The geopolitics of emojis

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We tend to think of the Internet as a lawless space where pretty much anything goes. But there is at least one reservation carved out of our digital jungle that is surprisingly tightly controlled: emojis, those smiley yellow faces and red love hearts so beloved by the visually expressive, inventive teenagers and Instagram influencers.

At present, Unicode Consortium, a non-profit group run by some of the world's biggest technology firms, maintains an exclusive grip on what constitutes an emoji. There are good technical reasons for this. If emojis, like scripts, are to work across rival platforms they need a common code and keyboard, even if pictographs are sometimes rendered in different designs by different operators. For example, the "face with tears of joy" laughing faces on WhatsApp are subtly different from those on Google.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2019, with the headline The geopolitics of emojis. Subscribe