Emoji Are Designed to Be More Permanent Than Countries

It's why 140 poop emoji are worth 70 American flags.
Apple / The Atlantic

There are many reasons you might use an emoji flag. Perhaps you want to tout your nation’s performance in the World Cup, salute the national cuisine that gave us sushi, or refer obliquely to Nordic-style democracy.

Maybe you just like wavy things with stripes.

Whatever the reason, if you fly any emoji flag on Twitter, you’ll notice something peculiar. Unlike the pumpkin, penguin, or poop emojis, all of which deprive you of one character on the micro-blogging service, flag emojis deprive you of two.

In other words, you can fit 140 thumbs-up emoji into one tweet. But a single tweet can only hold 70 American flags.

Why? In a new video, YouTube-explainer-person Tom Scott explains.

There aren’t, in fact, any emoji flags in Unicode, the enormous international standard that tells computing devices of all forms how to convert bits into readable text. Instead, as Scott explains, there are 26 regional indicator symbols. When you type an emoji American flag, for example, you’re in fact entering two regional indicator symbols: U and S. (You see a flag; your phone sees those two symbols.)

Emoji fonts—which are not the same thing as Unicode’s emoji specifications—know to contract these two-symbol codes into flags. (A different international standard dictates which symbols become which flags.) As Zach Seward writes at sister publication Quartz, Apple’s emoji font only supports 10 flags: Japan, South Korea, Germany, China, United States, France, Spain, Italy, Russia, and Great Britain.

This detail of implementation may seem minor, a technical hiccup, but it’s one of my favorite facts about emoji. The Unicode Consortium partly chose this roundabout method because, as Scott says above, it doesn’t want to deal with the whims of constantly changing nation-states. Once a symbol is granted a spot in Unicode, its code must always represent it, so a short-lived country would dwell forever in the Unicode standard. By delegating flags to another standard which does allow for change, Unicode becomes less fickle than global politics, and more permanent.

When you’re planning a new nation, you plan for it to last forevermore. On the east side of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., a mighty inscription reads: “This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanency of our national institutions.” The permanency of our national institutions. But nations don’t actually work like that: They break up, get invaded, or find a new name. Unicode’s own planners try to account for this with their flag scheme, but, in doing so, they engage in the same kind of arrogance as national planners. Unicode—accounting for the impermanence of nations—wants to be pretty permanent itself.

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Robinson Meyer is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where he covers technology.

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