On an overcast morning in June, a dozen or so young illustrators and animators gather in the lunchroom at the Bitstrips offices, located in an unassuming industrial building in Toronto’s swiftly gentrifying Queen Street West neighborhood. The occasion is the creative department’s twice-weekly brainstorming session, known internally as a Bitmojam, during which a new crop of bitmoji, the company’s illustrated digital mash notes, will begin to take shape. On a whiteboard, someone has written out the day’s challenge: “Shade.” Below that are listed six mildly derisive comebacks one might find useful in a text conversation, including “Are you f——ing kidding me?,” “Slow clap,” and “You had one job . . .”
Bitmoji are perhaps best described as the mobile web’s version of Hallmark cards, but better. Cartoon greetings that feature customizable avatars and can be inserted into any number of chat apps, bitmoji offer a considerably wider (and hipper) range of expressions than you’ll ever find in a drugstore aisle. “Having a digital extension of yourself is a necessity,” creative director and CEO Jacob Blackstock says, “and we’re working to give people the best possible version.” But even in visually infectious cartoon form, negative expressions present a challenge for Bitmoji’s creative team, who might be thought of as millennial Cyranos—charged with helping the app’s millions of daily users bring just the right mix of wit, topicality, and emotional nuance to their online repartee.
Stacks of index cards and pens are distributed, a timer is set, and the room goes silent for 15 minutes as the team sketch out little scenes to go with each phrase. Then they pin the results to a bulletin board and take turns explaining the reasoning behind their various choices (putting “Are you f——ing kidding me?” on a cake, for instance, to take the edge off). It typically takes three or four weeks for the finished bitmoji to debut in the app, although in the event of a viral trend (fidget spinners, Left Shark), the team has been known to “stop the presses,” as Blackstock puts it, and crash a new one in a matter of hours. As whimsical as bitmoji are, their creators view their work in philosophical terms: building an essential humanity into our online interactions.
“Toys are not really as innocent as they look,” the designer Charles Eames once noted. It’s an axiom that Snap, the architect of Taco Bell’s Cinco de Mayo taco-head Snapchat lens, knows well. And by acquiring Bitstrips in March 2016 in a deal valued at $100 million in cash and stock—and encouraging users to embrace avatars in their Snapchat interactions—Snap seems to have found both a kindred spirit and a timely way to enliven its core product. “Like photography, Bitmoji compresses a lot of feelings and ideas into a relatively low-bandwidth image,” says former TechCrunch coeditor-in-chief Alexia Tsotsis, who was early to spot the potential of the avatar-making app. And with Facebook and Instagram muscling in on Snapchat’s turf, such expressiveness may offer a critical point of difference.
But whereas the Snapchat playground is walled off, bitmoji roam freely. Users can insert them into conversations everywhere from Slack to iMessage. In the three years since Bitmoji launched, more than 150 million people have downloaded the app, says Randy Nelson, head of mobile insights for Sensor Tower. Bitmoji kicked off this past summer as the most popular offering in the App Store in more than two dozen countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, according to App Annie. Much of this growth is attributable to Bitmoji’s integration with Snapchat; the two apps complement each other, creating a digital ecosystem. As chat grows more prominent, Bitmoji could prove a profoundly prescient acquisition, perhaps as important to Snap in the long run as Instagram and WhatsApp have been to Facebook.
Bitmoji’s origins can be traced to a Toronto high school, where Blackstock, a skilled comics artist, used to crack up his classmate Dorian Baldwin by passing him profane sketches during class. (One memorable riff on Charles M. Schultz featured a beheading.)
Ten years ago, after working as an animator, Blackstock teamed with Baldwin and two other friends, Shahan Panth and David Kennedy, to create the web-based comic-strip builder Bitstrips. “The idea was: What if we could make [creating] comics as fast as writing an email?” Blackstock says. In October 2013, Bitstrips quietly appeared in the App Store. Within a few weeks, Blackstock says, “it just went exponentially mega-viral,” seizing the top spot in both the App and Google Play stores. For days, the founders huddled in the office troubleshooting problems, as Kennedy, VP of technology, furiously churned out code to keep the service running. (Panth is VP of content, and Baldwin serves as lead content engineer.)
The backlash, when it came, was fierce. In November, blog posts began popping up teaching users how to block the suddenly ubiquitous Bitstrips from their Facebook news feeds. “It was really hard,” Blackstock recalls. “It went from ‘This is amazing!’ to ‘Oh no! Sorry!'”
Bitstrips might well have become just another flash in the App Store had it not been for the emergence of a corresponding trend: Pervasive texting had led to the widespread adoption of emoji as users struggled to make texts more emotionally expressive. Spotting a market for personalized stickers, the team launched Bitmoji in 2014.
Designed to work in private conversations, the new app didn’t go viral the way Bitstrips had. “We didn’t want it to,” Blackstock says. “We knew the downside.” He and his team preferred to discreetly become a part of users’ everyday lives. By the time Snap CEO Evan Spiegel reached out about acquiring the company in October 2015, Blackstock says his team knew that “for Bitmoji to truly take over, it would have to be seamlessly integrated into an environment where people were talking every day.”
Today, the 50-plus–person Bitstrips team, a split of techies and creatives, remains headquartered in Toronto and maintains a measure of independence from Snap, which is based in Venice, California. Bitstrips’s avatars, however, are becoming increasingly central to the Snapchat experience. Snapchat now offers a menu of lenses featuring avatars of both sender and recipient, known as “friendmoji.” And specialized Bitmoji avatars, aka “actionmoji,” take center stage on the Snap Map, the beguiling new feature that pinpoints friends and location-based Snapchat stories on a map of the world. “[Bitmoji] is a very creative tool,” says Eric Kim, cofounder and managing partner of the venture firm Goodwater Capital, “that aligns with Snap’s overall mission to empower people to be more self-expressive.”
The question of how Bitmoji will generate revenue is quietly being addressed by Snap’s business development team. Neither Snap nor Bitmoji will comment on their plans, but the possibilities are not hard to imagine. Bitmoji’s pre-acquisition partnerships with movies and TV shows (Zoolander 2, Game of Thrones) and retailers such as Forever 21 and Steve Madden allow users’ avatars to utter familiar catchphrases and don outfits from beloved brands, hitting a marketing sweet spot similar to Snapchat’s lenses. Bitmoji is continuing these experiments, most recently by letting users select uniforms from their favorite professional sports teams. Snap Map, meanwhile, opens the door to location-based branded content. James Cakmak, an analyst with Monness Crespi Hardt who has been notably bullish on Snap’s prospects, sees yet another opportunity: Bitmoji allow users to showcase their current emotion, providing valuable data for advertisers. “The holy grail is getting the right ad to the right user at the right time,” he says, “and this helps [marketers] with that.”
Even so, skepticism remains. “Unless this is just a sliver of what [Bitmoji] can do, I’m dubious about its long-term viability,” says Andrew Essex, former CEO of Droga5 and author of The End of Advertising, adding that the app’s centrality to users’ lives may be short-lived.
Blackstock isn’t concerned. He’s spent more than a decade now thinking about cartoons as a visual language. As he sees it, the swiftly approaching merger of the real and the virtual will only make such tools more essential. “We’re in a world now where we live in these,” he says, lifting his iPhone from the table. “Not only am I always on it,” he says, growing more animated, “but in terms of everyone I know, I mostly see them here. If you’re going to live in here, you’ve got to make this a better place to live.”
It’s a classically evangelical startup pitch, stirring and prophetic, and it seems to call for some kind of affirmation, or maybe a bitmoji.
“Slow clap,” anyone?