Before all the classes got canceled, Stephen Paul Wright, an art director in New York City, went to an OrangeTheory studio for a workout. The instructors have a habit of high-fiving everyone as they walk in, but this time, it was all elbow bumps. No one wanted to touch each other, even if they wanted to squeeze in one last workout.
When Wright got home, he was still thinking about the elbow bump, which by then had also replaced handshakes and high-fives among political leaders and athletes. It seemed like a perfect symbol for these strange times. So he opened Photoshop and, using a few images of existing emoji, created a design of two sleeved emoji elbows uniting. Then he turned it into a GIF and sent it to a group chat of friends. Everyone loved it. Wright says it felt like “a nice way of instantly recognizing the times we’re in.”
Wright’s elbow bump image can be downloaded from his personal website and placed into texts or emails. (There’s also an animation on GIPHY.) But you’re unlikely to find it on your phone’s emoji keyboard any time soon. New emoji suggestions arise every time the global conversation coalesces around a particular topic. The Zika virus inspired a few, for example. “The thing is, it takes about two years from proposing an emoji until it is widely supported,” says Jeremy Burge, the creator of the emoji reference Emojipedia. “So the question is often whether this is going to be relevant in two years time.”
Anyone can suggest a new emoji—but each one has to go through a lengthy, bureaucratic approval process with Unicode, the organization that governs standards in web text. First someone must send a written proposal to Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee. The number of submissions in a given year varies, but each one is evaluated over multiple rounds according to specific criteria: the icon’s versatility, how often it expects people will use it, and whether the concept can already be communicated with an existing symbol in the emoji lexicon. Unicode adds new hundreds of new icons every year, but it never removes them, so the organization only chooses ones that it expects will endure.
“I recall back in 2016, a movement of people wearing safety pins in public to show their support for minority or vulnerable groups,” says Burge, who serves on the subcommittee. “There were a lot of requests at this time for a safety pin emoji, to help spread awareness online.” But by the time the safety pin emoji was approved by Unicode, in 2018, the trend had mostly passed. Now, Burge says it “remains in the bottom 25 percent of emojis accessed on Emojipedia,” which offers both definitions and icons for users to copy-and-paste.
Given all the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, it would be difficult to predict the longevity of an elbow bump emoji—or a hand-washing emoji, a work-from-home emoji, or a social-distancing emoji. That’s even a little presumptuous: Wright hasn’t written a formal emoji proposal, and has no plans to do so right now.
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In lieu of a new emoji, Burge has compiled a page on Emojipedia of digital greetings in the age of Covid-19. Among them: the ?emoji, to suggest you’re extending your elbow for a bump.
Other emoji are also seeing higher usage in recent weeks. “Microbe is seeing the highest use it has ever had since approval in 2018,” says Burge, who used a sample of over 200,000 recent tweets to analyze emoji usage around the coronavirus. The microbe—originally proposed along as part of a series of science-themed emoji, along with the petri dish and test tube—has become a stand-in for visually describing the virus itself. Burge says ? and ? are similarly gaining traction.
Those emoji may be more useful than ever, now that more people are turning to text messages and apps like Slack to avoid in-person contact. Social distancing is lonely. Bringing a digital gesture or a dash of emotion into a group chat can make it feel, if only briefly, like everyone is in the same room together again.
Since Wright created his mock-up of an elbow bump emoji last week, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has tightened its recommendations around social distancing, from avoiding large gatherings to avoiding close contact—or being within six feet of other people—altogether. “I don’t know if the CDC would approve it, now that we’re totally socially distancing,” says Wright. Instead, he suggests that no-contact ?emoji might be more appropriate.
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