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Image: Finland Promotion Board

Emojis are having a moment. What with the New York MoMA acquiring the original set of emojis and Apple’s planned, and then rescinded, changes to its emoji keyboard for iOS 10.2, the tiny pictures on your phone have never been hotter. It was only a matter of time before a multi-day event would be dedicated to these adored little pixels of self-expression.

Earlier this month saw the world’s first celebration of all things emoji, Emojicon. The brainchild of Jennifer 8. Lee and designer Yiying Lu, founders of Emojination, and produced by Jeanne Brooks, the convention aimed to promote diversity and representation within emoji. It also brought together designers, enthusiasts, and members of the Unicode consortium.

Speakers ranged from Mark Davis, the founder of Unicode, to the makers of the Emojibator, an eggplant emoji vibrator launched this year. This mix of high and low brow created a levity not usually felt at academic conferences. Yet it was the event’s focus on representation and inclusion that took the fore. Emojination’s motto is “emoji by the people, for the people,” and nowhere was this more present than in its programming.

One talk detailed the fascinating story of Finland developing a set of emojis to demonstrate Finnish culture. Finland has a population of just 5.5 million, but the country is very good at topping global lists. They have the second least corrupt government, the most metal bands per capita, it is one of the best countries to be a woman, and are famed for their education system. Petra Therman, the country’s Director of Public Diplomacy for the Department of Foreign Affairs, described Finns as being “that nerd in class who likes to be both best and first,” so perhaps it is fitting that Finland is the first country in the world to have government-approved emojis.

Emoji artwork at Emojicon. Image: Megan Orpwood-Russell / Motherboard

When opinions about national identity are formed young, it was important for the Finnish government to try and tap into what makes Finns Finns—via emoji. They created an advent calendar in 2015, which launched a number of emojis, and the project was hugely popular. It was made in 13 languages, downloaded 220,000 times, and has reached 200 million people.

They featured a sauna, ice fishing, Kalsarikännit (a Finnish word for ‘getting drunk at home alone in your underpants with no intention of going out‘) and, of course, a Nokia 3310 to demonstrate resilience. Technically, these emojis were digital stickers that could be downloaded from the This Is Finland website, but this summer the Finnish government submitted a proposal to Unicode to have the sauna, woolly socks, girl power and headbanger included in Unicode 10.

Unicode is a consortium based in Mountain View, Calif. that sets the Unicode Standard, which “specifies the representation of text in modern software products and standards”. They are responsible for governing Unicode characters, which currently run at around 128,019 of which 1,791 are emoji. Membership is open to anyone, from individuals to corporations. With full membership coming in at $18,000 per year, there have been concerns about how representative a group of predominantly white male Silicon Valley technocrats could be. Once a character is added to Unicode, it cannot be removed, which is part of the reason the process can be arduous. With the full list of approved emojis for Unicode 10 recently announced, it is clear that the diversification of the Unicode consortium has been beneficial. Fifteen year old Rayouf Alhumedhi, who proposed the headscarf emoji earlier in the year, had it approved as “Headscarf.”

Emoji artwork at Emojicon. Image: Megan Orpwood-Russell / Motherboard

Finland had its sauna emoji approved—though not quite as they had envisioned it. Named “Person In Steamy Room,” it can double up as a steam room as well, and will feature a towel, which is not how Finns sauna. Nonetheless, it would appear that Emojicon was a well timed celebration of a shift in the way Unicode is being run. Since the inclusion of the emoji keyboard on Apple devices in 2013, emoji use has grown enormously, and has become a core means of digital communication and expression. Nicole Bleuel from Google said at Emojicon that “People want to express themselves with emojis that reflect who they are.” With events like Emojicon creating conversations around representation, we will have more ways to do so.