If you’re thumbing through your phone’s emoji keyboard looking for a pot leaf to text to your friend, keep swiping. You’ll have to settle for a more abstract representation like a puff of smoke because the process behind adding a new emoji is more complicated than you think.

In 1987, engineers from Apple and Xerox started brainstorming how to encode characters so that each language’s letter or symbol fit a standardized width and storage space. Four years later, the Unicode Consortium was founded, with representatives from most major tech companies sitting on the Board of Directors. 

To this day, this group — which now includes representatives from UC Berkeley, the government of Bangladesh and more — oversees all additions to the Unicode alphabet.

In 2009, a group of engineers petitioned the Unicode Consortium to adopt “emoji,” a group of over six hundred characters that were widely used in mobile text messaging systems across Japan. The nonprofit approved the prototypical group emoji — which included cat faces, lunar symbols, zodiac signs, etc. — making them accessible on all operating platforms. 

After the addition of emoji keyboards to Apple’s iOs and Google’s Android, worldwide use of the colorful characters exploded, opening up new communication possibilities as users created their own combinations and attributed their own symbolic meanings. But why, still, isn’t there a weed emoji?

How to request new emojis

Each year, the Unicode Consortium has expanded their available options, adding new characters (like the taco) and allowing modifications of previous emojis (like turning a baseball into a softball or allowing you to change the skin color and gender of a surfer). Anyone, from nonprofits to businesses to individuals, can suggest a new emoji if they’re willing to go through the arduous application process.

A proposal to add a weed emoji has to be remarkably detailed, and could easily be rejected simply for not following the correct format. You need to prove the importance of the new emoji, point by point, and include proposed artwork, which presents its own set of difficulties: would a weed emoji depict a cannabis leaf, nug, joint, pipe, blunt or bong?

To be accepted, the Unicode Technical Committee (or UTC) would have to agree on a rigorous set of standards. Is the emoji already in such heavy use on a platform like Facebook Messenger or Snapchat that it’s needed for compatibility? Is it overly specific, or will it have a high frequency of use throughout large communities? Can it already be represented by existing emoji, or is it distinctive and groundbreaking?

“More weight is given to emoji that convey concepts that are not simply variants of concepts conveyed by existing emoji or sequences of existing emoji,” the proposal submission guidelines state. “For example, it would be better to proposal an emoji for a new kind of animal rather than an emoji for a new breed of dog.”

To limit strain on memory and usability, only seventy new emojis are added annually. After going through the approval process — which can take up to two years — an approved emoji will finally be released. 

Each major vendor (like Apple and Google) will create their own version of the proposed artwork to fit their distinctive house style. They may even choose to cloak the original meaning to fit their community standards — like when Apple, Google, and Facebook replaced the emoji depicting a realistic handgun with a playful, lime-green squirt gun.

Should you proposal a weed emoji yourself?

Still, nothing’s stopping you from submitting your proposal for a weed emojis; in fact, six different requests have already been declined, many after the UTC’s Emoji Subcommittee decided that a cannabis leaf was already representable by existing emoji. They’re not the only ones wondering whether we really need a weed emoji all that badly.

“Do we need a literal penis emoji to understand why an eggplant is referential?” asks Carly Fisher, an award-winning journalist and author whose work covers the cultural intersection of food, travel, and cannabis. “To me, part of the fun with emoji is interpretation, like hieroglyphics.”

“Green plants, vegetables, and hearts seem to be the wink-nod these days,” she says, though she’s fond of alluding to the “Devil’s lettuce” with a head of romaine or reaching for a maple leaf during the fall season.

In 2016, rapper DRAM released ‘Broccoli,’ a sunny collaboration with Lil Yachty with a chorus that alluded to cannabis with the lines, “Yeah, I know your baby mama fond of me, all she want to do is smoke that broccoli.” Almost four million views later, the music video featuring oversized broccoli headpieces and plenty of literal broccoli has helped establish the broccoli emoji as a reliable, if unusual way to text message or post on social media the concept of cannabis buds.

The most popular alternative emojis to weed

A floral bouquet or daisy can signal “flower”; pine trees can represent woodsy strains high in pine and humulene, or just “tree” in general. Data harvested from money transfer app Venmo, which encourages users to describe payments using emoji, shows that options for representation stretch far beyond the plant kingdom.

The top twenty-five most-used emojis on Venmo include a red fuel pump, fire, and an electric plug. While the fuel pump could mean users are splitting fuel costs in exchange for rides, it’s not hard to imagine that at least some of those transactions are alluding to “gas,” a slang term for strains with strong chemical-like scents like Sour Diesel or Jet Fuel

A fire emoji might reference sparking up a joint, bowl or bong. Lastly, the plug emoji almost certainly alludes to “the plug” — a common slang term for someone who connects a buyer with a coveted good, whether it be backstage passes, organic compost or weed.

With so many alternatives available, it’s not surprising that approving a cannabis emoji hasn’t been a top priority for the UTC. The situation isn’t hopeless, however; as attitudes surrounding cannabis change worldwide, there’s a potential for a grassroots push to finally gain traction.

New characters and the emoji grassroots movement

In 2016, former reporter, entrepreneur and literary studio co-founder Jennifer 8. Lee created The Dumpling Emoji Project with Yiying Lu, a designer best known for illustrating the infamous Twitter Fail Whale. Noting that the “folks on the committee which oversees emoji are mostly male, mostly American, and overwhelmingly engineers,” they saw a worldwide need to expand the emoji lexicon with an adorable dough-wrapped dumpling just generic enough to represent kreplach, pelmeni, and pierogi as well as gyoza, potstickers, and momos.

They funded the project via a crowdsourcing campaign that promised backers dumpling cookbooks, workshops and even private parties hosted by renowned chefs. The proceeds allowed their new organization, Emojination, to join Unicode as an official non-voting associate member (the same level as Twitter). 

Gaining intimate knowledge of the emoji approval process allowed Lee to create the perfect proposal complete with graphs and footnotes. “It’s crazy how labor intensive these proposals are,” she told BuzzFeed News. “It’s definitely more than a day’s work. Not only is it hard to write them, but I don’t think everyone could do it. Like, I know very educated Ivy League people who probably can’t write an emoji caliber proposal. It’s a very specific voice.”

Today, Emojination lends their expertise, resources, and tools to shepherd new emoji from user-submitted ideas to colorful characters on your keyboard. Guided by the motto “Emoji For the People, By The People,” they’re behind the addition of not just the dumpling emoji but symbols representing red money envelopes, DNA strands, a woman wearing a hijab, the sauna emoji, and even the broccoli emoji sometimes used to represent weed.

A dedicated weed emoji is a far off-dream for now; previews of the upcoming 2020 additions have already been released, including a toothbrush, plunger, and the gender-neutral Mx. Claus. Until a lucky petition succeeds, you’ll have to use your imagination when a friend texts you a fresh sprig of herbs.

Featured image by Andrew Le/Unsplash





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