Emoji (絵文字), or “picture characters”, the graphical versions of and its friends, are widely used and especially popular among Japanese cell phone users. Just last month, they became available in Gmail ― see the team’s announcement: A picture is worth a thousand words.
These symbols are encoded as custom (carrier-specific) symbol characters and sent as part of text messages, emails, and web pages. In theory, they are confined to each cell phone carrier’s network unless there is an agreement and a converter in place between two carriers. In practice, however, people expect emoji just to work – what they put into a message will get to all the recipients; what they see on a web page will be seen by others; if they search for a character they’ll find it. For that to really work well, these symbol characters need to be part of the Unicode Standard (the universal character set used in modern computing).
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