Can Updated Emojis Encourage Social Change?


This week, Apple and Google announced that they will be making some major changes to our coveted collection of emojis. The updates seem to respond directly to many social and political issues, dealing with gender stereotypes, sexism, gun violence and bullying.

Sitting here at Citrus Social, we’re having a hard time wrapping our heads around whether or not these changes were necessary, hasty, inspired or short-sighted. Will editing emojis really encourage change or affect the way people treat each other and communicate? Was making emojis more, politically correct, a thoughtful decision or is iOS10 simply putting a band-aid on a bullet wound?

Allow us to dig in.

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In order to fully understand the complexity of the use of symbols, let’s take a trip through time.

Iconography is a term used primarily in Art Historical studies that references the meaning of the use of symbols as opposed to text.

Excuse me as I put my art historian hat on. Icons have been used as a method of communication and story-telling since the beginning of time. From the engravings in Egyptian Pyramids, to Greek pottery, humans have used icons, symbols and images to communicate stories because symbols represent universal language, unlike reading, writing or speaking. To learn more, read about ancient symbols, here!


Iconography became a cornerstone of many major art movements, most specifically during the Renaissance periods in Europe. Renaissance, which literally means, “re-birth” followed the Middle Ages in Europe, it is classified to depict a surge of interest in the Arts and Sciences in Europe. Italian Renaissance iconography inspired theories like the Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown), referencing hidden meanings of paintings that are unseen by the naked eye. Da Vinci, an artist and a scientist is the poster child for the Italian Renaissance.



Dutch Renaissance paintings are almost entirely filled with iconography, and jam-packed with social, political and religious symbolism. When considering that every single object in a painting is packed with meaning, iconography allows viewers to analyze artwork in a completely different way, and it oftentimes portrays a different story than what seems to be depicted. It’s easy to become lost in analyzing almost anything, and icons make doing so, so much more riveting.

From the bird cage to the items on the dinner table, Flemish Artist, Jacob Jordaens uses iconography in his, "As The Old Sang The Young Play Pipes"
From the bird cage to the items on the dinner table, Flemish Artist, Jacob Jordaens uses iconography in his, “As The Old Sang The Young Play Pipes”

So you may be thinking, what does this nerdy history lesson have to do with modern technology? 

According to Google, 90% of online users use emojis. And while it may seem like a stretch to compare art historical references to things as frivolous as emojis, aren’t these symbols also used by modern-day storytellers who are, in a way, going through a Renaissance of their own?  While painters during the Renaissance periods were paid to depict specific imagery to reinforce political, religious and social messages, today, anyone with a smartphone can do that, and 90% of them use emojis. 

Now to the new emojis…while this isn’t the first time emojis have been added or changed do to consumer feedback, when you take a look at the new collection of symbols, the social and political connotations are clear. Here some examples:

Gone are the days of emojis taking on stereotypical gender roles. 6emoji2

While old school emojis depicted female brides, princesses and dancers, new emojis will  increase the amount of other activities that women engage in – besides getting pampered and married. Just in time for the Olympics, females can too, celebrate their athleticism with female-focused sports emojis and female emojis who actually work.

According to Buzzfeed:

In the developer preview of iOS 10, released today, Apple has included over 100 new emojis, including a bunch of exciting new emojis that previously only came in one option: male. They include female surfers, cyclists, swimmers, as well as female police officers, female construction workers, and female private investigators.

The Replacement of the Pistol.

Apple has decided to delete the handgun emoji and replace it with an image of a toy gun, and this is the first time in the platform’s history that it’s made such a major change. Yes – some very minor changes have been made to older emojis, in the past, but this update will be the first time that an emoji has been removed or replaced entirely.

The Pride Flag

Apple promises to include more gender and LGBT inclusive emojis to their collection of text-friendly symbols in the upcoming iOS10 update. This, of all of the new emojis, is our absolute favorite. We can wait to symbolically wave these icons of equality with our friends in the LGBT community.



Whether or not these changes to our emoji vocabulary will help or hurt humanity it yet to be seen. While some choices were necessary, others can be seen as slightly hasty or misguided. While they are just emojis, these tech-savvy digital symbols have already initiated some change in the world, so I wouldn’t doubt their ability help us in communicating in a kinder way.

Did You Know: Part of an anti-bullying campaign, iOS9 added an, “I witness” emoji in hopes to affect social change and change the way people negatively communicate via texting and technology.


Lots of questions are asked about these changes, but not many are answered. Of course we like to see working women and a gay pride flag, but do emojis need to make political statements? Is their true intention to operate as innocent symbols used at a typists discretion? We enjoy using emojis to enhance positive messages, add a little flair to posts and texts, and sometimes use them to replace words completely – but at what cost? We think the world just needs a little more ?.