True meaning of Apple’s mysterious new emoji has been revealed

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The Ad Council invented iOS 9.1's mystery emoji.
The Ad Council invented iOS 9.1's mystery emoji.
Photo: Goodby Silverstien & Partners

Apple’s new “Eye in Speech Bubble” emoji has mystified us ever since it was first discovered last month, but now that iOS 9.1 is out to the public, we finally know the full story (and meaning) behind the odd new pictogram.

The mystery emoji was fast-tracked by Apple instead of going through the normal Unicode approval process, except the new icon wasn’t even Apple’s idea at all. It was made by the same people that created Smokey the Bear.

The Ad Council — which gave us the “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” ads, the Crash Test Dummies, Scruff McGruff and more — invented the new eye-in-speech bubble emoji as part of it’s anti-bullying campaign, “I am a witness.”

San Francisco ad agency Goodby, Silverstien & Partners designed the original eye-in-speech bubble character as a way for teens to stand up when they see bullying online. In an interview with Wired, designers Angie Elko and Patrick Knowlton say once they brought up the idea to Apple, the company bent over backward to bring it to teens’ keyboards ASAP.

“When we first asked about bringing this emoji to the official Apple keyboard, they told us it would take at least a year or two to get it through and approved under Unicode,” says Wittmark. However, Apple found a clever way to fast-track it by using a zero-width joiner to combine two emojis — the speech bubble and eye — into a single emoji. The same process was used by Apple to create its same-sex couple emojis.

If you’re not running iOS 9.1, you can download the new I Am A Witness app on iOS or Android that includes a keyboard with stylized logos, GIFs, stickers and other anti-bullying art that can be shared online.

“It’s a powerful symbol,” says Wittmark. “It says, ‘I see this, and I’m speaking up. I’m doing something about it.’”