In college, rather than dedicating those credits and tuition towards something useful, I spent two years studying the language of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. This was a mistake for many reasons, not the least of which is that I am a truly terrible artist—can’t draw at all—and hieroglyphics at the college level involves a fair amount of drawing. But when I failed my Middle Egyptian midterm junior year, it wasn’t because my snake scribbles looked more like ferrets. Accuracy in usage was important, accuracy in rendering was less so. Hieroglyphics developed as standardized, simplified manifestations of objects that corresponded to concepts—which in turn became increasingly simplified for the sake of expediency, until we ended up with Coptic and then Demotic en route to a real alphabet.
Emojis are like hieroglyphics—sort of. Not all hieroglyphics are logograms, which represent complete words or phrases, but some are, in that they are pictures to represent ideas. They are not, really, art. They are not intended to communicate value through the style of their rendering.
A rectangle with a chunk missing from the bottom line in ancient Egyptian is pronounced pr and means “house.” When it’s messily drawn, it does not mean a messy house. When it is big, it does not mean a big house.
A round bit of pixelated dough with a hole in the middle on your iPhone means “bagel;” it does not mean “bring me a bad, flash-frozen bagel that would be laughed out of any deli, regardless of its zip code” if the top is too smooth or the interior texture resembles Wonder Bread or there’s no cream cheese in the picture. And I don’t believe anyone really thinks that it did.
By now, if you’re reading this, you likely know that earlier this month, Apple released a new slate of forthcoming emojis that included a plain bagel, sans cream cheese, that didn’t look delicious enough to… what? Eat? That’s fine! You couldn’t if you wanted to. But because we are all striving to create constant content in a newscycle that is more relentless than ever (with decreasing resources to pursue anything beyond what’s reflected on the screen in front of our faces), people said as much.
They made jokes on Twitter.
The Brands weighed in.
And pretty soon, the emoji was changed. A win for grassroots organizing.
The point here is not to shame people for caring about ephemeral idiocy on the internet. I care enough to write this whole thing. But the Great Bagel Kerfuffle of 2018 feels like a parody of caring about things on the Internet, like a bunch of people going through the well-trod motions of outrage and backlash and enjoying the catharsis of effecting change through witty tweets and writing thinkpieces about the “complicated politics” of it all. When really, I just cannot fathom anyone lost any sleep over the bagel on their iPhone being too smooth.
Attempts to tie the issue to some sort of true New Yorker identity feel like a bait-and-switch, not to mention an embarrassing ass-showing about the self-centered NYC media echo chamber. Representation in emojis does matter—if we’re talking about interracial couples or women wearing hijabs. People who boast their Big Apple bonafides by publicly proclaiming the demerits of any bagel in the public consciousness are not a protected class. I promise, Apple is not dog-whistling their bias against the city or any of its millions of residents by oversimplifying the bagel. (Although, worth it for this work of Pulitzer-worthy satire.)
And that’s just it: It’s an oversimplification. You know how we know the bagel emoji is just fine? Because everyone knew it was a (bad) bagel on sight. It accurately conveys the idea: Bagel. It’s not a recipe or a review or a serving suggestion. It’s not a value judgement of anyone’s actual bagel order. After all, the croissant has no texture to speak of, the apple is bright red (not a good sign), and the Woman Raising Her Hand has eyes that take up half her head.
Of course, people complain, entertainingly, on Twitter and all over the internet, endlessly. If America circa 2018 has a unifying art form, it’s loudly making mountains out of other people’s mole hills, blurring the line between performative indignation and actual anger for the sake of having something to say. The problem is when the momentum starts to build and self-perpetuate until there’s a whole cloud of contrived controversy with nothing at the core. One guy tweets a joke about how the bagel emoji looks bad and suddenly we’re having a national dialogue even though no real person sincerely gives a single fuck about it.
In their otherwise smart, thorough contextualization of the whole debate, Vox concluded that although aligning your identity politics with any bagel at all seems like a stretch:
[T]he outcry over the bagel emoji suggests that there are people who really do feel — on some level, even if it is tongue-in-cheek — that the bagel does represent them in some way, and that this anemic version (“the most gentile bagel ever baked”) does a disservice not only to carbohydrates but to the rich diversity of American identity. (That, and people generally enjoy being angry on the internet.)
But I care about those asides: Whether it was tongue-in-cheek, why do people enjoy being angry on the internet? Because an entire news cycle built around the idea that people are offended by something, without attempting to parse whether that offense is ironic or sincere, ultimately undermines what we’re all doing here by reading the news and reacting to it.
And I get it! Maybe it's a manifestation of the overwhelming existential angst that accompanies the literal end of the world as we know it. All that anger has to go somewhere and you'll give yourself a hernia or carpal tunnel or an anxiety disorder tweeting at Donald Trump all the time. This is a chance to be angry and heard. To have a simple opinion about whether something is Good or Bad and have that opinion echoed and amplified until it has demonstrable impact. You fixed it with your outrage. And that's the best we can hope for these days. Or maybe it's a distraction from everything that really matters. A farcical controversy that is in fact part of a large farce that everything is fine. I get that, too.
But I hope you know that if you took time to sign the Change.org petition to add cream cheese to the bagel emoji, you better fucking vote.