News & Politics

The Medical-Mask Emoji Sucks. This DC Man Is Petitioning Apple for a Better One.

“It's an opportunity to normalize mask-wearing when...wearing a mask has become somehow a politicized issue.”

Shohsei Oda is hoping a smiling mask emoji can help normalize masks. Graphic courtesy of Oda.
Coronavirus 2020

About Coronavirus 2020

Washingtonian is keeping you up to date on the coronavirus around DC.

Apple released 117 new emojis on July 17’s World Emoji Day. Among the new offerings are a green bell pepper (the worst kind), a smiling face with a tear (apt for the current moment), a roller skate (big news for us TikTok girls), and a transgender pride flag (finally!)

Noticeably absent? A usable medical-mask emoji for the pandemic era. The current mask emoji (?) on Apple’s iOS looks sickly. Its wincing eyes connote the agony of illness—an undeniable reality of our current moment. But it’s not the reality of daily mask usage by asymptomatic folks, notes DC resident Shohsei Oda. With this in mind, Oda started a petition to change that: “Design a smiley mask-wearing emoji for Apple iOS.”

“Times have changed since they designed this, and now wearing a mask is so much more of a norm in our daily lives,” Oda says.

Where’s the emoji for running errands or a socially distanced meetup? What about a friendly reminder to mask up? Oda thought if he saw the need, others might as well.

He started with some research. The Unicode Consortium, a.k.a. the emoji overlords, have a form for submitting new emoji proposals. But this didn’t quite fit the bill. Samsung and Google’s interpolations of the mask emoji aren’t too bad. Oda’s initiative was more about getting a specific vendor, Apple, to redesign or add to an existing emoji rather than a new concept. And that’s how he arrived at his petition.

The Face with Medical Mask emoji as it appears on various operating systems. Screenshot from Emojipedia.

Then, he made a mock-up of his smize-ing mask emoji using Apple’s Keynote software and published the petition on Monday, July 20. That same day, President Trump called wearing a mask “patriotic” after appearing mask-clad in public for the first time mid-July. The change in the President’s tone was a shock following months of him downplaying the efficacy of masks. Then on Tuesday, Mayor Muriel Bowser expanded the District’s mask mandate to make face coverings mandatory in public, with few exceptions. 

As of publication, the petition has just under 150 signatures of its 200 signature goal—but it’s picking up momentum. It’s currently the only petition with this mission on the site (fewer than the several petitions lobbying for a sad-cowboy emoji). Oda is hoping the petition will demonstrate the demand for the emoji he’s seen in his own circles and inspire a spark of recognition in others—a thought that, “hey, this would be useful.”

Like many millennials, Oda has signed more petitions the past few months than ever before. The Change petition “Justice for George Floyd” has garnered over 19 million signatures—the most in the site’s history. Petition threads in support of Black Lives Matter causes on Twitter garner hundreds of thousands of retweets. Oda is quick to acknowledge this context.

“I don’t want to make this seem like any more of a noble petition than it is,” Oda said. “But I think it’s an opportunity to normalize mask-wearing when, for the last couple months in this country, wearing a mask has become somehow a politicized issue.” 

And it’s true that emojis have become influential elements of language with their own nuanced grammar and connotations. Oda is hoping a more positive mask emoji can influence how people feel about wearing face coverings, or at least reflect how normal they’ve become in our daily lives.

“The sooner we all wear masks, the sooner we all won’t have to wear masks because that helps curb the spread of COVID,” Oda says.

Finally, I asked Oda, as a newfound emoji lobbyist, what other emojis might be useful in our new era. Among the many we brainstormed were latex gloves, hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and, of course, a  six-feet-apart emoji ?      ?. For now, he’s focusing on the mask.

Social Media Producer

Hannah is Washingtonian’s Social Media Producer. She’s a proud Kentuckian who lives in Petworth with her bunny Ruthie.