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How Jeremy Burge Went From Mac Fanboy to Emoji Mogul

The founder of Emojipedia reveals the emojis he loves and reviles, plus how much he got for selling half a bitcoin.

Jeremy Burge in front of some palm tree emojis and an internet window reading, "How I Internet."
Jeremy Burge.
Photo illustration by Slate. Images by Rachel Lee, Apple, and Facebook.

At its best, the internet is a never-ending cocktail party, to which we each bring our own special libations. (Its worst is some other column’s problem.) This is How I Internetwhere the web’s most interesting personalities share what’s in their punch bowl.

This installment’s subject: Jeremy Burge, founder and proprietor of Emojipedia, the online emoji reference guide, and vice chair of Unicode’s Emoji Subcommittee

Age: 33

Location: London

Hardware: 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, iPhone X (“I mostly wanted it for the camera”), Apple Watch

Representative tweet:

Slate: Do you remember your earliest experience of getting online?

Jeremy Burge: I think I was about 11 or 12. It was that time where the internet was being talked about in the newspaper and on TV. People would be saying, “The internet is here,” or, “It’s coming.” My mom took me ’round to a family friend’s house to play on their computer, and they sort of said, “Well, what do you want to look up?” I had brought this newspaper article, which had listed some websites you could type in. I think the only one I looked up was called Happy Puppy. I assume it’s not around anymore. Let me Google it. Happy Puppy. No. First result is someone saying, “Anyone remember Happy Puppy?”

It was a couple of years after that that I got the internet at home, and we had it once a week and would dial into the internet and I would talk to my friends in ICQ and send an email or two. In Australia [where Burge grew up], every town had its own internet provider. There weren’t really big companies. So my town, a small town of about 5,000 people called Kilmore, it had its own internet provider. It was called Computers on the Run. It had a little logo of a computer with legs.

Actually, I remember that one time we came back from holiday and we got this giant bill for the internet. The police got involved and everything, and everyone was obviously sort of grilling me because I was the main one to use it in the house and I was like, “No. We were on holiday. It definitely wasn’t me.” But it turned out someone at the company had hacked into our account. I guess the internet was so expensive at the time that even if you worked at an ISP, you didn’t have unlimited internet.

What was your first handle?

I had one called something like Purple Giant—I think I made it through one of those random name generator sites. I think I hung onto that, and then, I just don’t think I cared anymore or something, I just registered for new services with my own name.

I think some of it was also … I made for a little while these … Did you have a Mac back in the day or did you have a Windows PC?

I always had a PC.

Well, there was a thing on the Mac that was like a theming program called Kaleidoscope where you would custom-design themes to make your windows and everything look different on the screen. For that, they encouraged you to use your real name, so they’d say, “Jeremy Burge made this.” They were terrible. I made this theme of stationery where the title bar on your windows was a pencil and the close button was an eraser.

They call them schemes, not themes, but they are sort of themes for your Mac. You could download this shareware program, you’d pay $30 or something to have it. You’d sort of browse other people’s designs that they’d come up with and you’d get them and they’d feature one every week. There was a magazine in Japan that decided to feature it, which I thought was a pretty amazing thing as a 14-year-old, having a Japanese magazine get in touch to ask if they could put it on their CD that they’ll distribute with the magazine. That was the first taste of publishing anything on the internet.

You also spent time in forums, right?

This Mac forum that I was part of, I think it still exists, but at the time, it seemed like a big forum. You know how there’s always sort of online drama in communities and things? I don’t quite remember what happened, but vaguely, there was sort of the general purpose forum, like, the not-tech forum where everyone would just hang out and talk about movies, and that was one of the more popular parts of it. But then people would get grumpy about the new people coming in and ruining it or whatever it was. So someone would set up a spinoff forum to say, “Oh, all the cool people from this one can come over here to this other forum.” And then, some of the people would be there, and then people got grumpy with people there and then there would be a smaller and smaller group until it ended up this forum with about 30 people on it, out of about 20,000 people on this other forum. It just ended up being a smaller group of friends, people that I’m still friends with today

I meet people off Twitter all the time today as well, but it definitely felt different. It felt maybe more, I’d say special. I don’t want to be nostalgic about it, but because there was more protection about who you really are behind your screen name, there’s often sort of a moment where you talk to someone online for years and not know their name or really even where they live, but you know a lot about them. That was a weird revealing whereas, on things like Twitter, often your real name or your photo or your job is front and center, so you know way more about people before you talk to them.

How did you wind up starting Emojipedia?

I used to have a website called the Dashboarder. If you’ve got a Mac today, you know how there’s the widget screen? Apple doesn’t really promote it much anymore, but for a while there, they were promoting it as this hot new thing that you could put like, the weather and the calculator and they sort of hover over your screen. I thought, “This is gonna be the future of things and we need a site to document them all.” I set up this site called the Dashboarder and it turned into another site called DashboardWidgets.com. I just thought, if this is something that no one is doing, then I should do it.

And emojis felt the same way. I was sort of searching Twitter to see if anyone had got definitive answers about which ones are new and it was just a bunch of … you know when you search something on the internet and you just find often questions instead of answers? They were just sort of shouting into the void and I figured there’s hundreds of these things, how is nobody doing something about it? Emojipedia was such an obvious name. I felt bad that if I wasn’t gonna set it up, it felt like a wasted opportunity, so why not do it?

Fuck, Marry, Kill: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter.

Definitely kill Twitter. There’s plenty that’s great that I get a lot out of it workwise, but people do like to come in and bomb their thoughts at you whenever they feel like it and there’s quite a bit of negativity there. Fuck Facebook. You know, you go in there, you see what everyone’s been up to, then you get out again. And I think I’d have to marry Instagram because I’m happy seeing that every day. I’m not sad looking at Instagram. There’s nothing that’s going on on there that makes me think, “Why did I open this now?” It’s always good.

