To say that I like to send text messages is like saying Garfield likes lasagna. It is my expressive medium. On Wednesday alone, I sent at least 100 — but I like to send more than just words. I’m a big fan of using emoji, the colorful symbol alphabet that contains nearly a thousand images of cute animals, food items and expressive smiley faces to convey what words cannot.
When a friend recently told me that she was sick, I replied with a cartoon row of steaming bowls of soup and a flexing bicep — my way of wishing her a speedy recovery.
I insert all kinds of visual images into messages, including GIFs — those short, looping animated clips — to emphasize a point. When my friend Ray got an iPhone, for example, I texted him a GIF of the singer Rihanna jumping up and down to convey my own enthusiasm for his purchase.
Using emoji, emoticons and GIFs in a texted conversation instantly signals the difference between sincerity and a joke or sarcasm. And it takes less effort. It’s easier to smooth over hurt feelings with an impish cat face than to hastily type a long and winding explanation of why you’re 20 minutes late to your dinner date, or to let a friend know that you are sending your love her way with an animated GIF of two pandas hugging.
Typically, these mobile phone features have not been big businesses in the U.S. But a few young American startup businesses, including a private social networking service called Path and messaging services called Lango and MessageMe, are trying to change that. Path and MessageMe have released souped-up versions of emoji and emoticons called “stickers" that can be inserted into messages; Lango’s will be introduced Tuesday. Compared with emoji, stickers are elaborate, artsy creations. On Path, for example, the sticker that’s intended to convey an upset mood shows a frowning face surrounded by a storm cloud and lightning bolts.
“People have always been typing ‘LOL,’ or putting in a YouTube link while communicating," said Arjun Sethi, one of the founders of MessageMe. “This is a faster and more intuitive way to communicate; it’s about more ways to be expressive in this medium."
It is an opportunity that has sharp-eyed entrepreneurs and venture capitalists eager to cash in.
“Messaging as a category will evolve to be more commerce-oriented," says Chi-Hua Chien, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers, which has invested in Path and several other messaging applications.
The sticker apps are free to download. But for a few dollars, users can buy extra packs that include premium items like hand-drawn caricatures of snacks — a dancing slice of pizza, for example — or cartoon characters from the trippy children’s show “Adventure Time." For the Super Bowl, Lango released a theme pack containing cartoon caricatures of the San Francisco 49ers.
Like emoticons and emoji, these sticker applications have been popular for quite some time in other parts of the world. Line, an app that lets people send stickers, drawings and messages to one another, has enjoyed commercial success in South Korea and Japan. The service, developed by Naver, a South Korean company, says it has more than 100 million users. The company recently opened an office in San Francisco to drum up a big audience for Line in the United States.
Line’s popularity was part of what motivated Lango and MessageMe to bring their own versions of sticker-type messaging to the U.S.
The translation might not be as easy as it sounds. Even though I’m in the target audience for these sticker apps — always looking for new ways to spice up my text messages — I have found some of the stickers a bit too gimmicky, at least when compared with their less fussy, emoji predecessors. I found it hard to imagine the images gaining conversational traction among my friends, which is half the fun of using visual icons in the first place.
David Lee, one of the founders of SV Angel, an angel investment venture capital firm, has invested in MessageMe. But he does have one niggling question, which is whether “user behavior and cultural norms in Asia and other countries are so different that they don’t translate well to the U.S."
Cellphone users in Asia quickly adopted text messaging and found creative ways to express themselves within those messages’ character limits. But many Americans became familiar with emoji only when the iPhone released a software update that included an emoji keyboard a few years ago.
Those who study digital media and culture say the U.S. is still developing its mobile habits and behavior, so other countries’ trends may not be a good metric for what will work at home.
Unlike emoji, the sticker apps do not function on the default texting program, which makes using them more of an effort. And figuring out how to satisfy the American mobile consumer has frustrated companies like Zynga and Facebook, which have struggled to translate Web success to mobile.
Nonetheless, Lee says he is confident that Americans will embrace visual texting methods. He also says the applications fit well into what he sees as the future of social networking, where friend groups are built around phone address books and texting, rather than a website.
Sethi of MessageMe agrees that my cohort just needs time to adapt to these new visual communication markers.
Other forms of visual-based communication are catching on here, so maybe there is hope for the mobile stickers. Big audiences have already been gained by video-chatting services, like Skype, as well as by Instagram, the photo-sharing service, and Snapchat, a tool that lets people send photos and videos that self-destruct after a few seconds.
As for me, I’ll stick with my simple emoji vocabulary of hearts, blushing women and half-hatched chicken — for the time being.