When visitors enter the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, before beelining for Monet’s water lilies or Warhol’s pop art, they’re greeted by a work from the museum’s permanent collection: The Original Emoji by Shigetaka Kurita. Created in Japan in the ’90s, the 176-piece alphabet, which is displayed on the museum’s ground floor, looks downright silly compared to its 2021 counterparts — more akin to ’90s Perler Beads than what you’d find on your phone today. Clearly, the visual language has adapted in the past 30 years. But one curious symbol has outlasted the test of time: the annoying question mark emoji.
When iOS updates include new emojis, the image (of a question mark in a box) is a stand-in image for a new emoji you don’t have access to. It means your friend is using an emoji that’s only available in a newer software version. People who are slow to adapt (hello, it’s me) are likely familiar with it.
But it’s a simple solve: Just update your phone to the latest iOS version to see what someone’s sending you. And for people with Androids, you’ll likely see the outline of an empty rectangle instead, according to Emojipedia. Trouble downloading a new update because of storage issues? Don’t sweat it. Here are some tips on how to quickly free up storage on your iPhone and or Android.
As background info, roughly once a year, the nonprofit organization Unicode Consortium approves a new set of emojis to standardize a uniform alphabet. Unicode tracks languages and emojis globally, such as Cherokee, Greek, and Arabic, so when it started governing emojis in the mid-aughts, it begged the question: Are emojis the 21st century hieroglyphics? Is this panoply of images humans’ first universal language?
The word itself suggests as much, with “e meaning ‘picture’ and moji ‘character,” according to the MoMA website. In 2014, the Library of Congress even acquired a 736-page emoji adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Emoji Dick.
“It’s not a language, but conceivably, it could develop into one, like Chinese did,” Mark Davis, co-founder and president of the Unicode Consortium, told The New York Times in 2015. “Pictures can acquire a particular meaning in a particular culture. I’ll mention the infamous eggplant emoji, which has gotten to have a particular meaning in American culture, one which is not shared in a lot of cultures.”
The organization’s most recent emoji update, Unicode 13.0, was released in March 2020. The 2021 update is still in its beta version and is subject to change, after being delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. It includes 217 new emojis, including a flaming heart, bearded people, and interracial and same-sex couples.
This summer, July 17 will mark the eighth-annual World Emoji Day, a date chosen based on the calendar emoji itself, and created by Emojipedia founder Jeremy Burge in 2014. So pick your favorite smiley or hand emoji, and make sure to update your iOS before then, lest you invite a slew of question mark emojis your way. I’ll be heading to MoMA myself, to honor their predecessors IRL.
This article was originally published on