Monday, April 28, 2014

On Sticker-Speak

Some of the stickers available within Facebook’s Messenger app.

In a March 2007 post subtitled ‘How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Just Get With The Blip-Post Programme’ I wrote that
“the ultimate logical step will be for someone to create a social networking site that just posts individual tag words on their own…” 
While I was positing that notion with tongue firmly in cheek, it is interesting to observe that we now do have the ability to communicate using absolutely simple, single-concept message units. The emojii-based stickers of today’s messaging apps are the example I have been thinking about recently. At first glance the idea behind these stickers appears trivial, indeed faintly silly. Scroll through the sticker selection panels in any messaging app and you will see rows of cute cartoon characters over-acting and gurning some exaggerated emotion.

But I think that if we look a little bit deeper there is something interesting going on here. So, while the audience for this blog is unlikely to embrace the use of pictographic stickers in their everyday messaging, it is always worthwhile for anyone working in branding, design and app development to observe the trends and be aware of what different kinds of communications are bubbling up.
People are choosing to use these stickers to communicate in some manner. So they definitely have a job-to-be-done. What that job may be, and indeed what might be the minimum that we need for viable digital communication seems worth exploring here.

Minimum Viable Communications
Firstly, I do not think that it is a given fact that the idea of simplified, single-concept message units would necessarily be seen as useful and become broadly accepted. That core idea needs to be provided as a service in a manner that people find appealing to use. In the mid-nineties, when I was doing a lot of design work for Telecom Eireann, mobile phones were still expensive products aimed at businesses. Telecom Eireann tried to kick-start a youth market for pagers as a more price-appropriate product. They launched a range of pagers in Ireland with a heavily promoted and expensive Eurotrash-themed advertising campaign which struggled and failed to make pagers seem hip. Although hobbled by ill-advised advertising creative, the real downfall of the product was that, given the available technology of the time, the low-budget devices could only send three-digit numeric codes. People could not message each other in plaintext. So to use a pager you needed to carry a booklet with an unwieldy list of arbitrary meanings ascribed to those numerical pager codes. Something like ‘234 = I am running late’ and ‘678 = Drinks later?’ The pager market never took off. The limitations imposed on communication outweighed the promise of being able to communicate on the move. The target audience just ignored pagers and waited for mobile phones to become affordable. So this was not a failure of the idea of simplified minimal communications per se, but rather of their service execution in a form that was difficult to use, and which did not convey meaning.

Jump forward to today and most smartphone operating systems have incorporated Japanese i-Mode emoji icons. These simple, single-concept icons are inter-operable with the Western character set within text messages. Most often I see people appending emoji as suffixes to text messages. Using just one character the senders can add information about whether they are being ironic or playful in their message. Emoji solve the problem where, writing so concisely, we often must sacrifice tonality. So, at least in the usage which I observe, they act as modifiers to the main text. These eight words may not necessarily clearly signify whether the sender is optimistic, sarcastic or infuriated. That is the additional role given to the little yellow character at the end.

Where I do see emoji used on their own are generally as replies to written texts. A text asking ‘How did the meeting go?’ might get a thumbs-up emoji response. No words being necessary, as a conversation will provide the relevant detail later.

Although it is not a usage I see amongst my peers, emoji can even be strung together as a rudimentary pictographic language. If only for humorous intent more than anything. Yet, I think that if that was the only way of using them, they would necessarily fail in the same way as the pager codes did. Perhaps these kinds of single-concept pictographic linguistic tools are really only useful as an adjunct to the written word?

Messenging App Stickers
Stickers – although related to the original emoji – offer a new set of affordance and a different communicative role. Stickers can only be used one at a time and can not be mixed with text. This makes them ill-suited as modifiers and so they serve a different purpose. So while these pictures are not worth a thousand words, they are intended to be worth one text message.

Stickers take the basic idea of image-based emoji to a new level. They take advantage of the larger screens and higher resolutions of today’s mobile devices. So they appear larger on-screen and can be more illustrative and expressive in style and not limited to the more iconic style needed for emoji. They are often based on cartoon characters and portray a wider range of emotions and behaviours then emoji. (The emoji character set was originally developed for the technological limitations of i-Mode phones in at the end of the nineties.) As they are not trying to be part of one standardised international character set the range of sticker designs varies from app to app. Developers can strike licensing deals with IP owners to ensure that particular characters are available exclusively in their app to attract more customers.

Facebook’s Messenger app expands the expressive range of their ‘Like’ icon. 

Selling sets of digital stickers is one of the revenue-generating features of messaging apps. Remember that this is a category of apps whose key benefit is communication at no cost to their users. So I assume stickers must be popular — and with more than just Japanese teenagers. Stickers are serving some purpose for a broader set of users. As I see it stickers answer the desire for a one-touch, single-concept message.

It is not that people are becoming too lazy to compose simple sentences. It is worth remembering – before any doom-sayers begin to predict the end of literacy and language again – that new forms of communication like this never replace what already exists, they sit alongside them. Rather it is the case that – just as something as barely noticeable as a raised eyebrow or a wink can signify a lot in our real-world conversations – so too perhaps can the emotions of an illustrated character in our online conversations. The semantic meaning encoded in the smallest gestures depends on the context and the relationship between the two people communicating.

An examples of some of the character-based stickers available within the Viber app.

I would not underestimate how many text messages are rote and formulaic. People keeping in touch simply by saying ‘good morning’ or ‘good-night’. The real meaning here is in reaffirming the connection rather than in the specific semantic content. So adding some visual flair, through colour, image and typography the way that many stickers do can enhance such simple regular messages. Even if simply through novelty and variety.

An examples of some of the text-based stickers available within the Viber app.
The visual language of emoticons and stickers sits alongside spoken languages and people all over the world can use them to communicate. Even so, it would be foolish to consider them serving as a proxy for a common global visual language. While the majority of human emotional expressions do share their meaning amongst all peoples, there are still many distinct cultural signals and messages that are learned. (That is why trying to decipher some of the obscure-to-me Japanese cultural references symbolised in the original i-Mode emoticon set seems beyond my West-of-Ireland background.)

Red = ‘I am angry’
As a final thought, I suppose it is again worth considering what comes next? What is the truly Minimal Viable Communication? Should we expect an app that allows us to communicate using just solid colours perhaps? Yellow meaning ‘I am happy’, blue saying ‘I am sad’ and red growling ‘I am angry’... Who knows?

Update 1: June 2014
Given my line of thinking on Minimal Viable Communication here, I guess that I really should have foreseen the ‘Yo’ app. Very minimal indeed.

Update 2: July 2014
Further to my point about stringing emoji together as a pictographic language for humorous intent. Turns out that you can sign-up today to ‘Emojli’ – the emoji-only social network. That may not even be a parody, and is launching soon apparently.

(I guess the Garfield licensing deal fell through.)