How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs Up

By Alissa Walker on at

“Screw you Apple, where the goddamn hell is my middle finger emoji?” can soon be conveyed in far fewer characters, thanks to the middle finger emoji that’s coming to your iPhone. But why did it take so long? Here’s how those middle fingers — and all emoji — make their way to your screens.

As you might have seen from those who got hands-on demos of the new iPads and iPhones at this week’s Apple event, the iOS 9.1 update will includes lots and lots of new emoji, including the middle finger. You can see screenshots from the iPad keyboard to spot all them in context. Here’s just a small sampling posted on Emojipedia:

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs Up

If it feels like new emoji are coming faster and more furiously to the tips of our thumbs, you’re right. But how do we “get” new emoji? Where do they come from? This is the complete story of how a middle finger goes from a crowdsourced plea to a programmer’s brain to your Instagram comment.

[Your Symbol Here]

Emoji comes from the Japanese words meaning picture (e), writing (mo), and character (ji). These pictorial symbols originated on Japanese mobile phones around 1999 and quickly became very popular with their users. Here’s a great story at The Verge about Shigetaka Kurita, the designer credited with inventing the first emoji as tiny 12-pixel squares.

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs UpThe first 172 emoji designed by Shigetaka Kurita for DoCoMo

But there was a problem: different mobile carriers kept introducing their own emoji, which weren’t supported by other carriers. It became clear that some organisation needed to be the keeper of emoji in order to make this universal language of images truly universal.

This job fell to the Unicode Consortium, an international group founded in 1991 in charge of managing something called the Unicode Standard, a universal character set. This code-based directory of symbols included decorative characters you might find in typefaces like Zapf Dingbats and Wingdings but also some basic icons and pictograms. The standards team at Unicode handles more than just grinning poops, but also things like language and currency symbols — stuff that actually does help people to share information between cultures. (Not that the turds don’t!)

In 2007 it was decided that emoji would be included in Unicode as well. In 2009 the first batch of emoji (722 characters) were added to Unicode, although some of the simpler characters were already included in Unicode’s symbol directory. That’s also why there are so many Japanese cultural images in emoji: the ones being used by many Japanese carriers got standardised first.

Emoji has become nearly universal (a report earlier this year claimed that half the text on Instagram is emoji) and most operating systems automatically show you the emoji they support, but you’ll have to download an emoji keyboard app to type them. (You can read more about the history and about what is and what is not emoji in this awesome report from Unicode and this excellent FAQ.)

Where is My Taco?

Language is dynamic and new symbols are needed all the time, and even more symbols are needed to fill in the holes. Making Unicode additions is an important job that falls to the Unicode Technical Committee, which meets quarterly to make updates (they also liaise with the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization).

Within this committee is a subcommittee specifically devoted to emoji updates. To explain the process I tapped Unicode Emoji Subcommittee co-chair Mark Davis, who is also the president and cofounder of Unicode. He used to be at Apple and now works in International Architecture at Google. He’s got a coffee cup emoji in his email address.

The Unicode emoji subcommittee regularly approves batches of emoji “candidates” to be standardised. These candidates include the name of the emoji, description, possible meanings, code, as well as drawings for reference. Some of those candidates end up making it into the next Unicode version. So far there have been eight versions (a few of those were actually pre-emoji, meaning the symbols were already part of Unicode), but they’re coming more frequently now. For example, a lot of the new emoji coming to iOS 9.1 were recommended as one of 41 additions in the latest version, Unicode 8.0, which came out in June of this year.

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs UpHere’s the most recent list of potential animal emoji candidates for version 9.0

The subcommittee’s new rationale for what emoji can and should be added is actually quite methodological. Factors taken into consideration include expected usage level (check out this chart of how often certain emoji are used) image distinctiveness, or the need to fill a gap with existing emoji (like until recently there was CHURCH but no MOSQUE). Reading the selection factors makes you think deeply about how we associate meaning to images and is also highly entertaining:

Generality. Is the proposed character overly specific? For example, SUSHI represents sushi in general, even though a common image will be of a specific type, such as Maguro. Adding SABA, HAMACHI, SAKE, AMAEBI and others would be overly specific.

Open-ended. Is it just one of many, with no special reason to favor it over others of that type? For example, there are thousands of people, including occupations (DOCTOR, DENTIST, JANITOR, POLITICIAN, etc.): is there a special reason to favor particular ones of them?