On all the social media networks, who would you say is the person that you follow as a guilty pleasure?

I’m trying to think of … I’m sort of opening up my Instagram here trying to think of someone that’s a guilty pleasure. I mean … do you have yours? Maybe it’ll prompt me. Maybe it’ll jog my thoughts.

I follow a lot of celebrities. So, I don’t know, like Reese Witherspoon maybe or—

To be fair, I do follow Reese Witherspoon because she commented something about … she @-ed Emojipedia at some stage to say, “Hooray. The cheese emoji’s coming” or something. I followed her on Instagram and she’s always posting pictures of her dresses and flowers. I quite like what she’s getting up to there. And then when you like something on someone’s page and then it shows you which other friends of yours have done it first, you go, “Oh, why are all my friends following Reese Witherspoon too?”

Who’s the actress that plays the long brown-haired woman in Sex and the City?

Oh, Charlotte. Kristin Davis.

I also follow her on the internet. When she signed up to Twitter a few years ago, when I was still running our Twitter account, Emojipedia was one of the first hundred or so people that she followed on the internet, and I was like, “Oh, that’s weird.” You know, we were quite a much smaller account and company at the time. I tweeted at her, you know, “Do you need a hand with anything?” She was just like, “Oh, no. Just sussing out the emojis on my phone. Thought I’d learn some more about it.” So I still follow what she’s up to. She’s always trying to save the elephants and help refugees, so she seems like quite a nice person.

Cynthia Nixon from Sex and the City is now running for governor of New York. So she’s become political. I think Kristin Davis endorsed her, and Sarah Jessica Parker at first did not endorse her and then did endorse her.

Oh, I missed all this. You do feel like, well at least I feel like, the tech scene has sort of taken over so many other things as well. I’m definitely not in the same industry as any of these people, but you sort of feel like you are in some ways. I don’t know whether it’s because you’re all on the same social media networks or because tech is media and publishing now, so it feels like there’s some kind of overlap. It’s a weird world when you sort of feel like, “We’re all hanging out, they’re very famous people in movies and I’m updating a website, but we could all be mates.”

Oh, on Judge Judy, I’m a big fan of the bailiff, Bailiff Byrd. I feel like if I follow him and like his tweets long enough that eventually he might invite me to sit in the audience for his show, I don’t know if that’s how it works. Lately on Instagram, he’s been posting stories back stage, he tries a bit of stand-up. For a while there, I ran a Byrd fan page on the internet, which I ended up feeling was a bit creepy. I like his tics on the show. He doesn’t talk for nearly every episode, but then every now and then he just says something a bit amusing and kind of looks up from his crossword. He says so little that you can document everything he does in a much better way.

Do you have a favorite emoji? Has it changed over time?

For whatever reason, I used to really like the palm tree emoji. It just felt sunny and decorative that you’d sprinkle it around your text messages, it kind of livened it up. If you said to someone, “Good morning,” that’s fine, but put some palm trees around it and it felt very tropical. About a year ago, Apple changed it and it looked less happy. It started being a bit more of a droopy palm tree. I stopped using it then; it just didn’t convey the same thing. Now I like the rainbow or the ta-da hands.

Are there any emojis you dislike?

I don’t really use the poo. I know people think the poo’s funny. It just doesn’t convey anything helpful to me. I don’t know what you’re trying to say with the happy pile of poo. Maybe in the right timing, just a single poo could be comedic. I’m not sprinkling my texts with it.

Are you into GIFs?

I love GIFs. I feel like we went through a very quick wave, quicker than emojis, where GIFs came out and everyone overused them and then there was bit of backlash about how maybe it was a bit trite to put a GIF here or there, but don’t know, I love a good GIF in the right spot. It can convey more than an emoji can by itself if you get the right one with the right crowd. I’m a big searcher [of GIFs], I like to do the search. I will scroll for ages, I will keep scrolling down and down.

Are you part of any ongoing group texts?

Some of my group texts are on mute because they’re banging on all day and you can’t have your phone notifying you every time. I’ve got different priority group texts.

There’s one that I have that’s called Mercury Retrograde, and it’s a friend of mine who believes that when Mercury goes into some part of the orbit—I don’t understand, some time of the year when she claims that bad things happen for three months straight? The point of the group is that we all go along with the premise that we agree that it’s very true and whenever we find an article that mentions it, which surprisingly there’s quite a number, we’ll post it on the group, or if anything bad happens, we’ll check in with her to check if we’re in Mercury Retrograde. It’s more fun getting on board and finding proof that it exists than that it doesn’t. It’s no fun shutting it down all day; it’s more fun finding the examples that could make it true even if personally I do not think that is not how things happen on this planet.

What are the last texts you sent and received?

It’s to a friend of mine. I saw on Instagram a photo of a group of people including her and a guy I know she likes, and they look quite close in the photo, so I screenshotted it and did a big circle around them and sent the smirking face. I sent that this morning. The response from her says nothing has happened yet.

Do you own any cryptocurrency?

I do, I bought one bitcoin about four years ago. It was a couple hundred dollars, and then last year when everyone was getting all nuts about it, I sold a half of it. I just figured I didn’t want to think about it anymore. Some people would be saying it was going to be worth a million dollars and some people were saying it was going to be worth nothing. I’m not much of a gambler, so I thought if I sell half of it, and this is the highest it ever gets, I don’t feel like an idiot, and if it keeps going through the roof and it’s suddenly worth $10 million one day, I also don’t feel like an idiot that I got rid of the whole lot. I got about $5,000. I think it doubled again not that long after. I think I put it toward a ski trip. The other half will sit there, probably forever, until it’s worth nothing or $100 million, I don’t see myself doing anything with the other half.