story of the russian doll emoji

Matryoshka – An Emoji’s Tale

Five billion mobile device enabled human beings will type six billion emojis today. Our collective visual language can communicate thought, ideas or emotions within a single iconic image. But what if the emoji you need, doesn’t exist yet? How could you make a contribution to fill that gap in our modern day hieroglyphics, and do so with an image that is immediately recognized? This is the story of my journey in creating a worthwhile emoji and the path of approval by the Unicode Consortium.

The emoji, I must confess, I mainly use the smiley face, and occasionally have blown a few kisses, but that was the extent of my emojiness. Yet, when communicating with friends from around the world, those images really are their own language, and are free from needing translation. They are also a proven technique for higher views on your social media content.

And that’s where my Emoji Tale begins, with a tweet that needed something extra.

Around the beginning of September 2018,  I was crafting a post that needed to look Russian, it was for a Russian speaking audience and I thought a Matryoshka doll would be the perfect accent to get a better result. I started searching the choices, seeing Russian flags and a Ruble symbol, but … those are about Russia, not necessarily Russian speakers, or Russian culture, or the Russian language. In fact, I couldn’t find anything that reflected the wider use of the term Russian. And to my surprise, a Matryoshka doll did not exist as an emoji. Really? Really.

I thought, “Surely, someone, somewhere must has produced a balalaika symbol, a dome topped church, a nesting doll?”

Nope, I was in the uncharted territory between the continents of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

So there I was, a developer and artist, thinking the solution would be simple. I would create a matryoshka emoji on my own and upload it to some magical place on the Internet where emojis are born. But such a place does not exist. There is however a place and process, loaded with steps and protocols, where an emoji idea can be formed and submitted. It is called the Unicode Consortium (UC).

The UC had a lengthy, detailed vetting process, with only a few available slots awarded each year to the images deemed worthy. It was a long shot, and many of the sites I had visited claimed it was near impossible to get a new icon through the gauntlet of approvals.

I dont’ know what it is about this word impossible, but it turns a light on in my mind that won’t go off until I try. After reading all the research on the topic, I was more aware than ever of how massive and significant the emoji universe was and is.

For example: Did you know human beings share six billion emojis a day? And considering that there are five billion mobile devices in use… I thought, maybe this is worth the effort. If succesful I would be adding a letter to the world alphabet of images, and representing something that was missing in that alphabet, references to East European culture.

Down the rabbit hole I went, destination and outcome unknown and morbidly curious if this intriguing idea would bear any fruit. If I failed it would only be my time and effort lost. But if I succeeded, I would have taken the road less traveled and journeyed beyond anything I had attempted before.

I scoured the consortium website, downloaded the application criteria and went to work. There are some interesting things you can learn during this process. First, the UC takes these little images very seriously. And if you’re introducing something that already exists, you’ll be shot down immediately.

Second, a concept such as a blue horse, as opposed to a red horse, or whatever similarly unique idea you have, is not going to be welcomed either. Essentially, there are already dozens of horses and smiley faces making every gesture known to man, so skip that as well. Your idea has to be new and unique and not trendy or fadish.

But my idea was new! Apparently untouched, and my justification for it’s approval was legitimate: East European Culture needs a symbol that reflects its history and is immediately recognizeable as such. So, why the Matryoshka doll as that symbol?

First off,  I’ve spent many years working in the Russian speaking community. I’ve learned that the term “Russian”, is very broad, and in the post-soviet sense it includes all the countries of the Former Soviet Union because the Russian language was a requirement there for 70 years. But “Russian” is more than that, during the Soviet era, citizens were sent where they were needed, making movement between countries a normal part of life. 

Families often had parents born in one country and children born elsewhere, although still within the FSU. This meant a blending of cultures existed across that part of the world for almost a century, and to this day, the Matryoshka is recognized as being from that region. [Some might argue that the doll is only Russian. I’m not disuputing the roots of the object, only illustrating how recognition of it migrated over time].

Secondly, the traditions, culture and heritage of those moving within the FSU were often carried from one place to another, which is why there are strong similarities in how all those countries, even today, celebrate New Year, Woman’s Day (March 8th), Victory Day, Children’s Day and numerous other annual events.

Thirdly, when you try to capture this incredibly large population of expats in a message or post on social media, you’ll find that a national flag, or two, or five, isn’t always the right way to express your message. Another issue: the FSU countries are very diverse in terms of religion, with some religions more dominant in one country than another. How could someone wishing to post a message about this region of the world or culture do so without isolating the dynamics of any particular religion?

