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“It was just fun. And I was doing it but with no known reading. And it didn't matter, right? It only started to matter when people started paying attention.”
What do you think of when you think about emojis? Is it a Thumbs Up or an Eggplant or just the funny way you and your friends communicate using a combination of semi-hieroglyphic symbols that have special meaning to you - but outside that context look insane. Maybe it's a particular flag, or one of the tree emojis, or that weird one with the moon that has a face. You know the one I'm talking about.
Our guest today is Jeremy Burge. Jeremy is the creator of Emojipedia. Now, if you don't know what that is I can still almost assure you that at some point in your life - if you have lived it all digitally in the last decade - you have been on the website Emojipedia.
The Chronicling of every emoji that exists and every emoji that was to be, explaining what they meant, how they came to b,e how they were presented on different devices, and gradually over time, becoming the centre of multiple clashes between the way our culture represents identity and ourselves online. We get into that a bit.
Questions like: should there be a Northern Irish flag? How do you represent something gender with an emoji? Or, in the early days, why aren’t there multiple skintones?
I think what is quite clear to me - and what I realised while speaking with Jeremy - is that we are giving in to the ease of communication that emojis offer us. I remember not that long ago when we were all still fighting against the idea that any one symbol could replace words. Using something like a 😂 to represent how you feel was seen as a shortcut, usually used by older people. It still is. But it's also used for sarcasm, it's used by young people, it's used as code. Emoji means a lot - and maybe I'm just getting ahead of myself - but it's interesting to me.
And so I contacted Jeremy to speak to him about how he became somewhat of a leader in the Emoji space, despite the fact (and he says this himself) knowing barely about emojis compared to the normal person when he started the project.
Jeremy also lives on a boat, travelling around The UK, which is new to me. He certainly did a fairly decent job of selling it.
That's it for me. Let me know what you think. Pass on a messag,e or maybe a guest suggestion. Thanks for reading and apologies about last week - everything's looking up from here.
I'll see you down the road.
VFD: Can you hear me? It says ‘connecting’. Give it a bit of time. There we go.
Jeremy Burge: There it is. Hello, my friend.
VFD: How are you?
Jeremy Burge: Good, good. How are you? You said you were winding down the team. What does that mean?
VFD: Oh, it’s not a euphemism or anything. It literally just means coming off the end of a workday. So just checking off everything with the team, making sure what’s published has been published, what has been written has been written. Getting stuff ready.
Jeremy Burge: Is it 5PM there? Is that knock-off time for VICE?
VFD: I mean, a lot of people could go on all night. But I think 5PM is the waterline, like: don’t expect anyone to get back to you quickly. People have to go home. People have to eat. Live. Y’know.
How are you, man?
Jeremy Burge: I'm good. I'm good. I’m back in the UK, on my boat. It’s nice to be back after a little time in Australia.
VFD: I gotta say, I didn’t know about the boat. I didn’t know. But I looked it up once you mentioned it and it’s probably the first interview I’ve done with someone who is currently on a boat.
Jeremy Burge: People find it interesting. But it's not like I do it for any professional reason. It doesn’t really come up. People ask me about emoji things. They want to talk about this or that. But the boat is just this passive background thing that I enjoy. It makes me happy. And yeah, it's something nice to do.
VFD: When did you start living on the boat?
Jeremy Burge: It's been about three years now. I had been living in a flat in London for about five years before that. And that was like a thing I wanted to do. The thing was always to come to the UK and to travel to Europe a bit and then you go back to Australia. And I wanted to do that and then move onto one of these boats.
VFD: Where did the boat come from? Where did that idea come from? Had you seen it somewhere or were you just like: I’m gonna do that one day, regardless of where I am.
Jeremy Burge: It’s way more common over here in the UK. It’s not super common – not everyone is doing it – but I have family here and I used to come back and forth. And a few family members have been involved with boats and been around them. As a kid, you visit, and you would come over and be walking by a canal.
I think a lot of British people go on holidays on them. So I think when you’re over here you’re exposed to them. I just figured that was an aspiration: to get a job in a way that would allow me to do this. And then, in the end, Emojipedia blew up first. So I had to tamper that boat stuff down a bit until I could eventually move onto one.
VFD: So this all happened pre-COVID? You were already on the boat?
Jeremy Burge: Yeah, thankfully. It was about a year and a bit before COVID. So just enough time. That would have really sucked. I mean, doing anything new during the pandemic, where you don’t have communities of people to chat to, would suck.
But thankfully that wasn’t the case. It took me about a year where I didn’t know what I was doing. I feel pretty comfortable with most aspects of boat life now. And then with lockdown, God. I think it’d be a weird and lonely experience to move onto a boat and then be immediately locked down.
