comes out.

Emojis as a language is a great concept in theory. What better solution is there to the monotony of online text than images to express our emotions? But with the lackluster install rates of new mobile OS’s along with our own subjective interpretations of emojis, it’s hard to treat them as a universal mode of expression, especially at the rate that they keep changing.

Excuse the cliche, but there’s truth to the idea that a picture is worth a few thousand words. Our own words, though, might not be exactly the same as those of the grandparent that’s now a little concerned about the gun emoji you just sent.

Brett Weiser-Schlesinger is a junior newspaper and online journalism major. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bweisers@syr.edu.

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