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Apple’s New Diverse Emoji Won’t Work On Android

Racially diverse emoji won't becoming anytime soon to many of the phones near you, so they're guaranteed to create more racially charged controversy than they'll…

When it comes to diversity in general, change happens slowly – and new racially diverse emoji are no different. Emojis emigrated from their native Japan to the rest of the world via iOS 5 in late 2011 and were quickly received to wide popular acclaim. Their popularity has only increased since then, as reflected by Apple's decision to enable emojis by default in iOS 8. So everyone was excited when, in March 2014, Apple pledged to create racially diverse emoji. Seems like a relatively easy way to promote racial harmony in our digital lives, right? Wrong! These just-announced racially diverse emoji won't be coming anytime soon to many of the phones near you.

To understand why, you need to know a thing or two about the technical infrastructure supporting emoji. Computers transmit data in a different form than their end users see it. A set of standards called Unicode governs how data about characters gets used across compliant operating systems, and how that data is rendered visually.  Unicode rolled out standards regarding racially diverse emoji, called the "skin tone modifier," and now Apple is poised to be the first operating system to implement them. But it remains unclear as to when Google will begin supporting the skin tone modifier in Android.

Notice that already emoji look different on Android and iOS machines, because there is some flexibility in how the basic emoji can be drawn. The emoji will continue to look different as Android users migrate to versions of their operating system that support the Unicode skin tone modifier. But there's no skin tone modifier-inclusive Android version on the horizon yet, and Android updates are notoriously slow at trickling down to users anyways. Currently, as reported in Business Insider, almost nobody is using the latest version of Android. So even if Google supported the skin tone modifier beginning in an Android release available tomorrow, it would be years before most Android phones could show that progressive, diverse array of smiling multiracial human faces.

Although Apple's PR team specifically explained that "these racially diverse emoji can only be guaranteed to appear on iOS 8.3" (rumored to become available in March), don't expect real-life users to grasp this. Instead, just wait for the internet outrage machine to spin into furious action when Apple users text brown- or black-skinned emoji people to their Android-using friends, and the images fail to load! That little blank box that shows up on your phone when a character fails to render couldn't possibly be any less culturally sensitive – or any more politically incorrect. The emoji defaulting back to a white face (when the one that an iOS user sent looked black) isn't any better. The bloggy screeds about new technologies, once again, erasing "people of color" will never end. Google will be accused of cultural colonialism not only in the Bay area but now in their own customer's pockets.

Don't say we didn't warn you. At least the all-white emoji are an obviously limited one-size-all representation of human bodies. Now, no good Unicode deed is going to go unpunished, and new racially diverse emoji will create more controversy than they'll solve.

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