Apple is using emojis to take a stand against gun violence — but it could have serious adverse consequences.
It’s not the first time Apple has viewed emojis as a political medium: It previously blocked the introduction of a rifle emoji.
But this time, it’s very different.
Apple, by changing an existing emoji’s design so radically, could cause widespread confusion across platforms.
And more worryingly, it will retroactively change the meaning of countless historic messages and texts — setting a dangerous precedent, with unpredictable results.
Emojis aren’t just another kind of letter
Apple doesn’t create emojis — though its versions of them are most widely recognised. Instead, they are set by a standards-setting body called the Unicode Consortium. Once new emojis are approved for new versions of Unicode, companies like Apple, Google, and Microsoft then implement them into their platforms.
While emojis have clear names, it is up to the companies to decide what they look like, hence their looks can differ from platform to platform. Technically speaking, it’s basically the same as a font: An “R” is still an “R,” whether it is rendered in Helvetica or Times New Roman.
But there’s a very significant difference between emojis and traditional letters: Emojis are heiroglyphs. A font can’t change your interpretation of a letter (or word), but the particular representation of an emoji is crucial in determining how it is perceived. Studies have found wild variance in the interpretation of and emotional response to certain emojis, based on how the platform chose to show them.
And compounding the matter is the fact that many emojis have taken on deeper symbolic meaning and cultural significance, which directly stems from the image given to them. The “Information Desk Girl” signifies sass or sarcasm. “Women with bunny ears” are best friends. The eggplant/aubergine is a penis.
Apple is tampering with the past
If you change an emoji’s image, you change its meaning. And any change made to an emoji doesn’t just affect new emojis used going forward. It change how the user sees any time that emoji has ever been used in the past.
Apple’s change, while well-intentioned, will unilaterally modify the meaning of countless historic messages, texts, and uses of emojis — transforming them in unpredictable ways.
It’s a small consolation that Apple isn’t taking the nuclear option and removing the pistol emoji altogether, as some anti-gun activists have called for.
Just imagine if Apple decided to remove the word “gun” from its platform, rendering past sentences that used it meaningless. It would be terrifying abuse of power — and it’s the exact same principle.
There’s nothing wrong with companies taking a political stance on issues. Much of Apple’s advocacy, on everything from civil rights to environment causes, has been admirable. But it’s questionable what this change will even achieve.
The gun emoji doesn’t glamourise gun crime. Altering it won’t solve gun violence. And there’s a reasonable argument to be made that emojis — like “conventional” language — should reflect reality, warts and all.
“The bomb, syringe, and knife all remain in non-toy form, so I’m not sure I see the benefit of changing just this single image,” Jeremy Burge, founder of emoji website Emojipedia says. “In particular, making dramatic changes to an emoji appearance is terrible for backward-compatibility.”
Apple did not respond to a request for comment.
The change will only produce confusion
Apple’s change will stymie our attempts to understand historic messages — but it will also create confusion on a day-to-day basis.
Almost all platforms render the pistol emoji as a revolver. Only Microsoft doesn’t, going for a toy-esque ray-gun — but has just updated it to a “real” gun. (Microsoft’s change is also arguably problematic, but its emojis are far less widely used, and the change brings it in line with consensus.)
As such, there is potential for serious miscommunication across different platforms. Apple’s looks light-hearted, fun, jovial — while the pistol rendered by Google et al is more serious, and arguably threatening.
In March 2016, a Frenchman was actually jailed for sending his ex-girlfriend the pistol emoji, in what was interpreted as a threat. What if a joke sent from an Apple user to a Google user is misconstrued due to differences in rendering? Or if a genuine threat sent by an Google user to a Apple user goes unreported because it’s taken as a joke?
There’s no real precedent for any of this
We’re in uncharted territory here. Should emoji images, once settled on, never be updated? Many are slightly tweaked on a yearly basis, with Google’s going through multiple iterations. Or should they only be updated enough to keep them looking modern? Bearing in mind that even a subtle change can affect how it is emotionally perceived.
Words, their meanings and their connotations, can — and do — change over time. But it’s a gradual, unconscious process. Emojis, with their hieroglyphic nature and changes decided by committee, are something else entirely.
One thing is clear, though. Apple is tampering with the meaning of hundreds of millions of people’s old messages, documents, and private communications in order to score a political point — and that might not be a precedent we want to set.