World’s most dangerous animals set free…digitally

Cameron Webb and I penned a background story for the Conversation on how the mozzie emoji came to be and how it may be used after it hits your phones around August/September 2018.[5]

You may have heard that from June 2018 onwards [1], a new mosquito emoji (from Japanese e (絵, “picture”) + moji (文字, “character”) [2]) will start rolling out to all the various software applications that use this tiny pictorial communication shorthand.

You may also know that emoji are more than just emoticons (graphical portrayals of emotion, mostly around facial representations). Emoji are pictographs that convey not only emotion but also represent activities, creatures, places, weather, items and can be used in patterns to convey additional meaning.

Emoji are also more than goofy images. They are not a language, they are a system of communication.[6] Emoji can speed up and simplify messaging.[4] They can add context to the otherwise emotionless text, sometimes pre-empt misunderstanding or head off conflict. They can cross boundaries and traditions, habits, upbringing and even borders. Although not all the time.[1]

They might even be fantastic tools to help scientists collect data about disease and outbreaks, to engage more effectively with their communities in times of public health need and to better describe their research findings.

Emoji might help warn the community to take preventative measures to stop spread of disease – apply insect repellent, turn over containers that catch water and breed insects, beware of asthma managements during common cold season or be extra careful washing your hands because of a gastro virus outbreak in your area. But we’ll have to wait on more studies that look at this to really see if this happens or just a desirable outcome.

While I didn’t have all that in mind when I thought about the need for a mosquito emoji back in 2016, some of it seemed like a good idea. At the time I was writing and reading and watching the mosquito-borne Zika virus blasting through South America. Back then Zika virus’s links with devastating neurological damage were still more hypothesis and coincidence than fact underpinned by any mechanism of action.

At the time there was a lot of talk on Twitter about mosquitoes and viruses – I felt that both needed to be included in the popular pictographic communication lexicon represented by emoji. On June 2016 I proposed an emoji.[10] The emoji got through to a list for consideration but didn’t make that cut (it did, I was told, have good support) and was set aside for later. It then got a bit lost in the system.

A year later another proposal was made by Marla Shaivitz (digital communication manager at Johns Hopkins Center for Communication Programs) and Jeff Chertack (senior program officer for ,malaria advocacy and communications at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) [11] and, long story short, the mosquito emoji concept finally got through the Unicode Consortium process.

Because the mosquito emoji became a reality, @kat_arden and I thought that a VIRUS and a BACTERIA (we chose the plural because we thought that was the more common term for the public, and we hardly ever talk about a single bacterium anyway)  emoji might now also be possible. So we proposed these to the Unicode Consortium last Wednesday (21FEB2018).[15]

Our example image included in the BACTERIA emoji proposal, we submitted in February 2018.[7] Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.  
The raucously coloured image we included in our VIRUS emoji proposal this week.[8] Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.

Apparently there have been similar proposals before. There was also some online discussion in regard to the unsatisfactory nature of the new MICROBE emoji coming out in v11.0.[14, 12,13] 

The v11.0 MICROBE has so far been represented by a…paramecium, a mixed bag of viruses and bacteria and a….thing [9]:

We don’t think that the MICROBE does enough to represent viruses and bacteria for a few reasons:

  • Search result analyses (Google, Bing and YouTube) show VIRUS or BACTERIA to be more frequently entered than MICROBE (a lot more)
  • MICROBE has not been a trending term over the past 5-years according to Google trends (this suggests that the public are very clear on specific terms & the images that represent them)
  • The public have, especially in recent years, heard and read and viewed a lot of information about virus-driven outbreaks and epidemics – pandemic influenza virus in 2009 (‘swine flu virus’), Ebola virus in 2014/14, Zika virus in 2015/16 and now the biggest influenza virus season on record as well as a norovirus outbreak during the recent winter Olympics
  • The public has been exposed to considerable discussion about bacteria, antibiotics, antibiotic resistance, antibiotic overuse in animals, food poisoning outbreaks, hospital infections and the coming problem when we run out of antibiotics (which work in bacteria, not viruses). These mainstream media stories usually use the term bacteria.
  • MICROBE is not a precise medical or scientific word and while the Consortium doesn’t seek to get too specific, we can have multiple colour shades of a heart? Or phases of the moon? Or degrees of sun peeking from behind a cloud?
  • Academics and the public understand virus and bacteria as distinct and recognizable entities. In fact, each of these words is containers for a huge number of differently shaped and disease-causing entities. VIRUS and BACTERIA are in fact very broad-ranging yet highly distinct terms and would be used quite differently.
  • The public also recognizes the images associated with the word ‘virus’ and ‘bacteria’. Our research and our time online have shown the need for these distinct images. But not for a MICROBE.

Nonetheless, our proposal was rejected on 28FEB2018. We were told that other applications had been rejected before ours and that encouraging others to have a go would probably just be a waste of their time. Our proposed emoji were not distinct enough now that there is a MICROBE emoji.

Emoji are intended to be recognisable. Of course. I mean, we can all easily describe when to use each of the face emoji right?


When haven’t you had a perfectly clear and appropriate use for each of those? 🤬

And this 👇 degree of subtle variation is absolutely essential for our 🌎🌍🌏 to go on.


Don’t get me started on how many concepts VIRUS and BACTERIA could each cover that MICROBE just won’t do justice to, but such is life. MICROBE does have attached which include virus and bacteria, so I guess we’re stuck with a one-size-fits-all, better-than-nothing emoji, suck-it-up emoji for the foreseeable future.

If you’re interested, you can view our VIRUS and BACTERIA proposal here.[15]

I don’t live under any misconception that an emoji will solve the world’s communication problems. Future studies of how MOSQUITO is included in messages on the internet will help us to understand if and how it’s used and what benefits it microbe might truly bestow. We don’t have any data yet so everything is based on feelz.

In the meantime, anything which might be able to help people accurately understand, inform, help rapidly and simply communicate, have fun with or get involved in the science around them, is something I’m behind. I know I’ll be using the MOSQUITO emoji!




  1. Fixed error in the date of rejection
  2. Reformatted fro Gutenberg 19JUN2020

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