The Matryoshka Emoji was invented by Jef Gray in Orlando Florida in September 2018. The approval process for inclusion into the world database of emojis lasted over eighteen months, finally launching in March 2020, and appearing on devices by September of the same year. This is his story, told in his own words, of how and why he created the emoji, and what the process was like.
A social media promotion was developed to commemorate the new Matryoshka Emoji, that will appear on mobile devices in September 2020. As the epic symbol of East European heritage is coming into the digital age, it seemed fitting that the Doll and her children would celebrate by jumping into a mobile phone and traveling the world on a fun filled tour. Each video below, is a stop along the way.
There are five billion mobile device enabled human beings in the world. And each day they will use six billion emojis, and then tomorrow, repeat. Emojis are approved and managed by the Unicode Consortium, the same people who control keyboards and letter assignments in each language. The UC is very aware that the use of emojis has become a collective visual language that can communicate thought, ideas or emotions within a single iconic image.
But what if you need an emoji that doesn’t exist yet? How could you submit an idea to fill the missing icon in our modern day hieroglyphics, and do so with an image that is immediately recognized? This is the story of Jef Gray's journey in creating the Nesting Doll or Matryoshka Emoji and the path he traveled toward inclusion in the version 13 release from the Unicode Consortium.
"I must confess, before this project I rarely used emojis. Occasionally I would add a smiley face in a text, that was the range of my ’emojiness’ prior to the Matryoshka project. Yet, when communicating with friends from around the world, those images really are useful as a simple language, and they don't require translation. So there I was one day, looking for an emoji that didn't exist..."
Around the beginning of September 2018, I was crafting a media post that needed to attract Russian speakers. I was promoting a Euro fashion show called "Izuminka" and I thought a Matryoshka doll would be the perfect accent to get more views. I started searching the emoji choices on Twitter: a Russian flag and a ruble symbol. You mean that's it? but … those were about Russia the country, not necessarily people who speak Russian, or East European culture. 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. Shocker.
I thought, “Surely, someone, somewhere must has produced a balalaika symbol, a dome topped church, a nesting doll?”
"No", to all of the above. I was in uncharted territory, and all web platforms were the same: Apple, Android, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram...all have their own stylings of the same standard emojis.
So there I was, a developer and artist, thinking the solution was simple. I would create a matryoshka emoji and upload it to a magical place on the Internet where emojis are born. Upon further research, I discovered that such a place does not exist. However, there is a process, loaded with steps and protocols, where an idea for an emoji can be submitted. It is called the Unicode Consortium (UC).
The UC is made up of the 'who’s who' in tech elite companies like Facebook, Google Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, Intel, and more. Their approval decisions become part of the new worldwide releases on mobile devices, social media and keyboard mapping. As you can imagine, they have a lengthy, detailed vetting process, where only a few submissions are awarded each year. It looked like an extreme 'long shot' to get in, but I was undaunted. I knew the odds were not in my favor, but I thought, "Better to fail by trying than by giving up."
Down the rabbit hole I went, 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 iconic images very seriously. If you want to introduce something that already exists, you’ll be shot down immediately. For example a concept such as a blue horse, as opposed to a red horse, or yet another grimace on a smiley face. [Buzzer Sound]--your application will be denied.Second, the concept has to have recognition and relevance. Fads, memes, or gimmicks that fade over time are not considered worthy of consideration. And you're expected to submit proof of this from search trends and research spanning a wide period of time. In the case of the Matryoshka, there was over 100 years of data to support the concept of recognition and ongoing relevance.
In both cases, my concept fit the criteria. It was not already represented in the emoji universe, and it was not a passing fad. My justification for approval was that East Europeans need a recognizable symbol that reflects their history and culture. And the most appropriate symbol was the Matryoshka Doll.
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 disputing 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. There are strong similarities in how all former FSU countries celebrate holidays such as: New Year, Woman’s Day (March 8th), Victory Day, Veteran's Day, Day of Children and numerous other annual events.
Thirdly, when you try to capture this incredibly large population of ex-pats 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 East European people 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 that could represent Eastern European culture in emoji form. I then drew up some samples and presented my research to validate the above points.
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’.
These two trends proved that 'Russian' is a broader term, and that most people from that demographic know the name of the symbol I proposed for an emoji.
My research also 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 data samples and graphics 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, an experienced emoji maker, 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 search results and trends 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 compelling 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 announcement 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. I hadn’t made the cutoff. It may have been the availability 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.”
One month later, I received a message from the UC, saying my proposal had passed on to the final round. It was positive news! But now I would have to wait for nine months until the end of January 2020 when the announcement came for version 13: Latest Version of Emojis v13. 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!
It was a little confusing, as my submitted project used the term Matryoshka often but they had chosen Nesting Doll instead. They had also opted for an alternate image to the one I had hoped they would use (A blonde girl with grey eyes holding cornflowers) but, my emoji was there! The image I went looking for eighteen months previously was now going to be available to the world!
Regarding appearance of the final doll, each social, mobile and web platform is free to adapt the idea and present their preference to their audience. (The doll could have different color hair,clothing, etc.) All will use the same universal keyboard code assigned to my project (1FA86).
And that’s my emoji story! An idea that became a journey onto keyboards all over the world. And now that you know it can be done, I hope you’ll consider making your own contribution to the world database of picture words. Here is a link to my entire submission package with full details to help you get started.
Jef Gray is the Director and Founder of the International Peace & Film Festival and Executive Producer of the Izuminka Fashion Expo. His annual film festival has attracted filmmakers, models, artists and performers from 90+ countries worldwide who compete and attend in celebration of peace through cultural exchange. Jef is also the President Emeritus of the Russian-American Community Center of Florida.