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Five Extremely Serious Lessons Of The Animoji Karaoke Phenomenon

I helped instigate a social-media meme involving lip-syncing animals and a lot of high technology, and learned a lot in the process.

Five Extremely Serious Lessons Of The Animoji Karaoke Phenomenon
[Source animations: courtesy of Apple]

“Here’s hoping Animoji karaoke becomes a thing.”

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That was what I tweeted on Halloween night when I shared a video–10 seconds of a cartoon fox lip-syncing a snippet of “Bohemian Rhapsody,”–which I had made with the iPhone X’s Animoji feature, which uses the phone’s TrueDepth camera to map your face movements to an animated emoji character.

24 hours later, I figured out how to break through the 10-second ceiling imposed by the Animoji applet inside the iPhone’s Messages app. I then used iMovie to edit together two Animoji characters performing a duet of the first song that popped into my head—”Hooked on a Feeling,” as performed by Blue Swede (ooga chaka!)—and added the soundtrack in post-production for better audio fidelity. Then I tweeted the results and went to bed.

When I woke up the next morning, I had a direct message from my friend Lance Ulanoff of Mashable, who, like me, had a pre-release iPhone X provided by Apple for review purposes. He excitedly asked me how I overcame the 10-second limit. I told him, and he wrote about Animoji Karaoke and referenced my clip. Soon, others were doing the same.

And then, when the iPhone X went on sale that Friday, Animoji Karaoke really did become a thing. People started using their shiny new $1,000 phones to create videos of singing animals, aliens, robots, and poop, and put them on Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. More media outlets wrote about the idea; entrepreneurial types created an Animoji Karaoke app and a website. The nascent medium even got its own subreddit.

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Now, I have called myself the inventor of Animoji Karaoke, and as far as I know, I coined the term and was the first person to share a video that ran longer than 10 seconds and featured multiple Animoji performing a familiar song. But maybe it’s more accurate to say that I happened to have the opportunity to do something totally intuitive and inevitable, slightly ahead of the pack.

After all, an Apple launch commercial for the iPhone X had already shown Animoji mouthing a few lines of Sofi Tukker’s song “Best Friends.” And Alex Kranz of Gizmodo included a couple of lip-syncing snippets in an article posted on Halloween morning, before my first tweet. Once the iPhone X went on sale, people were going to make Animoji sing, and “Animoji Karaoke” is as obvious a description as any. (Even though it isn’t really karaoke, as plenty of people have helpfully pointed out.)

Still, I do feel a proprietary interest in Animoji Karaoke. I’ve been creating clips, watching them, and retweeting the twitterverse’s reaction to the whole idiosyncratic concept. And I’ve learned some things about technology from its rapid ascent.

New Phone Features You Can Share Over The Internet Are Powerful

When was the last time a new smartphone offered a feature that simply doesn’t exist on other models—and which can be demonstrated so easily, at such scale, to other people who don’t own that phone? I would not argue, as zillions of people have done on Twitter—presumably with various degrees of sincerity—that Animoji Karaoke is the best thing about the iPhone X. But it’s sure the most viral one.

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A long-standing trope maintains that Apple doesn’t understand social media. Maybe that’s true in part because the company is normally so focused on integrating hardware and software into highly personal experiences, a goal that has nothing to do with the dynamics of online sharing. But whether by design or not, Animoji Karaoke is something you can do with a new iPhone that’s only interesting if you show it to other people.

People Had To Try Animoji Before This Felt Obvious

When Apple unveiled the iPhone X on September 12, Animoji got plenty of coverage—some positive, some negative. Looking back, however, I don’t see any pundits making the connection that sharing clips of lip-synced songs might be a popular use-case scenario. On Twitter, I find only four tweets inspired by Apple’s event that allude to singing Animoji, two of which aren’t in English. One of them, however, presciently references “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which has probably inspired more Animoji Karaoke than any other tune.

It’s always been obvious that journalists’ gut reactions to new products they haven’t actually tried often don’t line up with the reality that follows. In this case, an application that seems natural when Animoji are in the palm of your hand was apparently near-impossible to divine from an onstage demo.

Execution Is Everything

On one level, Animoji are one of the weirdest, wackiest things ever to ship as part of an Apple product, and therefore a departure for a company typically associated with stylish minimalism rather than talking chickens. But there’s one thing about the feature that’s that’s classically Apple-esque: its mind-bending level of polish. The accuracy with which characters respond to your head and mouth movements, blinks, and even subtle shifts in expression is astounding–it’s easy to get spellbound by details like the way the bunny rabbit’s ears flap in response to a head shake. And yet each character has its own personality, which sometimes leaves me with the sense that they’re possessing me rather than the other way around. (The moment I see the fox on my phone, I feel a tad rakish.)

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Apple clearly poured copious amonts of time and money into Animoji, and while it’s easy to mock that level of attention to something so fundamentally silly, it’s the only reason why creating and watching Animoji Karaoke both have a certain hypnotic effect. Something half as well done wouldn’t wouldn’t have been one-tenth as transfixing.

Internet Trends Are Fed By Visceral Reactions

As far as I can tell, the vast majority of people who have expressed an opinion about Animoji Karaoke say they like it. Or, oftentimes, that they love it. But I acknowledge that numerous Twitter users and at least one celebrity have taken formal anti-Animoji stances. My own sister has called them “material for your nightmares” an “upsetting innovation.”

The thing that both Animoji Karaoke fans and foes have in common is that they feel the need to tell other people about their opinion. Something that was generally regarded as pleasantly inoffensive would not have gone viral in the same way. As Clayton Purdom wrote of Animoji characters for The AV Club, “Embrace them or fight them; there will be no in between.”

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Apple (Probably) Didn’t Anticipate This

Over on Twitter, some folks have theorized that Apple expected people to make and share Animoji lip-syncing videos, almost as if Animoji Karaoke was an Easter Egg intentionally hidden among the iPhone X features that the company actively promoted. The evidence suggests otherwise. By building Animoji into the Messages app and limiting recording time to 10 seconds, the company optimized them for quick one-on-one communications rather than the creation of longer, more ambitious videos for public distribution.

If Apple had wanted to egg on people to make Animoji express themselves in fancy musical numbers, it might have put the characters into its Clips app, which is optimized for more ambitious media-production efforts. Then again, the fact that Animoji Karaoke makes use of commercial music without permission may be a copyright morass that Apple is just as happy to sidestep.

What does the future hold for Animoji Karaoke? Well, my Twitter feed is full of people asking Apple to embrace the mania. But there are also those who are declaring singing Animoji to be a fad that may already be over. I’m fine with either scenario playing out. Either way, it was fun to see a meme hatch and take flight.

And here’s a little secret: If anything explains why Animoji Karaoke speaks to me, it’s the fact that (A) I love to sing; and (B) nobody loves hearing me sing. I just never expected that the solution to that conundrum would involve so much advanced technology and a rainbow-horned unicorn.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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