‘Picture Character’ Review: Our Tech Overlords Tells Us About Emojis

Directors Ian Cheney and Martha Shane dig into the world of emojis and the committees responsible for which ones make the cut.

Tribeca Film Festival

In the midst of The Inventor, one of Alex Gibney’s tsk-tsking lackeys muses that while Silicon Valley can be trusted to manufacture emojis, when life and death come into the question, forget about it! In Ian Cheney and Martha Shane’s breezy and literally titled Picture Character (the translation of emoji in Japanese), we hear a lot about these emojis that Silicon Valley has been busy making, largely from the perspective of their creators, administrators, and a select sample of their more politically polite users.

Do emojis qualify as a language? At first, their creator, a wizened Japanese designer named Shigetaka Kurita, who drew inspiration from the gestures of highway signage, says no. Later, at a more euphoric moment, he says yes. A number of linguists in Picture Character make the move over as well, embracing the future. Colorful graphics highlight notable emoji landmarks, the funny and whimsical uses certain emojis have taken on. Smiling poop abounds, but no mention, alas, of 2017’s widely scorned The Emoji Movie, which features the voice of Patrick Stewart as the same.

A more interesting question is who watches the emojis. The answer is a shadowy group of wealthy people who call themselves the Unicode Consortium. Picture Character sketches them out as a kind of governing body who sit in California while simultaneously sitting on the boards of various Silicon Valley concerns. Namely, Apple, the company behind most new emojis, which come in the form of software updates thought up by largely unseen programmers.

These interest Cheney (The City Dark) and Shane (After Tiller) less, maybe because programmers are not as fun. The crux of their breezy effort involves following along a number of non-programmers who engage in small campaigns to make emojis of their own. A widely profiled American high school student who is the first to call for an emoji donning a hijab. A group of middle-aged Argentinian women who dream of an emoji shaped like a maté, a popular South American drink. A more organized group of career activists in the UK who press for an emoji to represent menstruation.

“Someone’s always going to feel left out,” grunts one of the older, bearded programmers at some of these emoji activists, which feels like a strange thing to say so shortly after the movie reveals him to be the creator of the Vulcan emoji, which I’ve never used in my life. But it is also clear that he’s on the wrong side of history. The larger story in Picture Character tracks this decade’s change in internet culture as it moves away from nerds festering around California college campuses and into the hands of the people, who these examples tell us are optically diverse and care about good things.

Eventually, the teenager gets the emoji with a hijab. Picture Character captures her jumping up and down at the news. The older women celebrate their victory with a fitting drink. They have done their research and worked wholesomely — the teenager even makes a Time magazine list of 30 Most Influential Teens. The group fighting for a menstruation emoji face some hardship because the blood droplet emoji they propose at first is considered somewhat confusing. I think they win in the end, though.    

Watching all of this made me think about the color blue, the central color scheme of some of the larger social media giants and the tint that accompanies most of the movie’s graphics. In Picture Character’s bright aura, all things shine on the World Wide Web. There is very little in Picture Character about Facebook or Twitter, the two largest social media platforms where emojis are used — instead, the dating app Tinder makes an appearance, where a representative testifies to how emojis help awkward couples find common ground. The movie arrives as a perfect artifact of the internet and social media as accepted good things and a curiosity at a time when people feel like the internet and social media are, largely, bad things.

A phrase that occurs a number of times in Picture Character is “happiness work,” which one of the early set of emoji-explainers aptly uses to describe the conversational function of basic emojis, like smiley faces and hearts. It’s nice that our online overlords have given us a whole language to explain how happy we are.

It betrays, I think, a fundamental ideological crux of early Silicon Valley internet culture — the conviction that if you fabricate a platform with clear eyes and optimistic hearts, the world will follow suit. This is why memes feel so comparatively shoddy; they are, so to speak, handmade by people and not approved by committees. They are what we do with the tools we’re given and I think they will, for better or worse, outlast the two thousand emojis made precisely for us to use.

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