One is a lion called Ryan, the other is a bear called Brown. They are superstars in Asia: Kids fight to get their fluffy toys, young adults walk around with them on their smartphone covers.

So are they heroes from an animated film? A cartoon? A comic? Not exactly.

Ryan and Brown are two “emojis” – a Japanese portmanteau of “picture” and “character” – sometimes referred to as “stickers” in online lingo – created by the two leading messaging Korean apps: KakaoTalk and Line, respectively. They are not the same as “emoticons” – an English portmanteau of “emotion” and “icon”, which are based around Roman characters, punctuation marks and numbers to create simple images that convey emotions.

Emojis and stickers are much more. Users can send each other still or animated versions of character images to enliven online conversations, and can buy collections of new emojis online.

This adds up to lucrative business for the two companies, which both boast economies of scale. KakaoTalk is used by 90% of South Korean smartphone users and Line – a service created by Naver, a portal that is sometimes referred to as the Korean equivalent of Google – is the leading messaging app in Japan, Taiwan and Thailand.

The numbers speak volumes: 20% of Line’s revenues come from selling stickers, while KakaoTalk’s number of emojis has jumped from 480 in 2012 to 6,500 in 2017 – 13-fold growth in five years.

And it is not just online. KakaoTalk and Line also manufactures hundreds of pieces of offline merchandise for their “friends” (ie emoji characters). From cosmetics to Bluetooth speakers, thermos, dishes, accessories, electronics, travel kits…all can be acquired, branded with popular emojis.

The messaging firms also partner with offline companies like Korean bakery franchise Paris Baguette or Japanese clothing store Uniqlo. There is even a concept museum dedicated to Kakao Friends in Seoul, which lures tourists from across the continent.

But why have emojis got so big in East Asia rather than in the West, which is where most pop culture trends originate?

At Line’s brick-and-mortar stores, Brown has made the transition from online to off. Photo: Ophelie Surcouf

Kingdoms of cute

“If they succeeded so massively in Asia, compared to the US or Europe, it is linked to the long history of cuteness in those countries,” Gabriele de Seta, a researcher in anthropology at Taiwan’s Sinica Academy, told Asia Times. “In Japan or Korea, every city has its own mascot and everyone knows Pokemon or Hello Kitty.”

Cute culture – “Kawaï” (Japan) or “aegyo” (Korea) – runs deep, from manga, anime, mascots and cosplay to the girlish language and mannerisms sometimes adopted by older women.  A linked, and highly visible East Asian habit is “cute customization to humanize technological spaces,” according to Larissa Hjorth, co-director of the research laboratory of digital ethnology at RMIT University in Australia in her 2009 book “Gift of Presence: A Case Study of a South Korean Virtual Community, Cyworld’s Mini-hompy.”

It all started in Japan in 1998, when interface designer Shigetaka Kurita developed 176 emojis  for telco NTT Docomo. They were made for pagers, as with pagers, it was only possible to type a very limited amount of characters in a message.

How it all started: Prototype emojis by Japanese telco NTT Docomo. Image: NTT Docomo Inc

Apple drew inspiration from those, 10 years later, to create its first set of colored emojis targeted at Japanese iPhone users. Since then, emojis have flooded the world. As of 2010, the computer industry standard UNICODE has defined which basic emojis should be available on all messaging software, social medias and phone applications.

Korea’s online culture has long had a strong emphasis on visuals and characterization. For example, the now defunct Cyworld social media platform enabled high levels of customization of its “mini-homphy” (personalized user pages) and was heavily populated with avatars. Today, based upon this weighty mish-mash of heritage, modern culture and technology, it’s hardly surprising that Line and KakaoTalk invested so much in the creation of emojis.

Line was the first application to offer sticker collections in 2011. The concept has since been imitated by most messaging apps – including Facebook’s Messenger – but none have managed to integrate it into their brands as successfully as Line and KakaoTalk.

“Facebook wasn’t good at creating animated characters when it released its first stickers,” de Seta said. “There’s not one sticker set that comes to mind if I think about Facebook [but] those from Line or Kakao are iconic.”

It is not just cultural, however. Science explains why humans universally respond to such non-verbal cues as emojis rather than plain words.

Animating communication

Only 7% of human communication comes from words, so SMS lose 93% of meaning according to Alecka Camp, a researcher in psychology at Westfield State University in the US; emojis thus fill a void in text communication. “This – and maybe the millennial laziness!” she told Asia Times. “Instead of writing a message to explain this specific emotion, [users] find an image that summarizes it all at once.”

“People do use emojis to express their feelings when they can’t find their words,” agreed Angela Guzman. Guzman was the co-creator of the first set of emoticons developed in 2008 by Apple; she has since worked with AirBnB and Google on user experience.  “An emoji translates a movement or a habit,” she told Asia Times – in other words, they can incarnate mannerisms and summon memories.

For Linda Kaye, researcher in psychology at Edge Hill University in the United Kingdom, they also allow users to avoid misunderstandings and transmit irony and humor. “For example, we use the happy emoji to be sure that we understand each other,” she told Asia Times.

Kaye and her team are, for example, trying to figure out if emojis are understood by our brains as essentially “emotional words” which are processed faster and in a different way than non-emotional words. For instance, “happy” is processed faster by the brain than, say, “chair” or “table.”,

“The history of online communication is complex but one of its constants is the weight of image over text,” added de Seta, who has been researching emojis, especially in China, to try to understand how they affect our relation toward language. Along with the aforementioned researchers, he is still one of the few to do so.

Platforms now exist where creators can submit characters that will become part of the emoji world. Image: Line Friends – Naver

You are next…

Can current emojis stay popular when every messaging app is competing for the newest idea?

Perhaps not. Kakao has already noticed in its stats that users under 20 years old lack emoji loyalty, and tend to just use the trendy characters of the moment; they are not attached to characters like “Ryan the Bear” the way older users are.

“I found it interesting the way emojis have grown,” said Gunzman. “But there are so many today it’s sometimes hard to find the right one. I’m afraid it might become too complicated to continue using emojis with so much choice at hand.”

The Chinese app WeChat might have nailed the solution.

 “On the app, you have a gallery with a limited number of emojis, GIFS, emoticons, images, etc that you can add,” said de Seta. “Once you reach the limit, you have to delete previous emojis to replace them.” The researcher added: “I guess companies are always searching for the next big thing.”

And that next thing might have already appeared in Korea. Since last December, the Korean app Zepeto has been one of the most downloaded social media apps in the American Apple store.

Its concept? Take a selfie and see it transformed into an emoji … of yourself.