Emoji are now part of our language. If you’re like most people, you pepper your texts, Instagram posts, and TikTok videos with various little images to augment your words—maybe the syringe with a bit of blood dripping from it when you got your vaccination, the prayer (or high-fiving?) hands as a shortcut to “thank you,” a rosy-cheeked smiley face with jazz hands for a covid-safe hug from afar. Today’s emoji catalogue includes nearly 3,000 illustrations representing everything from emotions to food, natural phenomena, flags, and people at various stages of life.
Behind all those symbols is the Unicode Consortium, a nonprofit group of hardware and software companies aiming to make text and emoji readable and accessible to everyone. Part of their goal is to make languages look the same on all devices; a Japanese character should be typographically consistent across all media, for example. But Unicode is probably best known for being the gatekeeper of emoji: releasing them, standardizing them, and approving or rejecting new ones.
Jennifer Daniel is the first woman at the helm of the Emoji Subcommittee for the Unicode Consortium and a fierce advocate for inclusive, thoughtful emoji. She initially rose to prominence for introducing Mx. Claus, a gender-inclusive alternative to Santa and Mrs. Claus; a non-gendered person breastfeeding a non-gendered baby; and a masculine face wearing a bridal veil.
Now she’s on a mission to bring emoji to a post-pandemic future in which they are as broadly representative as possible. That means taking on an increasingly public role, whether it’s with her popular and delightfully nerdy Substack newsletter, What Would Jennifer Do? (in which she analyzes the design process for upcoming emoji), or inviting the general public to submit concerns about emoji and speak up if they aren’t representative or accurate.
“There isn’t a precedent here,” Daniel says of her job. And to Daniel, that’s exciting not just for her but for the future of human communication.
I spoke to her about how she sees her role and the future of emoji. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed.
What does it mean to chair the subcommittee on emoji? What do you do?
It’s not sexy. [laughs] A lot of it is managing volunteers [the committee is composed of volunteers who review applications and help in approval and design]. There’s a lot of paperwork. A lot of meetings. We meet twice a week.
I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I recently talked to a gesture linguist to learn how people use their hands in different cultures. How do we make better hand-gesture emoji? If the image is no good or isn’t clear, it’s a dealbreaker. I’m constantly doing lots of research and consulting with different experts. I’ll be on the phone with a botanical garden about flowers, or a whale expert to get the whale emoji right, or a cardiovascular surgeon so we have the anatomy of the heart down.
There’s an old essay by Beatrice Warde about typography. She asked if a good typeface is a bedazzled crystal goblet or a transparent one. Some would say the ornate one because it’s so fancy, and others would say the crystal goblet because you can see and appreciate the wine. With emoji, I lend myself more to the “transparent crystal goblet” philosophy.
Why should we care about how our emoji are designed?
My understanding is that 80% of communication is nonverbal. There’s a parallel in how we communicate. We text how we talk. It’s informal, it’s loose. You’re pausing to take a breath. Emoji are shared alongside words.
When emoji first came around, we had the misconception that they were ruining language. Learning a new language is really hard, and emoji is kind of like a new language. It works with how you already communicate. It evolves as you evolve. How you communicate and present yourself evolves, just like yourself. You can look at the nearly 3,000 emoji and it [their interpretation] changes by age or gender or geographic area. When we talk to someone and are making eye contact, you shift your body language, and that’s an emotional contagion. It builds empathy and connection. It gives you permission to reveal that about yourself. Emoji can do that, all in an image.
Donald ’67, SM ’69, and Glenda Mattes
Don Mattes started giving to the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT before he himself was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Since his death in 2020, his wife, Glenda, has carried forward Don’s passion for its work. “My wish is that no one ever has to go through the horrors of Alzheimer’s disease ever again,” Glenda says. The Matteses have also supported the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT.
Legacy sparks hope. An early key employee of Andover Controls who later ran the company’s European operations, Don visited six continents with Glenda during their 30-year marriage—often to ski or bicycle. “Don’s was a life well lived, just too short,” Glenda says. The couple made provisions in their estate plan to support the Picower Institute. After Don died, Glenda made a gift to MIT of real estate that established both endowed and current-use funds there to support research on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and other neurodegenerative diseases. Glenda is a cancer survivor, and the gift also endowed a fund in the couple’s name at the Koch Institute.