VFD: Yeah, sure. The immediate thing I first think of is: What was it like the first time you decided to move the boat around. Like: Oh, I’m going to drive my house now. Is that not the most anxious, freak-out thing you can do?
Jeremy Burge: Oh, it was terrifying. You buy a boat and you do all the research and you can look stuff up. And thankfully I had someone helping me buy the boat. There were some family friends where I could say: what do you think?
But when you buy the boat they kind of want to give you the keys and be like: Well, see you later! And it’s like: No. Hang on a minute. I just want to know, before I leave… can you show me again how to tie it up?
VFD: And how to steer, that too.
Jeremy Burge: Right. And everything else I'll figure out as I go, but especially the tying up, I was paranoid that I would mess it up and wake up in the night drifting off somewhere.
But it turns out the UK is really well set up for this sort of thing. There’s mooring rings everywhere. There’s this little chain thing that you can tie up to just at just about any canal bank. People say: you’ll figure it out as you go. And it was true.
VFD: Where in the UK are you?
Jeremy Burge: I move all around. Right this minute I’m heading towards London. Sorry, this probably isn’t the way you wanted to open this interview…
VFD: Oh, no, this is good. Let's just focus the whole thing on boats. Let's do it.
Jeremy Burge: The deal with boats, in the UK in particular, is that generally speaking one trust owns the majority of the waterways. Not all of them, there’s some exceptions - there’s some you need to pay for or different rules or whatnot.
But generally, you pay a licence, you can go anywhere, and you can stay for 14 days. And then you need to keep moving. And it's free. One side of the towpath is the public side, one's private. And the idea is that for this licence, you keep moving, you don't stay in one city or one particular area. It's called a continuous cruising licence. And that way, it does mean that some years I don't see the south of England at all because it takes months and months to move a boat.
I’m probably not going to be in the north this year, because it just takes too long. So you just slightly pop along and you find a town or a village you like, and then you stay there for up to two weeks. Normally for me only about five days. Because there's more I want to see and do and then I keep moving and see the next town or village
VFD: I kind of want a boat now.
Jeremy Burge: The other weird thing: I grew up in the countryside, but I love cities. And I don’t know if you have this - it's not a paralysis - but “choosing where to live” I've always found to be a weird mindfuck.
A lot of people don’t like to leave wherever they grew up. And that’s appealing to them: family, friends, all that sort of thing. But I've always had this hustle of: I want to go somewhere else. I'll find the best place to live.
But I also like living where I grew up. And this is sort of an in-between where you get to live in the countryside one week and then cities another week. And then if you don't want to be on the water anymore, you're not stuck paying rent somewhere to then travel elsewhere in the world. I always felt stupid paying London rent. It was great, I loved living in the city of London, but if I went to Australia for a month, I'd be paying inner city London rent, which is already expensive for a pretty rubbish place, while I’m on holiday somewhere else.
VFD: So did you grew up in Australia?
Jeremy Burge: I was born in Western Australia. I spent about five years in New South Wales in the countryside, in a little town called Trundle. And then Parkes. Do you know where that is? The Dish is based there.
My knowledge of Parkes is literally that they had a McDonald's there. I remember my mom saying we’re going to Parkes that she meant: go to the park. And when we wound up in Parkes I was very disappointed. She let me have McDonald's, which is a big treat. And I haven't been back to Parkes since. Then the rest of my life moved on to Victorian country and then the UK in the last decade or so.
VFD: How country are you and your family?
Jeremy Burge: Oh not very. We’re talking “country town” an hour out of Melbourne. It’s enough that it feels like a town. It’s not a suburb, but you can hop on the train and you’re in Melbourne in an hour.
VFD: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Well, how'd you end up in the UK for a decade?
Jeremy Burge: I don’t know if you’ve ever done this thing where you travel under 30 to the UK, because you can get that travel visa and go wherever you want. A lot of people will go to France or Italy or somewhere and book a holiday before spending a few weeks and then coming back. But I just figured why not live in the UK a couple years and do all that close-range travel then?
In the end, I really liked London as a city. Just feels like there’s always more to see and do.
VFD: Where in London were you?
Jeremy Burge: I was in the Inner West - West Kensington. Which is Kensington, which is very big. North Kensington is nice. but a little bit rough, and South Kensington is insanely fancy. I felt very uncomfortable there. But West Kensington, to me, felt pretty normal. The buildings are really nice. It’s pretty normal on the ground. And it was close to everything – my grandma, who is in her 90s, lives out in West London. So I wanted to live on that side of town, too.
