For the first most popular moment this month emoji on Twitter it wasn’t the laugh-cry-, but ? – mouth open, tears flowing, overcome with anguish or relief, in a way that can only be described as pandemic mood. As people spend so much time behind their screens, the emoji they use to express themselves paint a picture of life in the age of Covid, in all its many phases. The microbe emoji has become synonymous with the novel coronavirus and saw its highest use last year. Symbols like the masked face, ?, burst onto social media in the spring and summer as public health officials recommended the use of the mask in real life. Other emoji like the airplane, ✈️, were hardly used.
Recently, another emoji is on the rise: the syringe, ?. Originally designed to represent donating blood as part of the first set of emojis in 1999, the syringe took on additional significance during the pandemic. “The initial peak in use came in December 2020, just as the different types of vaccines were starting to be announced,” says Keith Broni, deputy emoji manager at Emojipedia, an emoji reference website. Emojipedia tracks how emoji are used in popular culture, primarily analyzing how they appear in public tweets. His syringe analysis shows other emoji associated with Covid remain more popular, but less and less: Broni says ? appeared five times more often than ? in public tweets this time last year; now it’s only twice as often. Where “previously it was used to discuss blood donation, drug use and tattooing,” Broni says, the syringe now appears frequently next to words such as “Covid”, “vaccines” and “Pfizer” . It is also often associated with ?, perhaps symbolizing a deep relief that is difficult to put into words.
The transition from syringe to vaccine replacement is not entirely seamless. The original icon features a bright red barrel and a drop of blood squirting from the needle – not exactly the image of the inoculation. So, with a historic campaign to vaccinate the public against Covid-19 underway, Apple has redesigned the emoji, and it has been rolled out with the iOS release 14.5 on Monday. The new syringe replaces the blood color palette with a more versatile blue-gray shade and removes blood droplets.
Apple’s transformation of emojis is rare, but not unprecedented. In 2016, the company redesigned its gun emoji to be less realistic and more toy-like; now it looks like a lime green water pistol. The company also modernized its bagel emoji, in 2018, after people complained about not having cream cheese.
Redesigning an existing emoji is much easier than add new. Proposals must be approved by the Unicode Consortium, an organization that governs standards in web text, before designers from Apple, Google, Samsung, Twitter, Facebook and other platforms decide how they will look on their platforms. -respective shapes. The process from proposal to implementation can take years. Because it takes so long to get new emoji on screens, Unicode largely frowns on trendy ideas. This is why, for example, the elbow hump emoji never did it on your keyboard, despite being an early symbol of social distancing. There’s also no hand sanitizer emoji; bar soap should suffice.
Apple’s revamped syringe unfolds alongside a handful of entirely new emoji, including a new exhaling face emoji and a new face with spiral eyes. There are fewer new emoji than usual, in part because the pandemic disrupted regular Unicode Consortium meetings. (You can see the full list here.) Other platforms will be showcasing their new emoji later this year, though it’s unclear how many of them will be redesigning the syringe as well.
Broni says the use of emojis has increased overall during the pandemic – a possible side effect of people spending more time behind the screen. “People are using emojis more than ever to reflect the world around them,” says Broni. And the way people use them, like any language, is constantly changing. But as for the long-term effects of the pandemic on the way we use our emoji? “I should give her an emoji ? Person shrugging right now.”
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