When emojis were formally recognized by the Unicode Consortium in 2010, they were rendered in the same generic yellow skin tone. By 2015, modifier codes were introduced to diversify their color. In addition to defaulting the icons to yellow, users could now tint emojis in five skin tones from "pale white" to "darkest brown."
Originally, there was some disagreement on the very idea that emojis should come in different shades. Some argued icons in different colors could be abused on social media to provoke antagonistic racial sentiment. Others wanted the skin tone of the icons to reflect the people using them. (Related: “We Fact-Checked 8 Animal Emojis—Here’s What We Found”)
A new study shows that social media users don’t generally abuse the emoji skin tone selection, and the diversity in icon colors actually increases inclusion in the digital sphere.
“It makes perfect sense to have emojis and avatars that are authentic representations of the people using them,” says Debra Adams Simmons, National Geographic’s executive editor for culture. Along with a team of historians, journalists, and photographers, Simmons helped to spearhead the magazine’s April Race Issue.
After sifting through a billion tweets, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that most people who modified their emojis picked ones with skin tones similar to their own. Users with darker skin tones were more likely to modify those of their emojis than people with lighter skin tones were, which the researchers say underlines the importance of expressing personal identity online. Nearly half of modified emojis used light skin tones.
In tweets where the selected skin tone was different from the user, posts were mostly positive.
Pew studies have shown that although there are more white people on Twitter, black people are more likely to be active on the platform. White people don't generally default for paler emojis because, as linguist and emoticon researcher Tyler Schnoebelen tells the Atlantic, “they’re kind of represented by the default anyway.”
Throughout most of the world, the study found that the darkest skin tones were used the least. These results could reflect a lack of internet access in developing regions, say the authors.
"The introduction of skin tone choices for emojis has been a success in representing diversity and their extensive use shows that they meet a real demand from users," co-author Walid Magdy of the university’s School of Informatics says in a press release.
A Multicolored World
In the Race Issue, photographer Angélica Dass photographed 4,000 people and paired their portraits with Pantone color swatches. The project, entitled “Humanae,” covers people from 18 countries and shows that the world is not just black and white.
“Not surprisingly,” Simmons says, “one's emoji choice often is a reflection of how one self identifies.”