VFD: You mentioned earlier that everyone wants to talk to you about emojis. But the interesting thing to me is that transitionary point between you going to London and becoming, like, an emoji God. And there’s this middle bit between those two – what happened there?
Jeremy Burge: I like to make plans. You have a plan but I’m always mindful that they can change. And the plan on the ground before I left Australia - I was doing web consulting at the time, mostly for universities and in Sydney - which was great, because they were very generous and didn't mind me moving to the other side of the world because I barely saw them anyway. But I figured that wasn't going to be successful long term. And I was a bit bored of it by then. So I'd started Emojipedia about a year or two before I left Australia - it was very small at the time. And it was just one of those things where the timing works out. Within about a year of being in the UK, Emojipedia was clearly growing very quickly. Traffic was up, people were interested. All that stuff.
VFD: What year was this when you launched at started?
Jeremy Burge: I started Emojipedia in the middle of 2013. I moved to the UK about a year later and then we’re talking early 2015 when it really started to kick off.
VFD: What was the first version of it? Just you manually sitting there being like:
Jeremy Burge: I hadn't decided how humorous it was at the time because it was just a project, right? So it's just me sitting on the couch in Melbourne screenshotting my iPhone. I hadn't quite figured out how to get the emojis on my Mac at the time, so I was blowing it up, zooming in, typing an emoji in, sending it to my computer. I knew nothing really about emojis. I was no more knowledgeable than any other person on this planet. I'd only just figured out that they had a formal name in the Unicode standard. So I was like: Great, I'll use the formal name. I'll write the formal name down of what the emoji is called. I will screenshot it and I'll just make up a description of what I think it looks like.
That's the gist of it. And if I had friends around, definitely, I'll be around the house. And every now and then I'll just be like: hey, what do you think this looks like? What do you use this for? What's a related emoji for this? If I send a koala, what else might you say? And they’re like: I might send a kangaroo or I might send a cup of coffee. I think it's cute.
I want to say it's a bit of bullshit, though. It was just fun. And I was doing it but with no known reading. And it didn't matter, right? It only started to matter when people started paying attention.
VFD: Were your friends ever like: Hey, man, could you cut it out? Like, how obsessive did it become where you were at the dinner table like: Eggplant… eggplant… what does it mean?
Jeremy Burge: It was definitely an end of the day wind down activity. I kind of found it relaxing, a 10pm thing when the day's done. So it would just be hanging around the house.
I don't have an origin story of working around the clock. None of that. It was a fun thing.
VFD: And at a certain point it just became a bit more than that?
Jeremy Burge: I thought it was also when I started seeing a couple of people going to the website. It only took about 10 people before I was like: Okay, I should go back and make sure these descriptions are good.
And I was always super mindful that anything I type here - I'm never going to type anything that I'm embarrassed or ashamed of. I'm not paying that much attention. But it can't be anything that I don't want to be published. And as soon as I'd start - even though the traffic was tiny - once I started seeing it growing the tiniest bit, I just took it a bit more seriously and figured I should try and take care.
And I didn't even have every emoji listed for about two years. I didn't tell anyone, obviously, because they wouldn't notice. I just said it's every emoji and eventually got there. But that was after a long time.
VFD: Was there a moment or a particular thing that happened where you were like: this is now more than that now. Or was it just so gradual and consistent the whole way through?
Jeremy Burge: Actually, a couple of things happened.
The first thing that happened, obviously, was just when more traffic came in. I'd written about some new emojis and there was a bunch of press attention that came about and one of those things peaked and we got a lot more traffic afterwards.
I say “we”… it was just me at the time. I think the thing that really changed it in my mind was when I started writing. I was a bit uncomfortable writing the blog to begin with, there was no no Emojipedia blog, it was just the definitions. The blog is sort of a news angle and I'm not a writer as such. I was nervous to write an article with a voice, or with an opinion, or just anything, right? Writing a description of an emoji felt kind of certain. Whereas writing an article about a thing with your name attached felt a bit like this is gonna ruin the brand. Are people just gonna be like ‘God, this guy, we have no idea who this guy is… Why should we listen to him?
But that changed in my mind, because very quickly we started hitting on gender issues, skin tones, all of that.
We’d been working on the fun stuff: smiles and eyes and the eggplant. And then suddenly it was touching on all sorts of pop culture and culture war issues.
I felt a duty of care, I guess, to cover it all. And I thought it was interesting. And that's when I had to actually take it seriously and spend real time thinking about how I cover this. Because I'm making, like, a main resource. People might be looking at this to find out about emoji and skin tones and sign language works. It just felt like I had to take it seriously from that point.
