For the first time this month, the most popular emoji on Twitter was not the crying-laughing 😂, but 😭—the mouth agape, tears streaming, overwhelmed with either anguish or relief, in a way that can only be described as a pandemic mood. With people spending so much time behind their screens, the emoji they use to express themselves paint a picture of life in the age of Covid, in all its many phases. The microbe emoji became synonymous with the novel coronavirus, and saw its highest usage ever last year. Symbols like the masked face, 😷, surged on social media over the spring and summer as public health officials urged mask use in real life. Other emoji like the airplane, ✈️, were hardly used at all.
Recently, another emoji has been on the rise: the syringe, 💉. Originally designed to represent blood donation as part of the first set of emoji in 1999, the syringe has taken on an additional meaning during the pandemic. “The initial spike in usage came in December 2020, right as the various types of vaccine began to be announced,” says Keith Broni, the deputy emoji officer at Emojipedia, an emoji reference website. Emojipedia tracks how emoji are used in popular culture, mostly analyzing how they appear in public tweets. Its analysis of the syringe shows that other Covid-associated emoji remain more popular, but by a shrinking margin: Broni says that 😷 appeared five times as often as 💉 in public tweets this time last year; now it’s only twice as often. Where “previously it was being used to discuss blood donation, drug use, and getting a tattoo,” Broni says, the syringe now appears frequently next to words like “Covid,” “vaccines,” and “Pfizer.” It is also often paired with 😭, perhaps symbolizing a deep relief that’s hard to put into words.
The syringe’s transition to vaccine stand-in isn’t entirely seamless. The original icon includes a bright red barrel and a droplet of blood spurting out from the needle—not exactly the picture of inoculation. So with a historic campaign to vaccinate the public against Covid-19 underway, Apple has redesigned the emoji, and it rolled out with the release of iOS 14.5 on Monday. The new syringe swaps the sanguine color palette for a more versatile blue-gray hue, and gets rid of the droplet of blood.
Apple’s emoji makeover is uncommon, but not unprecedented. In 2016, the company redesigned its gun emoji to be less realistic and more toylike; now it presents as a lime-green water pistol. The company also retrofitted its bagel emoji, in 2018, after people complained that it had no cream cheese.
Redesigning an existing emoji is much easier than adding a new one. Proposals must be approved by the Unicode Consortium, an organization that governs standards in web text, before the designers at Apple, Google, Samsung, Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms decide how they’ll appear on their respective platforms. The process from proposal to implementation can take years. Because it takes so long to get new emoji on screens, Unicode largely disapproves of faddish ideas. That’s why, for example, the elbow bump emoji never made it onto your keyboard, despite it being an early symbol of social distancing. There’s no hand sanitizer emoji, either; the bar of soap will have to suffice.
Apple’s revamped syringe is rolling out alongside a handful of entirely new emoji, including a new exhaling face emoji and a new face with spiral eyes. There are fewer new emoji than usual, in part because the pandemic disrupted the usual meetings of the Unicode Consortium. (You can see the full list here.) Other platforms will introduce their new emoji later this year, though it’s not clear how many of them will also redesign the syringe.
Broni says emoji usage overall increased during the pandemic—a possible side effect of people spending more time behind the screen. “People use emojis to reflect the world around them more than ever before,” says Broni. And the way people use them, like any language, is constantly evolving. But as for the long-term effects of the pandemic on how we use our emoji? “I’d have to give that a 🤷 Person Shrugging emoji for now.”
More Great WIRED Stories