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Emoji will become more racially diverse in 2015. On Monday the Unicode Consortium, the nonprofit in charge of setting and developing internet coding languages, released a proposed draft for the forthcoming Unicode 8.0 update, which would allow users to choose between five possible skin tones when selecting one of the 151 humanoid emoji pictograms. Currently, virtually all of these emoji characters have pale skin.
“People all over the world want to have emoji that reflect more human diversity, especially for skin tone,” Google’s Mark Davis and Apple’s Peter Edberg write in their draft. “Five symbol modifier characters that provide for a range of skin tones for human emoji are planned for Unicode Version 8.0 … These characters are based on the six tones of the Fitzpatrick scale, a recognized standard for dermatology.”
The Fitzpatrick scale, developed by Harvard University dermatologist Thomas B. Fitzpatrick in 1975, classifies all human skin colors according to five types, from pale white to dark brown and black. Accordingly, the five proposed emoji modifiers would allow users to give their character pictorials a variety of skin tones.
This isn’t the first time emoji have been modified to make the icons more inclusive. In 2012, same-sex couple emoji were introduced, and earlier this year Oju Africa, a division of the Mauritius-based cell phone manufacturer Mi-Phone, launched an emoticon app of its own featuring characters with darker skin tones. It was pop star Miley Cyrus, of all people, who brought widespread attention to the lack of diversity among emoji in a December 2012 tweet that marked the debut of the “#emojiethnicityupdate” hashtag.
Even with the new skin tone swatches, there’s still room to further diversify the cast of emoji characters. The proposed Unicode 8.0 update will not allow for the depiction of multiracial couples, as the symbol modifiers can only be applied to emojis one at a time.
“Real multi-person groupings include many in which various members have different skin tones,” Davis and Edberg write. “For representing such groupings, users can employ techniques already found in current emoji practice, in which a sequence of emoji is intended to be read together as a unit, with each emoji in the sequence contributing some piece of information about the unit as a whole. Users can simply enter separate emoji characters for each member of the group, each with their own skin tone.”
We predict that the release of the Unicode 8.0 update will also have an immediate and profound impact on the diversity of emoji art history.