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Emoji: Signs of the times

It all started with the innocent smiley. Now, from Kim Kardashian West to Khaleeji culture, custom emojis are on the rise. But is there money to be made from these pictograms?

Emoji is incontrovertibly the world’s first truly global form of communication. ~ Vyvyan Evans

Imagine if learning a new language required almost no effort or money and allowed you to instantly communicate with anyone on the planet? That could explain the explosion of emojis, and the emergence of a mini industry centred on these latter-day hieroglyphs.

“Everyone — from your preschooler to your grandmother — sends emojis every day to share love, frustration, happiness,” Tony Leondis, director of the upcoming Emoji Movie, says in a statement. “We all have an immediate connection with these icons, and it paved the way for a very rich story and characters that audiences of all ages and backgrounds will be able to relate to.”

The word has been a bona fide part of speech since Oxford Dictionaries first included it in 2015, when more than six billion emoji stickers were sent daily. Since then, businesses everywhere remain convinced the emotags are here to stay.

Emoji is incontrovertibly the world’s first truly global form of communication. ~ Vyvyan Evans

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Originally launched with iOS 4 in 2010 after continued demand from the Japanese market, where they were first created, emojis quickly went viral. Pretty soon, they were being used for everything from love notes to reimagined classic novels to advertising campaigns. “Today, emoji is incontrovertibly the world’s first truly global form of communication,” linguist Vyvyan Evans argued in Newsweek in 2015.

While 840 million people speak English as a first or second language, fully 92 per cent of the two billion smartphone users now speak emoji, he wrote. 

Unicode, the consortium that controls the default emoji universe, only rolls out new characters with global appeal, so finding emojis that express local nuances can be hard. For instance, it took a petition from a 15-year-old British-Saudi girl for the hijab emoji to become reality. However, creating a dialect of your own is surprisingly easy, and brands of all hues have fans sharing emojis and stickers from their favourite artists (Kimoji), politicians (Politicons), TV shows (Seinfeld), movies (Deadpool), sports (NFL Emojis), fashion (Chanel) and world regions (Afroemojis).

Launched last year, Burger King’s Chicken Fries keyboard advertised the return of a popular menu item. Ikea’s includes an Allen key, Swedish meatballs, a heart pillow and, weirdly, a dachshund. Others making inane smiley faces include Dove, Disney, Taco Bell, Toyota and Comedy Central. Even the Pope has his own keyboard. For these brands, emojis are a unique marketing tool: they’re tiny commercials that make money. They also signal the rise of a new micro-industry.

When a keyboard succeeds, it can rake in the greenbacks. Kim Kardashian West’s app sells for just under $3, and was profitable from its first hour, developer Whalerock Digital Media told The Ringer. At its height, the NSFW collection was downloaded 9,000 times per second, taking about $1 million per minute. Amber Rose’s brought in $2 million on its first day.

For an idea of the ecosystem that allows the proliferation of these services, consider the following: Some 60 billion messages were sent on WhatsApp and Facebook’s Messenger app every day, Mark Zuckerberg said in April 2016, compared to 20 billion
SMS messages. That’s not counting Google Hangouts, the Chinese apps Tencent QQ and WeChat, or any of a variety of similar services. But as with most internet-based businesses, what you make depends on economics (demand) and luck (whether said product goes viral).

UAE-based Yasmine Rasool and Eriko Varkey are making a stab for the Arabian emoji space through Halla Walla, launched in November. With a name taken from the Arabian Gulf or Khaleeji dialect for “what’s up!”, the app allows users to express themselves using stickers featuring phrases such as “Inshallah” and “Mabrooq” as well as popular symbols of GCC life such as a shisha, a bar of gold, Chips Oman, a flying slipper, and a tiger in a car. It isn’t the first of its kind, but is one of the most popular.

“Living between New York, London and Dubai, we kept having to explain our background, Arab culture and what it is like to live and grow up in the Middle East,” the women tell Debonair. “We wanted to change the perception of Arabs in the West. 

“When it came to representing the modern Middle Eastern voice, we felt there was a real gap in social messaging platforms. From our loud families, endless gatherings and shared meals, to signature phrases, fashion statements, football, shisha and midnight shawarma runs — our lives are filled with inside jokes and over-the-top emotions that needed a platform to be expressed.”

Since its launch, the Dh7 keyboard has been downloaded nearly 30,000 times. However, Varkey and Rasool won’t be drawn on the commercial considerations involved, saying only that the investment involved “blood, sweat and tears”. 

While there are apps you can use to build a keyboard, the real cost lies in the graphic designer’s fees. Charges average Dh125 per hour, according to, and the final figure depends on the amount of characters, the number of revisions, whether or not you want animated GIFs, and marketing and publicity costs. You can expect to spend between Dh40,000 and Dh200,000, say market insiders.

Rasool and Varkey also spent time road-testing their app. “We are on a continuous quest to research and conduct focus groups to generate new ideas for additional packs.” 

To ensure their keyboard’s relevance to the heterogeneous Arab world, the duo asked people from across the region to describe their favourite Arab dish, the phrases they commonly use, objects that evoke childhood memories, etc. “These simple questions reaffirmed that the universal keyboard is not catering to our community, so the more we create the more we can relate.”

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But why do we need individualised symbols? Are they a broader celebration of local culture, or do they in fact promote insularity? Oliver Camilo, founder of San Francisco-based custom emoji app maker Moji, which built apps for Rose and others, attributes it in part to the rise of individualism and the growing demand for privacy over the internet. “We’re moving away from the mentality of, ‘Let’s tweet or post things for the world to see,’ and moving to group texting and private chats, and that makes it harder to reach people and interact with them,” he told The Ringer.

Varkey and Rasool say the trend for localised emojis comes down to the zeitgeist. “This may be the case due to the current world affairs; people are feeling a strong sense of patriotism, which inspires them to highlight their roots. You might go far and wide but you should embrace the tribe you originated from.”

Forget emojis as a universal language then. When the archaeologists of the future dig up the remains of our civilisation, they could just as easily spend a millennium attempting to decipher these strange post-literate ciphers we’ve come to love and use.

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