Taking all of that into account, I proposed this solution to the UC: The Matryoshka doll, a non political, non religious, easily recognized and popular symbol could represent Eastern Europeans culture in emoji form. I then drew up some samples and presented research to validate my point.

Here is what I was able to demonstrate;

Aside from the passing fad of fake news creating collusion claims (and division) with Russia, the worldwide search term for ‘Russian’ is significantly higher than the word ‘Russia’.

Additionally, search trends for “Matryoshka Doll” were almost 30% higher worldwide over the commonly accepted “Russian Doll” used by Americans.

These two trends proved that Russian is a broader term, and that most people from that demographic know the name of symbol I proposed.

One of the additional requirements for acceptance, is that your proposed emoji represents a trend that is consistent, rather than one that follows a fad and then declines over time. My research revealed that both “Old Eastern Slavic” as a phrase and the term Russian Doll tracked consistently and were intertwined on separate occurrences, with an ongoing trend that was evenly established without a decline in term usage.

With a sample graphic, data and form in hand, I submitted everything to the UC. Months went by and then in December 2018 I was notified that my submission had merit and that I would need to refine the details to make the most compelling case for inclusion in the next review of potential additions. Essentially, I had made it past the first stage.

I was assigned a case manager and given a list of instructions that included developing more research and supporting data. I felt like I was back at University, writing a term paper, complete with footnotes, references and more charts. I want to extend my gratitude to Samantha Sunne for guiding me through the next steps, she helped me understand how the decision process worked and pushed me to produce even more details than I thought anyone would ever want to see, including searches in the Russian language as well.

I won’t bore you with each detail, but found it interesting that the Russian speaking side of the data was more dominant on popular Russian websites such as OK.ru and VK.com where far more references to Matryoshka existed than US based Facebook and Twitter. For me, this was not a surprise, except that Americans tend to think that Facebook/Twitter is the standard that everyone uses around the world, but those platforms are actually only a part of the world’s social media landscape.

I also added details about the Russian speaking population worldwide, but it was recommended I limit it to the population of Russia and diaspora for ease of verifying my numbers. This was a tough detail to remove, as I was essentially loosing almost 100 million people in that reduced data set.

With all data sent, I waited impatiently for the annoucement to come. In March 2019, the news began to appear, the latest emoji’s for version 12 were announced. I looked through each new addition, but no Matryoshka, Doll, Nesting Doll, nothing. I hadn’t made the cutoff. It may have been the availablitiy of new emojis, or my late arrival to the process as I had started in September of 2018. But… the answer wasn’t “no”, just “not yet.”

In April 2019, I recieved a message from the UC, saying my proposal had been passed on to the final round. It was positive news! And then silence for nine months until the end of January 2020 when the announcement came for version 13, the newest emojis to be released. View: https://unicode.org/emoji/charts-13.0/emoji-released.html
Since I hadn’t heard anything, I feared the worst. I went and looked at the latest images, and began to loose hope until line 42: Nesting Doll. There it was!

I wasn’t sure why it didn’t say Matryoshka or Russian Doll, and they had chosen an alternate image to the one I had hoped they would use (A blonde girl with grey eyes holding cornflowers) but, it was there. The approved emoji that I had searched for eighteen months previously was now going to be available worldwide.

Each platform would be free to adapt the idea and present their preference of the doll: Facebook, Android, Apple, Twitter, and many others could all apply an artistic rendering to the universal keyboard code assigned to my project (1FA86). They even included a link to the original project documentation where I was delighted to see my name as the author, with the supporting guidance of Samantha Sunne.

And that’s my emoji story! An idea that became a journey onto keyboards all over the world. And now that you know how it can be done, I hope you’ll consider making your own contribution to the world database of picture words.

About the Author: Jef Gray is the CEO of Aurous Publishing and a volunteer with East European communities in the United States. He is the President Emeritus of the Russian-American Community Center of Florida, Director and Founder of the International Peace & Film Festival and Executive Producer of the Izuminka Fashion Expo. His annual film festival, held in Orlando Florida, has attracted filmmakers, models, artists and performers from 90+ countries worldwide who compete and attend in celebration of peace through the arts. www.PeaceFestival.us

Original article published October 1, 2018, with updates to current day.