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Instagram engineer delves into emoji madness

Joab Jackson | May 8, 2015
Emojis: Kids may love their simplicity, but programmers will loathe their complexities.

For the solution, Instagram turned to regular expressions, a dense but extremely versatile language for searching for patterns in text. Regular expressions, called regex for short, were designed for tasks such as recognizing complex sets data strings within larger, more complex strings of data.

In the IT world, regular expressions searches justifiably have gained a reputation for being fiendishly complicated. Instagram's regular expressions for finding emojis may be the most complicated yet.

The company painstakingly crafted a regex search pattern for Python 2.7, the company's preferred language for its back-end search service, that would identify all the possible emojis a user could use. The list was more than 3,600 characters long. Imagine entering that into Google without a single mistake.

And that was just the regex for Python. Instagram had to identify emojis across all the platforms it supported. So company engineers had to craft separate, though equally voluminous, regex patterns for Google's and Apple's choices, Java and Objective-C.

The work paid off, however, not only in terms of the positive publicity that the emoji support generated for Instagram, but also by helping the company stay in touch with its digitally expressive user base. If emojis ever do surpass the use of text itself, as pundits fear and Instagram predicts, then Instagram is well poised for this colorful future.

 

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