Rhodri Marsden: Struggling to express your emotions? There's a sticker for that...

Nothing says "I appear to be veering towards narcissim" like a picture of a chubby cat. Rhodri Marsden extolls the virtues of a well-placed sticker

The internet, as we know, is no place to express an opinion unless you want to be met with indignation and fury from irate strangers. But the syntax of that opinion can come in for criticism, too.

Confusing “its” with “it’s” will undermine whatever argument you were trying to make. Extraneous exclamation marks will be viewed with contempt, and the casual use of a smiley face or emoticon may be interpreted by some people as a personal affront akin to dissing their mum.

I myself can veer towards being a grammar nazi – particularly on signs and packaging – but the speed and brevity of online communication demands that we loosen up a bit. I find myself railing against anyone who advocates a formal communicative approach that tries to preserve some absurd notion of authenticity, and that might be why I’ve embraced stickers.

Digital stickers, brightly coloured and devoid of a gluey surface, inhabit many of the foremost messaging apps including Facebook Messenger, Viber, Line and WeChat. They’re emoticons and emoji drawn large, cartoon characters whose deployment gives you a handy shortcut to expressing your feelings.

For example, my good mood this morning was conveyed using a picture of an anthropomorphised fried egg whistling a tune. It matched how I felt, so I sent it. Fortunately, it didn’t provoke an angry response in the recipient; they slung back a monkey swinging enthusiastically from a tree.

Mobile messaging app Line uses a range of characters in its custom stickers - but they double as mascots also.

It was a satisfying exchange that definitely had context that went deeper than egg vs monkey, but I could almost hear tuts of disapproval in my head. Was that a lazy conversation, reductive and oversimplified, or an expressive one that enriched what might otherwise have been a dull exchange of pleasantries?

Stickers, like emoji, originated in Japan, and both forms of expression seem to have emerged from a particularly Japanese need to soften the messages they tap out in kanji, hiragana or katakana, thereby adding nuance and feeling.

Beyond Japan, emoji and stickers attract criticism for encouraging a kind of infantilisation, but while it may break an unwritten rule of etiquette to apologise by sending a picture of a bear holding a sign saying “Sorry”, it’s undeniably a very different message to merely saying “Sorry.”

Context is everything; if I send someone a picture of a cartoon cactus wearing a party hat, that might have ironic overtones, but it’s more likely that it doesn’t. It’s just a tool, and it’s one that people find very useful.

Line, the pioneering sticker app, transports more than one billion stickers a day between some 430 million users, while apps such as Viber rake in £1.49 per sticker set, ranging from depictions of dinosaurs to My Little Pony. It may have become a cliché for messaging apps to add sticker functionality, but it’s easily done, it raises cash and doesn’t annoy existing users because you don’t have to use them if you don’t want to.

I do want to, and Facebook Messenger provides me with a palette of stickers consisting of the aforementioned cactus, monkey and egg, along with Pusheen the cat and Opi the bear, allowing me to express such complex ideas as “I would rather be on a beach holiday”, “I appear to be veering towards narcissism” and “I’m not especially concerned about having overslept”.

I consider stickers a valuable addition to my communicative arsenal, and if I were able to sign off this column with the picture of a cute dog doing a thumbsup, I probably would.

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