Comic re­lief at Snap

The so­cial me­dia giant’s ac­qui­si­tion of digital avatar­maker Bit­moji may be one of its smartest moves yet.

Fast Company - - Contents - By Aaron Gell

How Bit­moji’s avatars cre­ate com­pelling cre­ative and busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in­side—and out­side—snapchat.

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 low­band­width 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

“Hav­ing a digital ex­ten­sion of your­self is a ne­ces­sity,” says Bit­strips CEO Ja­cob Black­stock, “and we’re work­ing to give peo­ple the best pos­si­ble ver­sion.”

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?

Bit­moji could prove a pre­scient ac­qui­si­tion, per­haps as im­por­tant to Snap in the long run as In­sta­gram and What­sapp have been to Face­book.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.