"The four building blocks of the universe are fire, water, gravel and vinyl." -- Dave Barry
My identity is built upon a dusty stack of vinyl records.
Buried within it are the David Bowie albums that I inherited from my mother, which formed my connection to both her and the sound of the electric guitar. The experimental noise EPs that forged friendships at wild concerts in tiny basements. Polyvinyl chloride gems in cardboard sleeves curated from flea-markets in Berlin, Dublin, and Amsterdam. Classic Fela Kuti and Éthiopiques LPs that remind me of my travels in Lagos and Addis Ababa.
Some of these records bear my own name; self-released slabs of wax from a music project layered with memories of touring in the snow through Belgium, Switzerland and France.
This is my universe.
Recently I unearthed part of it. Fifty long-lost editions of Alamut, a limited edition vinyl picture disc I released in 2011, uncovered in the corner of my cellar. Upon discovering the trove, I drafted a quick message to my best friends - phone in one hand, LPs in the other - and had an immediate realisation.
There is no emoji for vinyl.
Lovers of the Minidisc have 💽. Kids who cut their teeth on CDs have 💿. But vinyl lovers? Enthusiasts of the format that connects Delta Blues to psychedelic rock? And Studio 54 dance music with the Bronx birth of hip hop? Nothing.
The fourth building block of the universe is missing from the internet's universal language, emoji.
So, I went looking for the reason why this part of my identity didn’t exist as a textable ideogram. What I found was a story about a new language whose future is as fiercely contested as its past. It is a story that starts with Nabokov and ends with Netflix.
In 1969, the New York Times interviewed Vladimir Nabokov, who said, "I often think there should exist a special typographical sign for a smile–some sort of concave mark, a supine round bracket."
Nabokov is often referenced as the inventor of the emoticon. Yet, two years earlier, the May 1967 issue of Reader's Digest showcased the concept. And 88 years earlier, the emoticon featured in Puck magazine as typographical art. Ideas are cheap, Vladimir.
Others support the idea that Scott E. Fahlman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is in fact the true inventor of the emoji. And indeed, he may be the first person to have used the head-tilt smiley with this message posted to an online electronic bulletin board at 11:44 a.m. on 19 September 1982.
Yet the idea of visual representations of language became hardcoded into computer usage in the early 1970s inside PLATO - the first distributed, computer-based learning system. PLATO users were using emoticons online as early as 1972. By 1976, they were practically an art form.
In 1999, emoji went mainstream when Shigetaka Kurita designed a set of 176 emoji for the Japanese mobile phone company NTT DOCOMO.
But in 2010, emoji went global. Yasuo Kida and Peter Edberg, two Apple engineers, submitted an official proposal to adopt 625 new emoji characters into the Unicode Standard. Today emoji has evolved into a set of 3,521 symbols. Yet, there is still no emoji for vinyl.
So who decides what becomes an emoji?
Nine technology companies, two governments and two universities. The Unicode Consortium. That's who.
Adobe, Apple, Yat, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Netflix, SAP, Salesforce, the Sultanate of Oman (Ministry of Aqwaf and Religious Affairs), the Government of India, Tamil Virtual Academy, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Each of these members pays between $14,000 and $21,000 a year. There are no other requirements. If you have $21,000, you can join too. Each member gets to vote on which emoji is included in the next release.
To submit an emoji for the consideration of this council, one must provide an image and a lengthy set of application details for review. These include evidence for the expected usage level (using search engine data), an argument for how it breaks new ground, and - ideally - the presence of notable metaphorical references or symbolism.
Requests cannot be open-ended, already representable, brand logos, "transient" or overly specific. There is already an emoticon for an 🦉. Thus the Unicode Consortium views proposals for additional species of 🦉negatively.
This process is understandable. Emoji is probably the fastest growing language in the history of humankind. There need to be standards. And anyone can submit an emoji to Unicode.
Enter Emojination, who demand something better. Emojination are Jeanne Brooks (Ecosystem Architect), Jennifer 8. Lee (Airtable Master) and Yiying Lu (Artist). Since 2015, they have been trying to "make emoji approval an inclusive, representative process. The decision-makers are generally male, white, and engineers. They specialize in encoding. Such a review process certainly is less than ideal for promoting a vibrant visual language used throughout the world."
As a direct result of their campaigning, you now find 🧕, 🥟, 🥦 and 🧬 in your emoji keyboard.
Through these new emoji, people can express concepts and emotions that conventional written language cannot. Across languages, borders and time zones these tiny pictograms are worth a thousand words. They are culture and identity. 🥟 speaks to those who eat jiaozi, gyoza, pierogi, empanada and Cornish pasties.
Emoji diversity is a battleground upon which many important victories have yet to be won. My small victory may be near. Proposals were submitted for 'vinyl record' in 2017, 2019 (twice) and in 2020. One is awaiting prioritisation from the committee, who will be looking at prospective usage, breadth of meaning and distinctiveness before approving it. The Emojination community are collaborating on its inclusion in a future emoji release.
On that day, whether you are into Chicago house or turntablism or collecting vintage 45s, your universal language will have its fourth building block. And you’ll stop using MEDIUM BLACK CIRCLE (U+26AB) ● in messages sent from dusty cellars to friends who have no idea what you are talking about.