This 31-year-old Australian accidentally built a huge empire by cataloguing all the world's emojis

Jeremy Burge

When I first meet Jeremy Burge, he’s excited.

Twitter has just updated how its emojis look, and the Australian developer sits hunched over in an East London coffee shop, examining the new yellow pictograms.

I’m almost tempted to offer to reschedule our meeting for a more convenient time.

To most people, emojis are little more than a curiosity — a way to inject levity, or flirtation, into otherwise dry messages. But for Burge, they’re quite literally his livelihood.

He’s on a mission to catalogue and categorise them. He’s been doing it for years. And he’s managed to build a 140-million-pageview-a-year business almost singlehandedly in the process. It had six-figure revenues in 2015 — and it’s set to double this year.

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Just what are emoji, anyway?

Let’s take a step back for a moment: What are emojis? They’re the little smiley faces, animals, and icons you can insert into messages. Face With Tears of Joy, Pile of Poo, Face Throwing a Kiss, and so on.

Variations in how emoji look on different platforms. Source: Emojipedia

Modern emojis are created by the Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation that sets the standards for digital text. Technically, they behave in much the same way as the letter “Q” or the number “5” does: They’re a symbol that can be inserted as part of text.

This makes them cross-platform, viewable on just about any device — distinguishing them from traditional “emoticons” (like once found in MSN) and a crucial factor in their rise to fame.

Every year, the Consortium settles on a new batch of emoji and updates the Unicode standard. It’s then up to Apple, or Google, or Facebook, or any other publisher, to integrate them as they see fit.

Apple’s have become the “standard” set of emojis for most people – but that’s simply because the company is normally first off the mark to add them.

The pictographs all have standardised names: “Smiling Face With Open Mouth and Tightly-Closed Eyes,” for example (?) . But how they look can vary wildly between different Operating Systems, with different connotations.

And that’s where Emojipedia comes in.

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Emojipedia: “An encyclopedia of smiley faces”

Emojipedia is almost certainly the premier destination for emoji-related information on the internet today.

“It’s Wikipedia for emojis, but it’s not crowdsourced,” its creator Jeremy Burge explains to me. “Or, I tell my grandparents: It’s an encyclopedia of smiley faces.”

The site has several related uses. It showcases the often considerable variation in emojis from platform to platform. It provides blog posts on proposed changes to the Unicode standard and other emoji-related news. And, of course, it obsessively documents every single emoji out there.

Why? Millions of developers and publishers regularly use emojis, and Emojipedia gives them definitive — and accessible — reference material on the subject. Plus there’s a huge popular interest in the pictograms: Who doesn’t want to know what the next batch of emojis will contain?

Emojipedia isn’t just a hobby. The website is a full-time job for Burge, with ad revenues paying him a comfortable salary. He’s responsible for all the descriptions, blog posts, and other content on the site — although in 2015 he hired a developer who’s nearly full-time, and also has a designer who helps as and when required.

Burge’s fiancé, he laughs, “will not be hesitant to remind me that she saves lives as a nurse, and I describe pictures on the internet — and possibly make more money doing so.”

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It wasn’t meant to be this way. The 31-year-old originally hails from Melbourne, Australia, and worked for 10 years as a web consultant, predominantly for universities. “I was working with them to have better web applications for students, better social media integration, that sort of thing.”

He came up with the idea for Emojipedia in 2013, buying the domain on July 14 — his birthday. It was, he says, “a fairly modest project until early 2014.” Burge was “on holiday in Spain, and the site started to crash — it went from a few thousand visitors to hundreds of thousands overnight.”

The reason? The recently published Unicode 7 drafts, which included the now-famous middle finger emoji. “It seemed like every news site in the world had linked to Emojipedia,” he says.

“That’s when I started taking it a bit more seriously.”

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Pop culture is emoji culture

Rapper Drake has an emoji tattoo, because of course he does. Source: Drake / Instagram

Emoji are a pop culture phenomenon, a new form of communication, and a reflection of our cultural anxieties — all in one.

For a start: They’re everywhere. On tattoos, in pop music videos, in adverts, being made “Word of the Year” — there’s even a Hollywood movie in the works, perhaps the ultimate sign emojis are now part of the cultural zeitgeist.

Companies are desperate to get in on this hype, and Burge has fielded enquiries from “major companies or their associated agencies, big international brands” that are keen to have an emoji of their own. “Sporting teams, soft drink companies, some more obscure household items.”

Unfortunately for brands, there is zero chance of them getting their own emoji. The Unicode Consortium’s rules forbid it. Although, if a brand can “broaden a proposal,” that’s a different story. “Taco Bell was particularly prominent in trying to get the taco emoji approved — but it wasn’t the ‘Taco Bell emoji,’ it was just the taco emoji.”

The pictograms are a unique linguistic phenomenon. Languages naturally evolve a few dozen or hundred new words every year, at best.But they almost never evolve new letters, and never en masse. In the last few years, common-usage written English has seamlessly and deliberately bolted on a vast array of new hieroglyphs that everyone understands.

It’s as if the Latin alphabet jumped from 26 letters to more than 1,600.

Emojis have quickly taken on symbolic meaning as they have been absorbed into culture — becoming modern badges representing often nebulous and varying concepts. The “Information Desk Girl” signifies sass or sarcasm. “Women with bunny ears” are best friends. The eggplant/aubergine is a penis.

Emojis have fast been absorbed into colloquial written language — enriching it in the process. And uniquely, many have no direct verbal interpretation that carries the same cultural meaning. What one spoken word adequately expresses the awkward/creepy New Moon, for example?