Great discoveries being made at MIT: “Don always said the best thing he got from MIT was being taught how to think,” Glenda says. “MIT is an amazing place. Picower Institute director Li-Huei Tsai and her team are doing more than looking for a treatment for Alzheimer’s. They’re looking for the root cause of the disease. I am also fascinated with the Koch’s melding of engineering and biology. The chances they are going to solve the cancer issue someday are very high.”
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Investing in women pays off
“Starting a business is a privilege,” says Burton O’Toole, who worked at various startups before launching and later selling AdMass, her own marketing technology company. The company gave her access to the HearstLab program in 2016, but she soon discovered that she preferred the investment aspect and became a vice president at HearstLab a year later. “To empower some of the smartest women to do what they love is great,” she says. But in addition to rooting for women, Burton O’Toole loves the work because it’s a great market opportunity.
“Research shows female-led teams see two and a half times higher returns compared to male-led teams,” she says, adding that women and people of color tend to build more diverse teams and therefore benefit from varied viewpoints and perspectives. She also explains that companies with women on their founding teams are likely to get acquired or go public sooner. “Despite results like this, just 2.3% of venture capital funding goes to teams founded by women. It’s still amazing to me that more investors aren’t taking this data more seriously,” she says.
Burton O’Toole—who earned a BS from Duke in 2007 before getting an MS and PhD from MIT, all in mechanical engineering—has been a “data nerd” since she can remember. In high school she wanted to become an actuary. “Ten years ago, I never could have imagined this work; I like the idea of doing something in 10 more years I couldn’t imagine now,” she says.
When starting a business, Burton O’Toole says, “women tend to want all their ducks in a row before they act. They say, ‘I’ll do it when I get this promotion, have enough money, finish this project.’ But there’s only one good way. Make the jump.”
Preparing for disasters, before it’s too late
All too often, the work of developing global disaster and climate resiliency happens when disaster—such as a hurricane, earthquake, or tsunami—has already ravaged entire cities and torn communities apart. But Elizabeth Petheo, MBA ’14, says that recently her work has been focused on preparedness.
It’s hard to get attention for preparedness efforts, explains Petheo, a principal at Miyamoto International, an engineering and disaster risk reduction consulting firm. “You can always get a lot of attention when there’s a disaster event, but at that point it’s too late,” she adds.
Petheo leads the firm’s projects and partnerships in the Asia-Pacific region and advises globally on international development and humanitarian assistance. She also works on preparedness in the Asia-Pacific region with the United States Agency for International Development.
“We’re doing programming on the engagement of the private sector in disaster risk management in Indonesia, which is a very disaster-prone country,” she says. “Smaller and medium-sized businesses are important contributors to job creation and economic development. When they go down, the impact on lives, livelihoods, and the community’s ability to respond and recover effectively is extreme. We work to strengthen their own understanding of their risk and that of their surrounding community, lead them through an action-planning process to build resilience, and link that with larger policy initiatives at the national level.”
Petheo came to MIT with international leadership experience, having managed high-profile global development and risk mitigation initiatives at the World Bank in Washington, DC, as well as with US government agencies and international organizations leading major global humanitarian responses and teams in Sri Lanka and Haiti. But she says her time at Sloan helped her become prepared for this next phase in her career. “Sloan was the experience that put all the pieces together,” she says.
Petheo has maintained strong connections with MIT. In 2018, she received the Margaret L.A. MacVicar ’65, ScD ’67, Award in recognition of her role starting and leading the MIT Sloan Club in Washington, DC, and her work as an inaugural member of the Graduate Alumni Council (GAC). She is also a member of the Friends of the MIT Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center.
“I believe deeply in the power and impact of the Institute’s work and people,” she says. “The moment I graduated, my thought process was, ‘How can I give back, and how can I continue to strengthen the experience of those who will come after me?’”