In addition to debating these additions, the Unicode consortium is now listening to you, people of the internet, about what tiny images you need to express yourself. Anyone can submit ideas, and the subcommittee is paying attention to the zeitgeist. An article on Gawker noting the universal clamour for additional skin colours that also proposed designs for some missing emoji was cited in a recent Unicode report.

For example, these are the most requested emojis which were included in Unicode 8.0:

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs Up

All of these will be in Apple’s iOS 9.1 release. It’s kind of amazing—the people demanded a taco, and there will now be a taco. AND a burrito! (Even if some have said the burrito is open-ended, and is therefore a fajita wrap – not a closed-end burrito.)

But some suggestions are more problematic. For example, the committee recently received a compelling proposal for adding symbols for food allergens, Davis told me. “Many of them didn’t have distinctive images, and probably wouldn’t have a high frequency of use. Moreover, the way that allergens are categorised and illustrated varies quite widely, with many different source for different sets. And there is always the problem of someone misinterpreting an emoji, which would be more serious for allergens.”

And then some emoji take on different meanings over time, like the notorious phallic aubergine. There are also controversial emoji. There’s a campaign by gun control advocates to remove the gun from Unicode.

Compatibility is Still a Problem

Unicode may have defined the global standards for emoji but they’re not ones drawing up those Unicorn Faces. What they’re doing is making recommendations, says Davis. “We create and refine them, but it is up to Apple — and other vendors: Windows, Android — to show them with a coloured image and in their keyboard, or just have black and white images, or not support them at all.”

Since it’s up to the operating systems to decide what they’re going to actually support, places like Apple and Microsoft and Google have their own pipelines. Their designers have to draw the characters to fit their own visual language and then program this on the backend. This is called “emoji presentation”. Lately this has become an ongoing process to keep improving them—as you might remember, Apple refined the presentation of quite a few emojis in the iOS 8.3 update, like making the two dancing girls look more like Playboy Bunnies.

But this is where you start to see just how different the same emojis are for every operating system. As you can see over at the master emoji list page, the same emoji sometimes can look a little different across platforms.

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs Up

Every operating system has its own restrictions on colours and size as well as its own graphic personality

Here’s also where there can be quite a lag between when a character is recommended by Unicode and when it actually comes to your screen. If you look at this page you can see which characters were recommended in which version. Davis showed me how spiders (and their webs) were recommended by Unicode 7.0 in 2014 but are just now coming to Apple’s iOS 9.1 release.

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs UpA few of the characters from Unicode 7.0, some of which are already on your iPhone

But that’s nothing compared the yin-yang symbol, which will make its debut in Apple’s emoji for the first time. This took more than 20 years to get to iPhones: The symbol was recommended by Unicode 1.1 — in 1993!

And that points to another issue. In a way, the original problem between Japanese mobile carriers still exists: even though characters are added to one operating system, it doesn’t mean they’ll instantly be universally embraced by all of them. Which means you’ll text a cool new iPhone emoji to someone on an Android phone and they might just get grey rectangles (or whatever your operating system shows) for some truly frustrating moments.

Raising the Middle Finger

If you’re using anything but an iPhone, you already know that the middle finger (U+1F595) is one of those lost-in-translation instances. The flipped-bird was actually approved by the consortium in Unicode version 7.0 and Apple’s just taken a little longer to support it. Windows, in fact, already supports its own version of the middle finger as of earlier this year, as do many other systems. (And as some have noted, other versions are more anatomically correct than Apple’s.)

How the Middle Finger Emoji Finally Got the Thumbs UpMiddle finger comparisons between operating systems via Emojipedia

Why the wait? Was Apple worried about coming across as vulgar? Eh, maybe. But there’s likely a better explanation: Apple is displaying all of them now because it wants its emoji presentation to be more up-to-date than any other operating system.

As Jeremy Burge at Emojipedia confirms, when Apple releases iOS 9.1 next year it will be the first operating system to include all characters in Unicode versions through 8.0 (Unicode version 9.0, which includes bacon, selfie, and 38 more emoji that I wrote about in May, is still in the “candidate” stage and won’t be confirmed until 2016.) This is an admirable goal. It catches Apple users up to all other operating systems while adding a bunch of new emoji that will be the first to debut anywhere. iPhones will offer the best emoji support, which might be a reason for some people to buy them.

Middle finger and friends will not be on your phone for the iOS 9.0 release—all you’ll get on September 16 are some new flags. But sometime next year, you’ll be able to tell anyone you want to fuck off without saying a thing. When you do, stop for a moment and think of everything it took to get us to this important moment.

Follow the author at @awalkerinLA