VFD: I’m glad that you did. I think from an early point people would have assumed that the guy who runs Emojipedia is, like, the creator of emojis. I’m sure you had more than a few people who were like: well, this must be from Emoji Corp. And the Emoji Company created Emojipedia. Did you ever feel uncomfortable about having that kind of standing? Even early on?
Jeremy Burge: Definitely early on. It was a thing where I grew into it. Now, I feel comfortable. I feel like I've covered this for long enough. And I do know the ins and the outs. But definitely early on, I was very mindful that there's better experts in every way. There are people who've covered the Unicode standard, which is the thing that standardised emojis to make them work on all the platforms. There are people who are much, much better who have much more background in language and linguistics, in culture, and in race. So absolutely, I felt early on everything I wrote had a slightly light touch and was slightly hedged. I never felt confident stating anything as a pure fact.
If I was writing an article, it was always a little bit reserved, because I knew that I never wanted to be wrong. And by that stage - 2015 - I think there are at least a million people a year looking at Emojipedia. And I don't want to be called out for being wrong. I'd prefer to hedge on something or just research until I do feel comfortable.
VFD: Did you ever get tired of it? Did you ever just want one single day without emojis? Like: Please, if you send me a text and it has emojis I’ll scream.
Jeremy Burge: I never got sick of it. Even today, even thought I don’t run the company and it has been acquired, I just never got sick of it.
I think this is the worst analogy in the world, but I worked at a pizza shop when I was younger and I never got sick of making pizza or eating pizza because there was so many different types of pizza. And emojis, in my mind, it is every angle, right?
Like: emoji flags. People spend their lifetime dedicated to flags, and it's just a subsection of emoji-related discourse. And then emotions and moods and obviously culture trends and memes. And so no, I never got sick of it because to me, it felt like emoji was just a placeholder for everything else happening in the world.
VFD: There's got to be a group of people, right, that are nerds for emoji in the same way that Wikipedia has the people that sit at home all day and edit Wikipedia as a duty of care thing. Like: this is what I do. I imagine emoji has a similar thing.
Jeremy Burge: Superfans? I think Emojipedia did highlight the things that make emojis interesting - that was my goal - to find things that I found interesting, tell people why they're interesting or important, and shine a light on it.
Not just because people are very buried in the text standards - people who are into this sort of thing were just really about how these technically have been encoded - and that's one aspect.
But yeah, I would say emoji superfans really did come up at the same time as Emojipedia, because we were there at the same time as them.
Y’know, there are a lot of trans folks who are really into emojis. I don't know whether it's because of the inclusivity, but there's a lot of discussion in the emerging world about gender inclusive emojis and like: what does gender mean when you're talking about a little pixel? So I've noticed that that was quite a strong group of people that were interested in emojis. People with autism - autistic people are very keen. There's furries, they’re often the superfans. But in many ways it’s the same subcultures that are superfans of lots of things.
VFD: That’s really interesting, because I was thinking about it before and I would scope out the timeline of emojis as around 2016 when things really took off - because it felt like, until that point, that it was a bit cringe. Well, not cringe, but there was a reluctancy to use them. There were more “words only” purists. And people were like: a smiley face is never going to say more than me explaining my feelings! And now we’ve just given up. Just admitted that the smiley face is the way to go, the Thumbs Up is the way to go. It’s way better than anything else.
Jeremy Burge: Yeah, I think discussion moved on real quick. People have had Smiley's on MSN and whatever for years. But something you can actually send crossplatform - I mean, it seems insanely obvious in retrospect, of course. Like, there should be an emojipedia or some resource documenting them. It would be insane not to. But at the time, there wasn't.
VFD: And you said that it has been acquired? Lat year?
Jeremy Burge: Yeah, was acquired last year. And it's just one of those things - I'm not very good at being hands off. And I like to do new things. I didn't see myself ever running Emojipedia hands off, or just having other people work there and me just having nothing to do with it.
Not to be philosophical about it. But if I did that for nine years - Emojipedia - you only get seven chances to do something for nine years in life. If that. Like, how many times can you do something for that long in your entire lifetime? So it just seemed like the right time. And if someone wants to acquire the company, and they can keep the existing team and it can keep running, it felt like… why not? I've done what I was here to do.
And I felt like I had a duty of care to cover emoji until recently. There was a big arc of standardising all the parts of it, and now I feel like it's a bit more stable. And yeah, there are things to move on to.
VFD: How many how many people work there
Jeremy Burge: We always kept a pretty small team - by the time we were acquired last year, it's five people. I never really enjoyed employing people.
VFD: You mean managing them or the actual employment?
