Apple hasn't yet released its newest emoji to the public, but we got a preview Wednesday afternoon: That's when Owen Williams, a reporter for the Next Web, spotted the new characters in a beta OS release, uploaded for Apple developers.
None of the new emoji were surprises, necessarily: They're all based on guidance from the Unicode Consortium, which approved a batch of new characters in June. But each individual tech company has enormous latitude in designing its emoji and choosing exactly how they display on your screen.
That's what makes the new taco emoji so ... unappetizing.
While Emojipedia describes the new character as “a Mexican food item,” the taco depicted by Apple isn't Mexican at all. Crispy taco shell, strips of lettuce, shredded yellow cheese: This is the stuff of American fast-food chains, not Mexican cuisine. Crispy, preformed shells didn't even exist before Glenn Bell realized they'd make a good vessel for holding greasy globs of ground beef and maltodextrin together as a cashier strained to pass it to a drive-thru customer.
Here's food writer Jonathan Kauffman in 2011: “The anglo taco that I grew up with (...) – crisp shells, ground beef coated in taco seasoning, fresh lettuce and tomato, pre-shredded cheese – owes its existence to American fast-food companies.”
So too does the taco emoji, incidentally: Taco Bell sponsored a popular Change.org petition for its version of the character, which looks an awful lot like the ones that both Unicode and Apple have since released.
“America wants a taco emoji,” the petition insists. “America needs a taco emoji.”
Herein lies my concern, and annoyance, with the taco emoji. Despite the fact that iPhones are currently sold in more than 60 countries around the world, and that emoji are frequently held up as a sort of universal tongue, the sole priority seems to be what America eats.
That observation doesn't apply only to Apple's new additions: It's also true of most of Unicode's recent food-emoji decisions. Turkey, popcorn and hot dogs joined this round; bacon is up as a candidate for the next. Where are the African stews? The Jewish bagels? The tandoori chicken? Perhaps Unicode should consider factors like diversity alongside its usual criteria.
Sure, this will look like nitpicking to some. In fact, it's nitpicking of a sort that both Apple and the Unicode Consortium already receive. Both organizations, long-criticized for their sorry representations of diversity, have taken significant steps to correct it: Apple's last update added more skin tones, for instance, and this one will add mosques and cricket to the existing mix of American and East Asian activities. No doubt there are also design concerns at play here: Maybe Yellow #5 taco shells display better than boring old corn tortillas do.
But whatever the exact motivations or justifications, it still seems lazy, and like an opportunity lost. Given the chance to decide the icon for a specific cultural product – to literally pick what version of that thing becomes iconic – wouldn't you choose the one that's most culturally authentic?
Writing earlier this year, after Unicode revealed its draft for the taco emoji, the blog L.A. Taco argued that it is imminently possible to design a taco that is attractive, recognizable and authentically Mexican: In fact, they commissioned the artist Andy Eo to prove it. Like the designers at Apple, he makes an icon that looks good large or small, that's clear to anyone who's ever had a taco. But his design decisions reflect a different set of priorities, a less culturally specific value system.
It better embodies the idea, in other words, that emoji are a universal, transnational language – and not just the product of popular lobbying by needy Americans.
There is still hope, of course: Unicode recently announced its next batch of candidate emoji, which will inform future changes at Apple and elsewhere. The proposed foods include baguettes and “stuffed flatbreads” – which, we pray, will be drawn as doner kebabs rather than low-carb sandwiches.
Meanwhile, most major tech companies have not yet implemented the Unicode update: They could, if they wanted to, design their taco differently.
“The taco is a symbol of Mexico that has been colonized by a designer who didn't bother to research his or her subject in any meaningful way,” L.A. Taco complained. “We call on the designers of Android and other emoji sets to right Apple's wrongs.” – Washington Post