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Between text and language: Unicode and the rise of emojis

Hackney, SE (2022) Between text and language: Unicode and the rise of emojis. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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The Unicode Standard is the de facto “universal” standard for character-encoding in nearly all modern computing systems. Unicode is what makes it possible for the order and appearance of characters within digital documents to remain consistent across time, operating system, and software. It was developed during the late 1980s as a replacement for previous-generation encoding standards such as ASCII and EBCDIC, which limited the number of possible unique characters to no more than 256. As personal and business computing expanded worldwide and the nascent public internet was looming on the horizon, these 256 character slots proved to be far too small for the orthographies of all human languages, and so Unicode—a much more capacious standard—became the dominant player.
The Unicode Standard is maintained and governed by the Unicode Consortium, a body that was formed concurrently with the development of the Standard in order to prepare the computing industry for its launch. This study situates Unicode within the history of character encoding, and reveals how the Unicode Consortium has been historically organized, why its members participate in its governance, and how the public presentation of the work of Unicode has changed over time. The original design of the Consortium, and the values of its members, reflected an assumption that these encoded characters should be understood as objects or goods in a marketplace, and the environment in which they exist as a limited resource. This research proposes a productive reframing of the Unicode Standard as a classification system rather than a “good,” and uses the unique semantic nature of emojis as a focal point to examine the limits of the current paradigm.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Hackney, SEshackney@pitt.eduseh1350000-0003-4498-8789
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairLangmead, Alisonadl40@pitt.eduadl40
Committee MemberMattern, Eleanoraemm225@pitt.eduemm225
Committee MemberVee, Annetteadv17@pitt.eduadv17
Committee MemberWeiss, Martin B. H.mbw@pitt.eduMBW
Date: 2 June 2022
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 14 December 2021
Approval Date: 2 June 2022
Submission Date: 26 April 2022
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 206
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Computing and Information > Library and Information Science
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: unicode, emojis, character encoding, ASCII, history of technology, library and information science, classification, authority control, language, digital humanities, commons, information infrastructure
Date Deposited: 02 Jun 2022 21:07
Last Modified: 02 Jun 2022 21:07

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