The rise of emoji is an interesting thing. Pictographs have a long history, but a concerning future. I've heard the idea that emoji represent a kind of dumbing down of language, but if anything I've noticed the opposite. Our alphabet is evolving to a mixed symbolic/representational one, which I think is even richer than what we had before. But an important question arises: if we're getting a new alphabet, who controls what goes in it?
As companies become like governments on the internet, a real issue is that what would in the physical world be public spaces or public infrastructure become private spaces with private infrastructure. That has some unfortunate consequences for concepts like freedom of speech or due process, which aren't rights you have in private spaces, and thus aren't rights you have on the internet.
Beyond that, there's a question of responsibility. The government's not responsible for what you say or do in public, at least up until the point where it's breaking the law. You're free to be a jerk all day every day until the day you die. But what about online? Is Twitter responsible for hateful tweets? Is YouTube responsible for offensive videos? Is your browser responsible for letting you view them or upload them? Is your keyboard responsible for letting you create them? I mean, the answer seems like it's no, but more and more often it's becoming yes.
Internet companies have, on many occasions, invoked the "dumb pipe" defence. Oh, sure, that mean tweet is just another text field in our database, we have no particular responsibility for what it says. But increasingly these companies don't want to be dumb pipes, they want to be smart infrastructure, they want to provide algorithmically-curated experiences, enourage specific user behaviour through careful design, and build a virtual space that is both compulsion-inducing and monetisation-friendly. And once you're exercising that level of authorship, responsibility isn't far behind.
So there's no tank emoji, no rifle emoji, no drunk emoji and, at least on iPhones soon, no gun emoji of any kind. I should be clear, some of these symbols may still be part of Unicode, but phone platforms don't want them and they won't provide you with a way to type them. While these things are obviously parts of the human experience that people might want to express, the point is that Apple feels responsible for the emoji it provides. Who wants to be the phone manufacturer that shipped the twin towers emoji? Who wants to be the next q33ny?
And many users actually encourage this idea. They want platforms to be responsible for what you can say. Apple's decision to remove the gun emoji may well have been a response to a Twitter campaign linking it to gun violence. I mean, gun violence is bad, sure, that's not a terribly controversial position. But are we ready to say that guns shouldn't be something we express? I should hope the irony of expressing a sentiment about guns whose end result makes it harder to express sentiments about guns is obvious.
It is a strange time in the co-development of society, government, and corporations. I'm reminded of the Amusing Ourselves to Death comic, a comparison of 1984 and Brave New World. The argument is that Huxley was right, but I wonder if they both were. There will be an engine of control, but it will be one of our own design, embraced willingly. Rather than the boot stamping on a face, it will be a face lovingly caressing the boot, like a kitten with its master. People in the streets shouting "please, remove our ability to express harmful things, it's for our own good!"
That might seem farfetched, but if companies want to be responsible for what we express to achieve their business goals, and we want them to be responsible for what we express to achieve our social goals, what other outcome can we expect? A fun Fisher-Price world with no sharp edges or dangerous ideas, no sex in the App Store, no nipples on Instagram, nothing but a virtual Neverland ruled by a smiling corporate Peter Pan.