America’s Gun Violence Debate Could Be Changing the Face of Emojis

The introduction of text-based forms of digital communication like instant messaging, texting, and e-mail also introduced a whole subset in language – the emoticon. Like Wingdings before them, emoticons were a set of images created out of punctuation marks and other innocuous keystrokes, such as 🙂 and, eventually, more complex creations such as <(^-^<). As technology advanced, so did pictorial representation, and today emojis are quite literally iconic. The tiny and sometimes highly detailed images are everywhere, not just in our smartphones but on clothing, advertisements, and in song lyrics. Some of them have even taken on multiple meanings (eggplant, anyone?). In fact, they’ve become so much a part of modern-day communication, the Oxford dictionary declared one emoji in particular as its 2015 Word of the Year.

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It’s no surprise to learn that language often impacts society and vice versa. One need look no further than the N-word to witness just how powerful a role a word can play in the way American society deals with (or doesn’t) its dark past. As such, the news that companies who design emojis have garnered plenty of criticism from groups, usually involving issues of diversity and offensiveness. For example, after millions complained that emoji depicting faces and other body parts were overwhelmingly White, Apple introduced a wider variety of skin tones into its standard set of emojis. But as the history of language proves, reinvention is a constant and emojis are not immune and today (August 2), even more updates to the popular icons are being announced.


As reported by NPR, Apple is doing away with the gun emoji and replacing it with a water pistol. The reasons are likely manyfold, but those cited by NPR include the fact that “[l]ast year, a 12-year-old child in Virginia was charged with a felony and fined for using the pistol emoji in an Instagram post that police said amounted to a death threat.” Apple’s decision to redesign its pistol emoji to the harmless water gun is also a sign of a changing political climate where the issue of guns is becoming one of the most divisive in American history. The high frequency of mass shootings and police-involved shootings, for instance, have made the image of a gun representative of tragedy. But, as NPR’s Rebecca Hersher reports, “Apple’s decision does not mean all gun emojis are going away.”

Enter the Unicode Consortium, the organization which decides “which emojis live and which don’t.” Companies like Apple and Microsoft, for example, are members of the Consortium and help make decisions about updating emojis to reflect popular culture, diversity, and political issues. In 2015, some Consortium members vetoed the creation of a rifle emoji, and Microsoft has eschewed the use of realistic guns on its platform by using what is clearly a child’s toy weapon.

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In its official statement, Apple did not address its decision to swap out a realistic gun for a water pistol, but the timing within the context of today’s sociopolitical climate may suggest the company made the decision in part to “disarm” emoji users of the ability to convey messages of gun violence. Of course, the issue could have been resolved by removing any form of gun (including a water gun) entirely.

Other recent additions to Apple’s emojis include more women in a wider variety of careers, single-parent families, and a rainbow flag.