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Emojis and Emoticons: A History of Digital Expression

Updated: Apr 1

A picture is worth a thousand words, they say. Emojis are a living testament to that.  Emojis have exploded in popularity, becoming an essential part of how we communicate today. They save time, add emphasis to written messages, and convey emotions instantly. But where did these expressive little icons come from? This post dives into the fascinating history of emojis and emoticons, exploring their evolution and cultural impact.


From Simple Punctuation to Smiley Faces: The Birth of Emoticons

The story of emojis begins with emoticons, creative combinations of punctuation marks used to express emotions in text-based messages. In 1982, Scott Fahlman, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, is credited with creating the first smiley emoticon :-) to denote humour in online messages.


Emoticons quickly took hold online, evolving into various forms like =) , (^_^) , and the ever-popular ¯_(ツ)_/¯.


=) , (^_^) , [o_0] , ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ . , <( ^.^ )> , ^오^


These playful expressions added personality and nuance to emails, message boards, and early online chats.


The Rise of Emojis: A Visual Revolution

Fast forward to the late 1990s in Japan, where mobile phone companies introduced a new way to express ourselves – emoji (from the Japanese "e" for picture and "moji" for character). Shigetaka Kurita's 1999 set of 176 emojis for NTT DoCoMo's i-mode platform is considered a pivotal moment. These emojis were simple, designed on a 12x12 pixel grid and inspired by manga art and kanji characters.


But their charm was undeniable. Emojis offered several advantages over emoticons:

  • Visual Appeal: Emojis transcended language barriers, conveying emotions and ideas universally.

  • Convenience: They saved time and effort compared to typing out detailed descriptions.

  • Emotional Connection: Emojis added a layer of personality and emotion to digital communication.


The Ever-Expanding Emoji Universe

Today, emojis are a global phenomenon. The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation, oversees the standardisation and release of new emojis.

  • There are now over 3,600 emojis in existence, featuring a diverse range of characters, skin tones, objects, and even a recent addition – the mosquito emoji!

  • Regular updates ensure emojis reflect our evolving world.


2020 Emojis release

2020 saw the release of 117 new emojis - version 13.0. The new emojis featured more inclusive icons and objects.



2021 Emojis release

2021 was set to see the version 14.0 release. This was however interrupted by COVID-19. The Unicode Consortium, however, had a mini-release, version 13.1, of about 200 new emojis which featured a heart on fire, a mending heart, and more skin tones of the couple with heart emojis among others.


On September 14th 2021, version 14.0 was released. It featured a total of 838 new characters. 87 of these were new emojis and 75, new skin tones. The release included mixed skin tones for the handshake 🤝 , a saluting face, a mirrored disco ball, a biting lip, and a few more.

2021 Emojis released

Support for Emoji 14.0 is available on iOS 15.4, Google's Android 12L, Twitter and Facebook.

The rest of the platforms are expected to follow suit throughout the year 2022.


2023 Emojis release

Version 15.1 (released in September 2023) brought exciting new additions like a flaming phoenix, nodding heads, and a variety of emojis depicting walking in different directions.


Looking to the Future: Emojis Here to Stay

With continuous updates and ever-growing popularity, emojis are here to stay. They're not just for texting anymore; they're used in marketing, social media, and even have their own self-titled movie!


Understanding the history and impact of emojis and emoticons can help you leverage their power in your communication strategy. Whether you're developing a social media post or writing an email, emojis can add personality, clarity, and emotional connection to your message.


So next time you use an emoji, take a moment to appreciate its rich history and the cultural impact it holds!

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