Apple's Memoji and the uncanny valley
When a product is maybe too good
Art: The Mask, Frida Kahlo, 1945
“Our bodies are a big part of the way we communicate,” writes Gretchen McCulloch in “Because Internet”, a book about living language on the internet.
Likewise, a lot of our language about emotion is embodied—our hearts race, our eyebrows arch, our cheeks flush, our stomachs butterfly, our throats, um, frog. Writing is a technology that removes the body from the language. That’s its greatest advantage—it’s easier to transport and store words written on paper or in bytes than embodied in an entire living human or a hologram of one.
She goes on to say in that part of the reason emojis are so popular is that they allow us to project ourselves into the digital space, as gestures, more specifically as a subtype of gestures called emblems.
“Emblem gestures can all fit easily into a linguistic frame (try any of them in a sentence like “If we’re late, then ___”), but they’re also perfectly meaningful without speech at all. The same thing goes for many emoji (you can say “If we’re late, then 👍 ” or “If we’re late, then 🙄”), but it’s also sufficient sometimes to reply with just a thumbs up or eye-rolling emoji.”
The thrust of McCulloch’s idea is that emoji, even though they’re very cartoonish, make us feel more human and, even more importantly, help us to communicate online.
If that’s the case, then if we made emoji that looked more like people, it would improve online discourse even more, right?
That was the thinking, I bet, behind Apple’s Memoji, a feature available since iOS 13, that lets you make emoji versions of yourself to use in iMessages and throughout all your apps.
You can customize it through a bunch of different options: skin tone, hair, eyeglasses, even age. When it was announced at WWDC last year, people applauded like it was the next coming of WeWork.
Everyone seemed really excited about this feature, so when I (finally) upgraded last week, I decided to give it a try. I went through all the nuemrous possibilities, and Apple came up with this for me:
Quite frankly, these are horrific.
It’s quite obvious that Apple spent a ton of time and energy developing these, and I think that’s the problem. There is something very uncanny valley about them, and every time I see them pop up in my list of available emoji reactions for a chat, I cringe.
Not only do they look like a much older version of me (although, given how little sleep I’m getting these days, maybe they’re asymptotically approaching the truth), but they’re just weird and mannequin-ey.
I’ve tried them out exactly once, with my husband:
To be fair, Apple isn’t the first and won’t be the last company dipping its toe into this territory. There is truly something universally attractive about working and dealing with emoji, from a human perspective, if maybe not a financial one (has anyone tracked the rate of return into creating variations of poop emoji?)
But if we like seeing ourselves reflected when we interact online, why do these things suck?
My working theory is because they’re too close to representing our three-dimensional selves. While we truly miss some important aspects of being human on social media - tone of voice, facial features, and gestures - we still recognize on some level that it’s still an entirely different universe. The flat emojis are of that universe, of bytes, of collapsed contexts, of text and gifs. There is something special, unique, and Very Online about them.
These Memojis, on the other hand, are the opposite of that, and that’s the problem. It’s bringing too much of the real world into what’s mean to be a two-dimensional medium, and they make me really uneasy.
Using these things evokes the same feeling I get as when see myself eating in the mirror: I know it’s a gross process, I know that I’m doing it, but I don’t need to see myself being engaged in that.
I often write in this newsletter about how we need to make tech more human, but here’s one place where, I think, it actually needs to be less so.
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About the Author:
I’m a data scientist in Philadelphia. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. I also have longer opinions on things. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.
Some discussion: https://twitter.com/vboykis/status/1222873202940088320