Issues with modifier mechanism, UTS #52

Issues with Modifier Mechanism

Feedback submitted on Monday 2 May 2016, 09:00 CET to

We are submitting these comments to the Proposed Draft UTS #52, Unicode Emoji Mechanisms because we think there are serious issues with the general implications of the modifier mechanism that was already introduced in Unicode 8 with Skin Tone Modifiers. We believe UTS #52 possibly contravenes both the mission and bylaws of the Unicode Consortium. We wish to identify issues that we hope will have an impact on decisions and future policies. We suggest a reconsideration of the underlying logic of the modifier mechanism as applied to emoji.

These comments were formulated by an international, multilingual group of researchers working in the field of software and media. We investigate and produce a wide-range of projects around the role of standards and the politics embedded in infrastructures of communication, and are using emoji intensively in our communication. We are thus deeply concerned about the directions that emoji related standards have taken so far, and are being proposed to take in the future.

The introduction of emojis into the Unicode standard shows a contradiction at the heart of the Unicode project, specifically if we consider the ways in which the precedent of Skin Tone Modifiers advance the reduction of types and attributes in the name of increased particularity. This lapse in logic exposes the inherent biases and considerable problematics that underwrites such a proposal and move. We want to emphasize that emojis are functioning in the realm of semantics rather than syntax. As a result they bring up radically other issues than those related to the domain of written characters.

We question the fundamental assumptions that diversity should be expressed through a "modifier" at all:

  1. By positing a "normal" baseline against which difference is to be measured, the mechanism sets up problematic relations between the categories that act as modifiers and the pictographs that they modify. If we, for example, imagine what the consequences would be of adding "disability" as a modifier to future Unicode specifications, it is easy to understand this tension. Disability should never be conceived of as a condition of modification to a base-line standard. In practice however, it would have to be implemented exactly in this way, not unlike the way the Skin Tone Modifiers are now implemented and more importantly perceived as a "blackface" modifier to a "white" base.1

  2. To express diversity as a "variant" is a reductive response to the complexity of identities and their representational needs. If we consider the implementation of gender variants (male, female, neutral) for example, we can foresee issues with expressing more complex gendered formations such as transgender or transsexuality. This issue would not be solved by augmenting the resolution of the variants, as the mechanism of varying between binary opposites itself is fundamentally flawed.2

  3. The consortium should take into account how, once implemented, the modifiers will function in todays media environment. Should Unicode-compliant search engines differentiate results according to modifier categories? There is a documented case of Instagram searches that return different results depending on emoji with the Skin Tone Modifier applied.3 We think that the responsibility for instituting such potential for segregation lies not (only) with the one who implements, but rather with the one who proposes and defines a standard. Unicode can not neglect to consider such consequences. Aside from impacting the equal access to information, the mechanism can be expected to be used in reverse, as a method to identify authors of content on the basis of their supposed race, gender etc.

  4. The proposed modifiers for skin tone and haircolor are both based upon questionable external standards. In the case of the Skin Tone Modifiers, the Consortium has chosen to use the Fitzpatrick scale in an attempt to find a "neutral" gauge for skin tone. The argument was made that it 'has the advantage of being recognized as an external standard without negative associations'.4 In doing so, the Consortium has conflated and misunderstood a medical standard for the way human skin responds to UV exposure, with a scale that represents skin color.5 Furthermore, the Fitzpatrick scale has a lineage to colonialism via the Von Luschan's chromatic scale. To ignore this lineage is emblematic of implementing a standard without careful examination of its scientific, political, cultural and social context of production. In TR52, when discussing the options for haircolor, the consortium insists on a limited palette by referring to the "cartoon style" nature of emoji.6 At the same time the proposal refers to the US Online Passport application form as the "standard" to follow when choosing this limited palette. The way the U.S. State Department chooses to view and categorize people is a particular expression of how the border control agency sees a person, it should not have to make its way into daily communications. Rather than suggesting a less "loaded" standard to follow, we argue that this is yet another example of the unavoidable and unsolvable problems that the Unicode consortium runs into with the logic of the modifier mechanism.

The origins of emojis demonstrate a certain inventiveness on the part of users, but now 'novelty' has been subsumed into a template of standardised add-ons or modifiers circumscribing, in effect, the creative capacities of users. Language is a realm of invention and play in which the inherent ambiguity of meaning allows for the richness of human expression. The arbitrary relations between signifier and signified is something that simply cannot be standardised without severely limiting creative possibilities for communication and expression across social and technical systems. We find that the difficulties originate in the fact that the semantic layer that the emojis belong to, needs to go beyond syntax which means it is not as directly computable. Semantics cannot simply be reduced to standardised implementations or understandings without being an ideological project at the same time.

To us, the Unicode project is important as a worthy attempt to develop universal standards that are cross-compatible technically and inclusive of cultural difference: 'to enable people around the world to use computers in any language, by providing freely-available specifications and data to form the foundation for software internationalization...'.7 We support this basic premise, yet we are deeply troubled by the tendency towards ideological presumptions that have been the subject of fierce debates in civil society, as for instance in the case of the civil rights movement in the US. Implementation of universal standards on this basis carries a danger of augmenting racist and sexist undertones.

We hope to have demonstrated sufficiently the problems that have arisen (and will further arise) when dealing with the issue of diversity through the modifier mechanism. We understand for reasons of backwards compatibility it is not desirable to revert the decisions made for Unicode 8.0. To prevent further irreversible contraventions to the mission and bylaws of the Unicode Consortium, we strongly suggest to refrain from implementing any further modification mechanisms for emoji.

Geoff Cox (Associate Professor, Aarhus University, Denmark)
Linda Hilfling Ritasdatter (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
David Gauthier (PhD candidate, University of Amsterdam)
Geraldine Juárez (MFA candidate, Valand Academy, University of Gothenburg, Sweden)
Marie Louise Juul Søndergaard (PhD candidate, Aarhus University, Denmark)
Helen Pritchard (Research Fellow, Goldsmiths, University of London)
Peggy Pierrot (Independent researcher, Brussels)
Roel Roscam Abbing (Independent researcher, Rotterdam)
Susan Schuppli (Senior Lecturer, Goldsmiths University of London)
Molly Schwartz (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
Femke Snelting (Constant, association for art and media, Brussels)
Eric Snodgrass (PhD candidate, Malmö University)
Winnie Soon (PhD candidate, Aarhus University Denmark)
Magdalena Tyzlik-Carver (Research Fellow, University of Sussex, Brighton, UK)