The other day, I texted a friend my Bitmoji, a lookalike cartoon avatar I created using this app. “Wow,” he said. “That actually looks strikingly like you.” He isn’t the first person to tell me the little brown-haired caricature looks eerily like my actual, human self–nor is mine the first Bitmoji to get that reaction. My friend Alex’s Bitmoji looks like it ate him and stole his soul. When another friend texts me his emoji likeness, I get chills.
This phenomenon extends beyond my friend group. The app, launched in November, is “pretty amazingly popular,” says Jacob “Ba” Blackstock, the CEO and creative director of Bitstrips (the maker of Bitmoji). Bitstrips would not provide specific download numbers, but said since launch people have shared tens of millions of Bitmoji. “People are honestly flipping out over this. They’re getting so excited and so happy,” he told Fast Company, noting that it has taken off with celebrities like Lena Dunham, Seth Rogen, and Victoria Beckham.
The likeness is especially uncanny because making a personalized emoji using the app is such a subjective process. First, you pick a face shape, then skin tone, hair color, length, type, style, jaw shape, eyebrows, a mouth and so on. Before you know it, a cartoon version of you appears on your iPhone (or Android) screen. You can go back and tweak the nose or face details (or whatever) to get closer to perfection. But, still, with so few choices, how do the faces come out so well?
Blackstock, who says he has been drawing since he could hold a pencil, spent most of his career in animation. “Figuring out how to turn people into characters has been an obsession for a long time,” the 39-year-old said. At the age of six, he played around with Super 8 film. He landed at film school, but after graduating took a job as a receptionist at an animation studio. “I would be sitting there and drawing comics of my friend and faxing them to his work,” he said. Eventually he developed his own cartoon, an offbeat YouTube show called Griddleville. He also founded Core Matrix, an independent experimental media studio, and Dream Machine, an animation school for kids.
The Toronto-based Blackstock decided to found Bitstrips in 2007 to democratize the process of making comics. “As soon as we had the idea, we knew this could be revolutionary in terms of letting people unlock their creativity,” he said. “Comics are such a great way to express yourself and communicate, but you have to be able to draw.” Bitstrips started as a website that made creating cartoons “starring you and your friends” available to anyone with a computer. Now, Bitstrips is available as an app. As the company developed, Blackstock noticed that people used the little characters for communication. This was around the same time emoji started taking off; people craved more emotional nuance in their text messages. With $11 million in funding, Bitstrips launched Bitmoji about six months ago.
What Bitmoji offers over traditional emoji is personality. From his experience animating, Blackstock knew that animated characters have to look more expressive than human faces; everything is bolder. But, to get the right collection of face shapes and eyebrows, Blackstock would draw his friends faces when out at bars. “You know, just looking at humans and trying to catalog what are the different parameters of the mouth, what kind of ears do people have,” he explained. “Just studying and then figuring out what’s the set that is needed to differentiate one person from another.” He discovered there are only a handful of face shapes, eyebrow arches, lip types, and so on. Although, he also understands that the avatar builder can always improve, and is constantly tweaking the offerings.
Of course, the other part of it is that Bitmoji come with context. Blackstock likens it to an artist doing a caricature in the park (or at a 90s Bat Mitzvah): the portrait drawer always asks for a hobby or something else that might capture the essence or personality of the person. Bitmoji does that with its sticker templates. The app offers various phrases, positions, and Bitmoji expressions, many of them popular texting phrases or memes. There’s the “All the Single Ladies” template, for example, in which your Bitmoji, dressed in a black leotard, does the signature Beyoncé strut. The library has tons of different options for different emotions and statements. “It gives you different ways of saying things,” explains Blackstock. “How you use it becomes a reflection of your personality. We really try to put a lot of love and attention into every single one of these sticker templates to make them evoke a feeling as well as they can.”