The cockroach emoji proposal is a story about texting through the apocalypse

Technology

A slate of new emoji was announced in January. Months later, they’ve finally trickled onto most people’s phones… but in one case, it’s really more of a skitter. I’m talking about the cockroach, arguably the most shudder-inducing emoji of 2020 — and the product of a great little short story about the looming end of the world.

As my colleague Jay Peters and an excellent 2019 documentary explain, anyone can submit an emoji proposal to the Unicode Consortium. The proposal must convince the consortium that many people will use the emoji in a variety of ways. And for the authors of the cockroach application — Jason Li, Melissa Thermidor, and Amanda Hickman — that includes the aftermath of a nuclear war.

It starts with a line from the opening paragraph. After noting “strong global demand” for a roach emoji, the authors casually lay out one specific scenario: preparing our culture for the death of the human race. “Adding a COCKROACH emoji would not only benefit the currently small animal-bug collection, but also ensure that if cockroaches do outlive humans in the future, at least they have an emoji too,” they note.

The authors concede that despite popular perception, cockroaches probably couldn’t survive a nuclear war. But don’t worry — they could also reference humans who do! “COCKROACH will be a versatile emoji that can be used in a number of ways,” they reason. It could be used as “a visual signifier for a house pest,” for instance; or to symbolize “something that’s hard to get rid of”; or, naturally, “to reference a survivor in a nuclear winter.” There’s even a proposed sequence for nuclear winter itself: a cockroach, a radioactivity symbol, and a snowflake.

The actual story behind the symbol is more sober. Last week, Jason Li posted a Twitter thread about its road to approval, starting with his childhood in roach-ridden Hong Kong. The emoji was meant as a tribute to an “arguably cute hometown pest.” But months after its submission, Hong Kong police began calling pro-democracy protesters and local bystanders “cockroaches,” turning it into “an anti-protester meme of police brutality.” (There’s also an ugly history of genocidal movements using “cockroach” as an insult.) Now, Li tweets that he’s got “very, very mixed feelings” about the roach.

The Unicode Consortium application, however, continues to double as excellent science fiction. While the rest of us live in blissful ignorance, Godspeed to the people who will help us text through the apocalypse — and lace obscure bureaucratic filings with dire hints along the way.