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In the wake of the shooting at Orlando's Pulse Nightclub in June 2016, Ryan Fitzgibbon launched a petition on change.org asking the Unicode Consortium to remove the pistol from its vast set of emoji. "Together," Fitzgibbon wrote, "Let's show Silicon Valley that we're capable of communicating without weapons, and ask for an official removal of the gun emoji to bring awareness on a global scale to this important conversation on gun violence." The Unicode Consortium--of which Apple, Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and Oracle are members, among others--promotes international standards of encoding and votes on emoji that are officially encoded and released for public use.
To date, Fitzgibbon's petition has received 364 signatures from around the country, though some people expressed that they signed the petition solely so they could leave a comment to say how "silly" and "pointless" it was. "Why are you worrying about this stupid emoji??" one signer commented. "Are you going to ban pictures of guns too?"
Fitzgibbon's efforts may seem minimal, even futile, when considered within the large, complex and divisive issue of gun control in the United States, yet he is not alone in seeing the role of emoji in communication, and the role of communication in reinforcing cultural beliefs and norms. On August 1, 2016, Apple announced that with their release of 100 new emoji for iOS 10 this fall, they would also add a bright green water gun, meant to look like popular super-soaker style toys. This would replace the handgun emoji.
In June 2016, Apple also blocked a proposal from Unicode that would add a rifle emoji, intended to represent the Olympic sport of rifle shooting.
Still, Apple's actions beg the question: so what?
In a culture where the value of visual communication has risen in mass media and social media, emoji enrich (and even replace) text-based messages to express emotion that can sometimes be lost in translation, or rather, lost in a mediated communication context. Apple has reported that millions of people use its iMessage software, with 200,000 messages being sent each second, so with each release of a new emoji set, Apple has made efforts to be more inclusive with its offerings. Emoji depicting people now embrace more racial and gender diversity, and Apple's next release this fall will include emoji representing families with single moms and single dads. Removing an emoji such as the handgun marks the rare instance in which Apple has made an effort to be exclusive. As inclusive emoji attempt to strengthen tolerance among diverse populations, removing an emoji marks Apple's attempt to strengthen intolerance of gun violence by removing guns from conversation, diminishing the normalcy with which we talk about them.
Apple's decision to remove the handgun emoji was made independent of the Unicode Consortium, but this decision still recognizes the tech giant's power to influence cultural values, and will likely set a precedent for similar decisions in the future. Whether Apple and other tech companies have the right to influence cultural values is up for debate, but as for now, it is easy to see how Apple, in a country that is stalemated on how to handle gun violence, is actually doing something about it, and doing the most it can.
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