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The original set of emojis is now at the Museum of Modern Art

The original set of 176 emojis, first developed for cellphones back in 1999, now has a place in the contemporary artistic canon — becoming part of the collection at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

“These 12x12 pixel humble masterpieces of design planted the seeds for the explosive growth of a new visual language,” architecture and design collection specialist Paul Galloway said in MoMA’s announcement Wednesday. 

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The original set of 176 emojis, developed by Shigetaka Kurita for Japanese carrier NTT DOCOMO.

Museum of Modern Art

The emojis are a gift to MoMA from the Japanese national carrier Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, or NTT DOCOMO. The 176 original emojis include pictures of weather patterns, pictograms like a heart, signs of the Zodiac, a range of facial expressions, and even a couple of cats. 

Developed by Shigetaka Kurita, these rudimentary emojis became an instant hit when they debuted 17 years ago. They were soon replicated by rival companies across Japan. 

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The exterior of MoMA in New York.

MoMA

For years, emojis were largely a Japanese phenomenon. That changed in 2010, when they were incorporated into the international computing standard known as Unicode, meaning that a Japanese user could send, say, a soccer ball emoji to a friend in France with confidence that it would look basically the same on the other end. In 2011, Apple included an emoji keyboard in its iOS messaging app on iPhones, and emojis reached a new level of global status. 

In 2014, in response to ongoing frustration with the lack of racial representation among existing emoji, Unicode announced that users would be able to change an emoji’s skin tone using a more diverse — albeit not comprehensive — range of hues. 

In 2016, users welcomed the most diverse set of emojis yet — including not just more skin tones, but characters like female professionals and athletes, family options not based solely around male-female pairs, and a rainbow flag for LGBTQ pride. Apple said it is working “to ensure that popular emoji characters reflect the diversity of people everywhere.”

In the U.S., emojis, once the secret language of teens, are now ubiquitous in contexts where just a few years ago they might have been frowned upon: for instance, the Hillary Clinton campaign uses emojis almost daily on Twitter

For MoMA, the original emojis reflect the “capacity of design to alter human behavior.” 

“It’s easy to dismiss emoji,” Adam Sternbergh wrote in a 2014 New York Magazine essay about this unprecedented era in which face-to-face communication is, often, the exception not the rule. “They are, at first glance, ridiculous. They are a small invasive cartoon army of faces and vehicles and flags and food and symbols trying to topple the millennia-long reign of words... This new way will not replace all the old ways, but it can augment them and help us muddle through.” He concludes: “Emoji are coming into their own as a useful linguistic tool.”

MoMA plans to delve deeper into the evolution of the emoji in an upcoming installation, opening in December.

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