Jeremy Burge: The responsibility. I feel a very high duty of care - very high responsibility. And obviously, everyone has stuff going on in their life that you're accommodating if they're sick, or if they have family issues, or whatever it is, to work around that. But then I also enjoy waking up and having a day where no one needs me. And that's a nice feeling - when you wake up and it doesn't really matter. There's no one on the team needing you to do anything.
So yeah, I really wanted to keep it small. It was only me for about four years. I was really keen to keep it - I wanted to keep it with me the whole time. But it just became, by about 2016 and World Emoji Day, by then we needed social teams to run that. It just became unmanageable. So we slowly started adding people.
VFD: World Emoji Day… was that generated from you? Were you like: Time to do World Emoji Day! Or did it come out from someone else.
Jeremy Burge: I invented the World Emoji Day because I felt like there should be a day about emojis. And it was kind of a defensive play - to be cynical about it. I felt like, well, someone's gonna do this. Somebody else. If someone else makes a World Emoji Day, then depending on who they are, maybe it's just a friendly thing, but let's say it was a competitor or something: Do you want to participate in their day or ignore their day? It's a lose / lose situation.
So I just woke up one day and almost had the night sweats. Like: I've got to make this work today, because if I don't, someone's gonna do it. And then I'm going to be stuck either participating in the day or not. And it's going to be unclear. So yeah, it was it was fun.
VFD: I think that's a good story for people to hear for themselves.
I always like hearing about what stresses other people out. Because you can always be like: oh, yeah, everyone's got a stress. And it's always something that you can relate to emotionally but can't relate to in terms of the output of worrying that a World Emoji Day is going to be taken from you.
Jeremy Burge: Well, Emojipedia is number one. I could spend the time and the resources, and the energy, to ensure we're the top emoji resource in the world. And when that happens, everything is worth it. But I never wanted to be. It didn't feel big enough to be bothered being number two. But it did mean that you had to constantly look out for things like that. If you're the top resource, you should also be in control of World Emoji Day. And you should make sure that you control the emoji narrative.
VFD: That's a great sentence. You’ve got to control the emoji narrative.
Jeremy Burge: You want to be at the forefront. You want it to be categorical. And for years, it was never anyone else.
VFD: Did you start getting the inside track on scoops and stuff?
Jeremy Burge: Yeah, there's always a weird discussion because I am not a journalist, and I was, and am, part of Unicode, which approves the emojis. That is the inside track, in a way. And while Unicode publishes most stuff, you can look up most of what they do. Some stuff is private and I couldn't publish it. But in the end, the only thing that was awkward is when I would know something from the outside. But I'd also know it internally.
Let's say someone accidentally put a document somewhere public and it shouldn't be. If I wasn't part of Unicode, I could probably find it anyway. But because I know it privately, then it's a weird conflict of interest. Do you publish a thing that you know or not? And mostly, I went: look, none of these are changing the the world. So I just let it be. I know privately, I'd wait till it's public, and then I'd publish something. But yes, it's a weird inside track where you knew a lot more than you could publish.
VFD: Yeah, that makes sense. Well, okay, I guess my final question, and this might not even be a thing that happens and it might just be reflective of my own experience online. But how often did you get really angry people messaging you about emoji?
Jeremy Burge: All the time, all the time. Originally it was like: DMs are open! And that was the first thing to peter off. Like, you could find ways to contact me. But yeah, my DMs are off, my email is not actively published anywhere, because everyone and anyone who felt like they didn't get the emoji that they want, or some kind of emoji issue, you’d get people who just mis-identify me as the problem or me as the source -and others who genuinely, conspiracy-wise, think that I’m the guy behind the scenes actively working against us.
VFD: That sounds cool.
Jeremy Burge: And normally, I'm like: guys, I don't care enough. Like: I don't even know who you are. I'm not actively working against you. And you fill my inbox with profanity and borderline death threats. It’s not fun.
VFD: Yeah, death threats are bad most of the time. All the time, I'd say. But when they were about an emoji as well, that's when you’ve got to question it.
Jeremy Burge: I would say the scary ones, like the Northern Ireland emoji flag stuff, it’s a contentious conflict that is a genuine worldwide event - and the emoji flag spills into that. But thankfully, the biggest blow up I’ve ever had was me not quite understanding BTS and K-Pop and the fans affinity for which colour heart emoji relates to which person.
VFD: Yeah, I would like to make a statement right now to the BTS community that we're thankful for you and your engagement.
Jeremy Burge: Yes, I love them all. They're all they're all great. Thanks for following.
VFD: Well, thanks for chatting. I appreciate it.
Jeremy Burge: Hey, no worries. Good to catch up.