Resolved the controversy in the emojis: there will be no more flags

The Unicode consortium, the non-profit organization that establishes the standards in relation to emojis, has given a controversial blow to the table: it has decided that there will be no new flags between these symbols. Unicode alleges reasons of effectiveness, geopolitical reasons and, above all, the real effectiveness of emojis as another channel of communication. In an extensive entry on the official blog of the consortium, the creator of numerous emojis, Jennifer Daniel, has detailed in a dispassionate and very rational way the reason for this decision, which, in any case, has an important nuance: there will continue to be flags of those nations recognized by the United Nations.

What is the origin of the flags in the icon catalog? The curious thing is that, in this controversial matter, there is no clear answer. The first flags are known to have been implemented in the emoji catalog in the early 1990s by the Japanese telephone operators KDDI and SoftBank. Contrary to what one might suppose, their incorporation lacked all glamour, according to the hypothesis that has more weight: it seems that they were added to summarize in an image what type of food was going to be ordered by phone, such as Spanish, Chinese, Korean … In fact, there were only 10 flags —including that of Spain— that were included in the initial batch.

The flag emoji as a geopolitical claim

The evolution of communication gave, over the years, much more weight to emoticons, which led to a massive incorporation of flags. In fact, the category of flags is the one that includes the most elements of the entire catalog of icons, and in an overwhelming proportion: of the approximately 3,600 emojis available, 200 of them are flags. With this ratio, it could be assumed that they have a high use and demand from users, but the reality reflects precisely the opposite: we did not find any flag among the most used emojis in 2021, and neither in those of previous years.

Where are the flags then used? Daniel specifies that they are usually used fundamentally in the summaries of social network profiles, as an identity element; but even in that case it is done in a minority way (the most used for this purpose are the hearts). We are, then, before a very extensive and complex category, with little use and that, in addition, is the origin of possible geopolitical conflicts: “Flags have an important meaning, since they represent countries”, explains Fernando Suárez Lorenzo, president of the General Council of Professional Colleges in Computer Engineering. And he insists: “The first complication is the feeling of identity: possible envy between territories. And we must not forget that we are talking about a standard.”

Suárez refers to the specific demand of regions not recognized as nations by the UN. “If the incorporation of Catalonia is recommended, we would be facing a treatment of favoritism over other subdivisions in Spain,” explains Daniel on the consortium’s blog. And if this exception were applied in our country, it should also be extended to other subregions in the world, so the list would be endless. This is one of the fundamental reasons why it has been decided not to incorporate more flags, with the exception of nations that are recognized by the UN. With this Solomonic decision, a constant source of claims and political frictions that are not on the agenda of a consortium that pursues standardization ends.

Block communication is more efficient

But, if there are no new flags, how do the different regions in the world or even, for example, the football teams express their identity? The richness of this form of communication is that it is alive and users have already found a solution that Unicode has baptized as “block” communication. That is, to express an identity through colored hearts. “Emoticons can be used to build blocks,” explains Daniel on the blog. “It’s a more fluid and flexible communication,” he alleges. This way of expressing also allows adapting to changing flags and punctual movements that appear and disappear.

Finally, Unicode has sought to optimize the cost-benefit ratio in the generation of emoticons: flags, complex to design, rarely used and a source of political conflict, are not “profitable” from the point of view of a consortium that it seeks the unity and standardization of a growing form of communication that is of great value to the user. As Suárez sums it up, “it is an economy of effort in which there are many more flags than are actually used.”

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