Online Emotions, in Hundreds of New Flavors; Line’s popularity was part of what motivated Lango and MessageMe to bring their own versions of sticker-type messaging to the United States

March 9, 2013

Online Emotions, in Hundreds of New Flavors



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.


Path’s new messaging app.

Typically, these mobile phone features have not been big businesses in the United States. But a few young American start-up 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 on 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.


Lango’s Super Bowl stickers.

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 United States.

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 United States is still developing its mobile habits and behavior, so other countries’ trends may not be a good metric for what will work at home.

Mimi Ito, a cultural anthropologist at the University of California, Irvine, who studies how young people use digital media in Asia and the United States, says it may be too late for these visual stickers to catch on.

“Many users in this country,” she says, “missed many of the kinds of mobile use practices that characterized early mobile texting culture.”

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, Mr. 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 Web site.

Mr. Sethi of MessageMe agrees that my cohort just needs time to adapt to these new visual communication markers.

“People are just now starting to use what’s available technologically on phones,” he said. “We just have to get people used to it.”

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.

“The U.S. has clearly jumped onto the visual mobile communication bandwagon,” Ms. Ito says. “But in a way that is different from the emoji orientation of the earlier adopters.”

As for me, I’ll stick with my simple emoji vocabulary of hearts, blushing women and half-hatched chicken — for the time being.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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