When I was about 10 years old, I loved American Girl. I read nearly all the historical books that were released alongside the dolls; Felicity, the spunky, freckled redhead from the Revolutionary War era, was my favorite, perhaps because she wasn’t a four-eyed nerd like Molly (I was a four-eyed nerd like Molly). While my parents were happy to supply me with as many American Girl books as I wanted, they refused to pony up $100 for either the Felicity doll or what I wanted just as much — the customizable Truly Me dolls, which allowed children to choose eye color, skin tone, and hair color to match their own. My daydreams of a mini me with brown hair, hazel eyes, and a cool, rebellious wardrobe sadly never came to fruition.
Now, two decades later, I finally have the digital equivalent of the Truly Me dolls: Memoji stickers. Basically a more refined version of Bitmoji, the stickers were widely released in sticker form this September as part of Apple’s iOS 13 update. Though I’ve been ambivalent about Apple products for some time now (I replaced my 2015 MacBook with a Dell a few weeks ago), I’m back in, at least on the iPhone front, with the glory that is my adorable Memoji.
It’s my hope that more iPhone users give birth to their own Memoji, because they’re expressive, adorable, and beneficial to your digital communication. And unlike Bitmoji, the comparatively hideous custom emoji sticker company owned by Snapchat, Memoji are integrated into the iOS ecosystem. This allows users to easily add their Memoji as their iMessage avatar, which is then shared with all iMessage contacts when texting.
Elena Nicolaou, an entertainment writer at Refinery29, is the only person I know who approaches their Memoji with a level of joy that approaches mine. “I love her and show her off all the time,” she says. Elena used to be a big fan of the Sims and Neopets, and her love of Memoji fits right into that. “It’s fitting to have an image representation of the ‘self’ that navigates this other plane... she’s smoothed out me. She’s rich-girl face me.”
Research shows that when given the space to customize avatars, users typically make them look like themselves — but better. A study from 2010 found that subjects who created their “Mii,” or avatar for Nintendo’s Wii gaming console, identified more with an idealized Mii than their mirror-image Mii.
That idealization can have an impact on our behavior. “Avatar appearance can have subtle effects on users’ behaviors online and subsequently offline as well,” says Katrina Fong, a Canada-based behavioral researcher and psychology PhD who has studied avatars. Our avatars “influence how we perceive ourselves, and that in turn affects our behaviors.”
“The characteristics of an avatar, and especially its appearance, have the ability to modify the behavior of the person that embodies it.”
A 2007 study looked at how people with more attractive or taller avatars engaged with others in digital environments, compared to when they had less attractive or shorter avatars. The researchers coined their findings as the Proteus Effect, named after the ancient Greek sea-god who could change his form at will. Subjects were more confident and intimate in the attractive and tall conditions than when they were shorter and uglier, leading the researchers to conclude that digital avatars can have immediate, drastic effects on our online behavior.
“The characteristics of an avatar, and especially its appearance, have the ability to modify the behavior of the person that embodies it,” says Laura Aymerich-Franch, a research fellow in the department of communication at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, whose work focuses on avatars and humanoid robots. “This seems to be linked to the fact that we engage in certain behaviors in response to what we believe is expected from our avatars, based on the appearance that the avatar has.”
Our avatars affect how people perceive us, too: More attractive avatars have been shown to be more likable, trustworthy, and similar to the perceiver than less attractive avatars. The 2006 study also found that clearly female as well as child-like avatars were judged to be more attractive than older, male, or androgynous depictions. While this depressingly reflects society’s shallow interpretations of people’s personalities, it is, at least, extremely easy to make your Memoji extremely cute.
The ability to share one’s Memoji as the default profile image on other people’s phones makes it even easier to use a cute self-representation to, essentially, manipulate the people I text into having a more positive view of me. I tried to change the avatar attached to my contact information in my husband’s phone from a rather unfortunate photo of me from an awkward angle to my youthful-looking Memoji, thus hopefully eliciting a more positive response when I request paleo chocolate via text while he’s already in line at the grocery store. Attempts to change my contact image were unsuccessful.
Still, it seems logical to me that a cute cartoon representation of myself would encourage more helpful, friendly interactions than if I had a grumpy version with a bad haircut; if people tend to react more favorably to beautiful things than those that are less eye-catching, it follows that my idealized Memoji would get me further into people’s good graces than if my Memoji, say, lacked eyebrows (though it must be said that in real life, I am somewhat lacking in the eyebrow department).
Tom Boellstorff, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Irvine who has studied avatar representations in the game Second Life, says emoji take the place of physical gestures in digital conversation. “In the physical world when we communicate, we use our voice but we also gesture with our hands and our bodies and use body language,” he says. “That actually conveys a lot of information that is lost when we’re texting.” It makes sense, then, that we’d want to personalize our emoji to differentiate ourselves, similar to how our unique conversational gestures reflects us as individuals.
So far, though, it appears that people are saving their digitized hand gestures in the form of Memoji for their most personal conversations. S. Julia Vartan, a science and environment writer, tells me she only deploys her Memoji when she’s texting with her close friends or her partner. “I think it does feel more personal to use ‘my’ face as opposed to a generic cartoon face (regular emojis). Like I wouldn’t send anyone besides my partner and my best friend a selfie, either,” she says. “I think it’s the time spent creating them that makes it so personal-feeling?” She’s considering creating a Memoji that looks less like her — for example, with purple skin or crazy accessories — to use in wider conversations.
Others told me similar reasons for creating Memoji — Rachel Charlene Lewis, a senior editor at Bitch, says she only uses hers to talk to her sister. “I wish it had more faces, but I imagine they’re coming,” she tells me. “I like to drop three in a row, so I need variety!”
I’m holding out hope that more people put their Memoji to work in messages with people other than their closest friends and family. While a Memoji might seem, at first, particularly personal, my theory is that these boundaries will begin to fray as they become more commonly used in conversations. After all, most of us don’t walk around wearing masks that we only shed with our most intimate acquaintances. Why should our cute digital mini me be any different?