This post is part of Me, online, Mashable’s ongoing series digging into online identities.
Get ready for the rise of the cartoon clones.
When Apple releases iOS 12 this fall, its Bitmoji clone, Memoji, will expand the reach of the doodle doppelganger. Sure, Snapchat users already love Bitmoji, and Samsung copied Bitmoji with earlier this year, but Apple will bring our adorable twins even further into the mainstream.
Before we get there though, let’s stop and think: Why are we so obsessed with cute cartoon versions of ourselves? We’ve even gotten to the point where we complain our mini-mes are cooler than our actual selves.
Now, don’t you scream ‘It’s fun!’ at me. That may be true, but there’s more to it than that. Their popularity — and the way big tech is capitalizing on the demand — reflects who we are as a society, both in terms of current cultural norms and our development when we were babies, according to communications experts. Yes, you read that right: babies.
The baby theory
There’s a psychoanalytic theory called the mirror stage that marks the point in time when an infant can recognize themselves in the mirror and get a kick out of it.
“It’s like when you’re setting up the [Memoji], moving your head, shaking it this way and that, it replicates that early moment of childhood,” said Hugh Manon, director of the media, culture, and the arts program at Clark University, who is currently writing a book chapter about cute aesthetics in media.
Here’s how it works: After you customize a Memoji, choosing from the provided variety of hair, skin, eye color, clothing, and accessories options, the character can copy what you do. As you stick out your tongue, it’ll do the same. (You’ll only be able to make Memoji on the iPhone X, but anyone can see them.)
Samsung’s AR Emoji uses a selfie as the base before you can customize, but like Apple’s version, it can be animated by your movements. You can use a selfie as a reference when you’re building Bitmoji too, but the Snapchat-owned app doesn’t have facial recognition yet. That’s something Snap is working on, according to a patent filing.
Manon isn’t trying to say cartoon avatars turn our brains into baby mush, but there’s some weight to the fact that we find joy in turning our own reflection into a baby face, with rounded edges, big eyes, and smooth skin.
Which takes us to another baby theory: We obsess over Bitmoji, and soon Memoji, because they remind us of babies, and , we’ve been programmed to see our offspring as adorable so we’ll care for them. We’ve taken adult characteristics — glasses, beards, double chins — and given them “the round, smooth, disproportionate cuteness of an infant,” Manon says, adding that we “turn adults into babies, evoking all the sympathy and dependency that interactions with infants entail.”
The vanity theory
If you’re not a fan of all this baby talk, consider another reason for our fixation: vanity.
We’re in the era of the selfie, but getting a selfie right can take a lot of effort. Not so with cartoon avatars. The perfect look is just a click away.
And the characteristics we may hate in real life — our curly hair, thick eyebrows, big noses — can become badges of honor as they’re buffed out in digital brushstrokes. Frizzy hair in its cartoon form is cute, not annoying, after all.
“There’s a whole way you have to represent yourself in a selfie because you have a look, you have friends, you’re having a moment. It’s mission critical that you get the selfie right,” says Beth Coleman, author of Hello, Avatar, which examines online identity. “With Memoji, we get to be totally playful, it’s like we have a little friend or mini-me or a twin and there’s zero stress.”
“With cartoons, once you exaggerate a shape … it becomes adorable,” says the University of Waterloo professor, who focuses on experimental digital media. “We really cannot resist cute. It’s like people swoon for cute.”
The digital twins also become alter egos, in a sense. Cartoon avatars let you feel like you’re a character in a story, not just someone scrolling through Snapchat while on the couch watching three hours of Netflix.
Snapchat’s newest feature, which basically adds environmental flair to Bitmoji on Snap Maps, was developed to provide a “living, breathing world that your Bitmoji would want to live in,” Snap product designer Jack Brody told Mashable. For example, the effects will add rain or snow around your Bitmoji depending on the weather, and confetti if it’s your birthday.
“It’s a variation on the superhero secret identity where your Clark Kent self has a mundane day job, but you can imagine a Superman self that saves the world,” says Dustin Kidd, author of Social Media Freaks and sociology professor at Temple University. “Clark Kent yearns for the cape and tights while another user just wants to talk through the head of an animated chicken.” In addition to animating your mini-me, Apple lets users animate cartoon animals with their facial expressions.
The we’re lame theory
And that leads us to our never-ending drive to be cool online. So much of online and text communication has to do with wit. We want to craft the perfect response, and sometimes we’re just not creative enough to do it ourselves. We need help.
Why tell someone you love them when you can have your cartoon self rip out its own heart and present it as blood drips from your tiny twin’s hands?
Ulrike Schultze, a Southern Methodist University information technology professor who has studied Second Life users, says these cartoon avatars not only buff out the rough edges of our physical characteristics, but also give us “a more childlike and ‘fun’ representation” when it comes to behavior.
Basically, they make us seem hipper than we actually are.
Cartoon avatars have come a long way. They can play a game of copycat and be plugged into real-world backgrounds on our screens using augmented reality.
But we’re not far from a world in which our cartoon twins will show up in hologram form in our friend’s living rooms on our behalf, tiny ambassadors sent in our stead.
“Things are going to move off the phone,” Coleman, the Hello, Avatar author predicts, describing a future filled with hologram avatars.
Who’s ready for Holomoji?