The making of our pride emotes
Jun 09, 2023 – minute read
Welcome to the latest installment of our Innovation Series, a behind-the-scenes look at how the YouTube features find their way to your screen, as told by the people who create them.
Soon you’ll have access to an absolutely fabulous set of Pride-infused emote reactions to use across YouTube in celebration of LGBTQIA+ communities across the world.
But this isn’t just a corporate nod to Pride Month. These reactions, or little images you can send in comments and live chat on YouTube, reflect years of work – research and design collaborations with people embedded in the various communities we celebrate.
In what follows, we’ll share a brief history of emotes, and then talk about the research and design process that led to the new sets we’re sharing with you.
First, some definitions. Emoji are not the same as emotes. Emoji refer to the pictograms, or small pictures, that are most readily found on your phone – like 😀 or 🤣 or even 💁🏻♂️. They are images attached to a computing industry standard referred to as Unicode and various devices may render these same emoji differently. Emoji initially debuted in 1999 in Japan by the mobile internet carrier DOCOMO and other companies soon followed with their own sets. Eventually, the Unicode Consortium was organized to maintain standards for emoji across computers.
Emotes, on the other hand, go way back – and started as a text to represent faces and other expressions. Like :) or :-O or even (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻. Today, emotes include pictograms, too – but they are software specific and are not associated with the Unicode emoji you’ll find elsewhere. For example, in 2020 we released a series of emotes custom to YouTube that aimed to bring a shared sense of solidarity as the world navigated the COVID-19 epidemic.
We wanted to make more emote reactions for people to use, but it needed to be research-informed. For example, some scholars have critiqued Unicode’s early emoji sets due to lack of representation while others say that designs need to balance creativity with clarity of meaning so they are truly useful in practice.
The people who use emotes need to feel like they can see themselves and their community in what they share. Our design approach thus emphasized representation and celebration of differences across our users.
Two strands of research were most prominent in informing our Pride set. First, we know that emotes can be used to indicate your affiliation with a specific group to show solidarity. Second, diversity and representation are really important to emotes, too. The people who use emotes need to feel like they can see themselves and their community in what they share. Our design approach thus emphasized representation and celebration of differences across our users.
We also created design principles that ensure emotes are clear and useful across devices. This is especially important given how small emotes are – text, for example, would be hard to read when it’s that tiny!
Another example of our design principles at work is reflected in what are called “short codes,” or text a user can type to search for the emote they are looking for. For example, 😊 could be :happy: or :blushing-smiley-face: or any other set of combinations. Our research showed that short codes should be clear and expressive to make it easy for users to summon them at will. But for community-centered emotes, like those associated with this set, we also iterated on short codes with LGBTQIA+ users to ensure that the text, too, is inclusive.
We had the incredible fortune to work with two artists to develop our Pride emote set: Mia Saine and Wednesday Holmes. Both are queer-identified artists with a history of work spotlighting underrepresented communities in their designs and celebrating social justice efforts through their art.
Mia and Wednesday are indeed gifted artists, but our design principles ensured that our collaboration centered on what users want. As a result, we now have a YouTube Pride emote set that we think is pretty amazing. We hope you do, too!
Many thanks to the team at YouTube who helped develop and launch these new emotes, including Jason São Bento, Chris Bettig, Lil Chen, Danae Holmes, Jesse Lefkowitz, Elena Ontiveros, Jazza John, Alex Lee, Tatiana Campbell and the Anyways Team.