“If anything, they’ve enhanced text communication,” says Burge. There’s no doubt if you’re texting someone it’s hard to put the mood or emotion or the feeling behind the text … Where once you might’ve put an exclamation mark you can put — not just a smiley face — you can put anything.”

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The popularisation of emojis has coincided with a rising awareness of issues associated with identity politics — and the pictograms haven’t been free of this scrutiny. In the past, Emojis have come under fire for not representing many users: Historically, the faces in Apple’s versions were almost all either pale-skinned or a cartoonish yellow.

The Consortium addressed this with Unicode 8.0 in 2015, allowing users to select the skintone of most emoji from a range of more realistic options (or yellow). Apple integrated skin tone options in April 2015 — though interestingly, Google still hasn’t.

In December 2015, a Google spokesperson indicated to Emojipedia that this was a deliberate choice, with all “human” emojis an unrealistic yellow. “[Google’s] emoji faces are playful and are all about conveying the emotion you’re feeling,” they said. “They aren’t designed to look human or reflect human characteristics.”

Before being adopted into the Unicode Standard, emojis were originally Japanese — something reflected in the disproportionate numbers of Japan-centric emojis available. Now under the control of the non-profit Consortium, their reach is global — but are again controlled by a group that is arguably unrepresentative of the world’s population and its cultural needs.

“It’s hard for me to say, because I’m primarily in the UK and the US so it’s hard for me to see where the biases are,” Burge says, “but absolutely I have no doubt there will be other symbols or equally popular items [neglected]. There’s been a lot of effort to address that in the last year with all the different religions represented.

“It’s not perfect. Anyone can propose an emoji. Inherently there is that dilemma — it is difficult when tech companies promote a way of communicating that is …” he trails off. “Who knows. It’s difficult sometimes to spot where your blindspots are.”

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How Emojipedia “came into its own” — and what comes next

“2015 was the year when it came into its own,” the Emojipedia founder says. “2014, I think it was, but I was hesitant to quit my job, so 2015 was the year it really focused.”

Having moved to London in 2014, Jeremy Burge took the plunge in mid-2015 — sacking off his consultancy work and going full-time with his pictographic encyclopedia.

It paid off: Last year, it racked up an astonishing 140 million pageviews.

How do people react when he tells them what he does for a living? “It really depends on who it is. I occasionally get people who know the site and they’re ecstatic. They think it’s amazing, like ‘oh my God, I use Emojipedia every day, I have a thousand questions.’ And I get questions about … ‘why isn’t there a red head emoji?’ is a popular party topic, ‘Why does the poo have eyes?’

“But then some other people, they don’t know what to do with that. They kind of ask if it’s a hobby: ‘Ah yeah, cool, what do you do for work?'”

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Burge could do his job anywhere, but chooses to work out of Google Campus, Google’s co-working space in London. He attends meetings of the Unicode Emoji Subcommittee virtually, and shortly after we met in December 2015 he got in touch to tell me he had been accepted as an official committee member (he had previously attended as a guest).

This gives him direct input into the decisions and the future of the emoji-controlling organisation.

Emojipedia, which is profitable, is supported by adverts, and brands can also “sponsor” an emoji for $6,000 a year, which puts their name, a message and a link on the emoji’s page.

Burge told me in an email the site had revenues “in the six-figure (USD) range,” in 2015 and looks like it will double this year.”

It has never taken outside funding, though that’s not to say investors aren’t offering. According to Burge, three or four companies have expressed interest in the last year: “Not so much funding but interested in buying us outright. Technology companies already dealing with things like emojis and apps.”

He hasn’t followed any up because “at this stage I’d really like to flesh out Emojipedia a bit more,” though he’s not ruling it out.

For 2015, an API is on the agenda, along with further improving the background on the emojis. “Personally, I’d love to get more of a historical archive of emojis. Emojipedia is very focused on the latest version, but I’d love to see the history of some of them that have evolved either from the Japanese ones or the early Apple renders … show the evolution of some of them that have changed three, four times in the last four years.”

With the API, which Burge hasn’t previously discussed, he’s taking an “if you build it, they will come” approach. Planned for some point in 2016, it will let Emojipedia “work with other brands and companies that are interested somehow in displaying emoji information … So I don’t really know what others have planned for it. But we want to build it first and see where it takes us.”

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Speaking to Burge, you get the sense he still can’t quite believe this is his job. “It’s not something I expected,” he concedes. “I said [when starting] there’s definitely a big market for this. I just never expected it’d be all I did — that I’d wake in the morning and answer some questions on Twitter about emoji, update some definitions, that I’d even be involved in the Unicode subcommittee meetings.”

But what lies further ahead for Emojipedia? “There is discussion [at the Unicode Consortium] about the idea of customisable emoji that are a lot more freeform … If they did that’d be very interesting.” There’s also the possibility that the site expands one day to include stickers and GIFs. “I love GIFs. GIFs are huge.”

“In 10 years,” Burge says, “honestly, I really don’t know. I really don’t know. But I’d be surprised if I was doing exactly what this is.”

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A note on plurals: There is considerable debate over the correct plural of “emoji” — “emoji” or “emojis.” In its official documentation, the Unicode Consortium uses the s-less plural form, reflecting the term’s Japanese origins.

Jeremy Burge, however, uses “emojis,” as does Emojipedia. He reasons: “Emojis is more clear in English for a plural than emoji is. Like tsunamis. And regular people overwhelmingly use emojis as a plural, which is what prompted the switch.” Business Insider also uses “emojis” as a plural.

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