For a man who influences what billions of messages on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social media look like, Mark Davis is relatively unknown. However, the software engineer can arguably be called the lord of the smiley and emoji. He and his team at the organisation Unicode decide which new symbolic facial expressions, figures and objects will be appearing in messages around the world next year.
In his office in Zurich, the white-bearded US software expert recently showed off the list of new symbols which are in the process of becoming part of the world’s standard emojis in March.
The 70 candidates include a roll of toilet paper, a kangaroo, a sweating smiley and a mosquito.
There are also culturally specific additions: The nazar, a blue Turkish eye-shaped amulet that is believed to ward off the evil eye; or a red envelope, which is used for money gifts in several Asian countries.
Davis is co-founder and president of Unicode, a non-profit organisation that sets standards for how we communicate in the digital world. Emojis are only a small part of Unicode’s work.
The organisation assigns digital codes to letters and characters of every language, so that they show up correctly on digital screens across the world.
For Davis, Unicode presidency is only a voluntary position. To make a living, he works for US digital giant Google in Switzerland.
Davis is also an avid emoji user. “The one with the raised eyebrow is especially great,” he said, referring to a face that symbolises scepticism.
Today, more than 2,300 such symbols are in use, including a smiling pile of brown poo that originated as a Japanese symbol for luck.
The website emojitracker.com shows which ones are the most popular at any given second.
According to this ranking, the world seems to be a happy place: A smiley laughing tears came first as this article was being written, followed by a red heart and a love-struck smiley.
More than half of the billions of the digital messages that are sent each days contain emojis.
However, Davis is not worried that we will one day stop communicating with written words. “Just take the first sentence of a novel and try writing it with emojis. You immediately see the limitations.”