Getting it’s world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival on the 28th of April is the documentary Picture Character. The rapid rise of emoji (Japanese for “picture character”) is a global phenomenon without precedent. Their widespread use and ability to convey complex messages have not only cemented emoji’s place as an emerging digital language, but prompted difficult questions about the creation of a language and digital communication’s fraught ties to identity and inclusion.
In Picture Character, Directors Martha Shane and Ian Cheney lead viewers on a deep dive into the ever evolving world of picture characters, from their humble beginnings in Japan to mobile keyboards the world over, and shed fresh light on the private consortium that approves new emoji offerings and the individuals fighting to make the language more representative of its billions of users.
The directors Martha Shane & Ian Cheney noted “When we embarked on directing this documentary about emoji, we anticipated creating a delightful, lighthearted romp through a strange and quirky set of digital symbols. We’d read articles comparing emoji to Cuneiform, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Chinese pictographs, all of which sounded fascinating, and yet the role emoji played in our own lives and communications felt singular. A simple emoji at the end of a text had the power to transform the tone of a text message, changing a day for better or worse, accordingly. We wanted to understand the history of these tiny, colourful icons and how they came to have such outsized power over us.
What we couldn’t predict at that time was how the creators of emoji, especially the creators of the hijab emoji, mate emoji, and period emoji, would come to shape our story. As we witnessed these people from such diverse backgrounds fighting tirelessly for their emoji, we found ourselves asking deeper questions: Who should decide which emoji are added to the set? And can the full diversity of the world be represented in a limited set of digital symbols?
These questions echoed broader and more pressing debates happening all around us about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley and its impact, about how technology is changing the way we communicate, and about who should have control over digital communication platforms. And yet whenever we found our questions becoming too abstract, a simple glance through an emoji set reminded us of the humour and absurdity at the heart of the topic.
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