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How Bitmoji Helped Parents Discover Their Online Identities

For a generation that wasn’t reared on the internet, the meme-friendly avatars are a gateway

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Earlier this month, Susie Trujillo received a text that included an unexpected image: her mother’s Bitmoji — an illustration of a mature woman with short brown hair, bangs, and wire-rimmed glasses — mimicking what her mom thought was the “Evil Kermit” meme.

“Haha you used that wrong,” Trujillo replied. “That’s the naughty Kermit meme.”

“Kermit?” Trujillo’s mom, Susan Liehe, replied. “Tell me.”

The two hopped on the phone together for a brief lecture on hooded Kermit, an online joke based on a scene from 2014’s Muppets Most Wanted that’s meant to convey a person’s conflicting thoughts and desires. Trujillo even followed up by emailing a few sample memes for context.

Informal internet lessons have become a familiar ritual between Susie, a 29-year-old marketing consultant, and her mother, Susan, a 61-year-old head of communication at Denver’s Office of Economic Development. Trujillo’s mother has always been relatively tech-savvy, but never ventured too deeply into the more involved parts of internet culture. Then, six months ago, Trujillo helped her mom create a Bitmoji, one of those expressive cartoons that anyone can customize to look like themselves, and all that changed. The app’s perpetually updated avatar choices — which contort themselves to act out the latest in movies, television, music, slang, and memes — were a window for her mother into a whole new web.

Before the Evil Kermit breakdown, there was the dabbing Bitmoji. (“She was like ‘Is this person sneezing?’” Trujillo recalls.) And before that, it was the avatar sitting on a giant key, as a hat tip to the once-buzzy DJ Khaled catchphrase “major key.” The updating Bitmoji memes became daily lessons for her mother. Often, after learning a piece of slang, like “on fleek” — a phrase for which Trujillo’s explainer was simply a link to its origin-story Vine — Susan makes a point to use it in a sentence.

Susan Liehe’s dabbing Bitmoji. She recently changed her Bitmoji outfit to depict an image of her orange tabby, Roger. “She was the one who told me you could change the outfits,” said her daughter, Susie Trujillo. “I didn’t know that.”
Susan Liehe’s dabbing Bitmoji. She recently changed her Bitmoji outfit to depict an image of her orange tabby, Roger. “She was the one who told me you could change the outfits,” said her daughter, Susie Trujillo. “I didn’t know that.”

“It was the first snow in Colorado a couple weeks ago, and she had new snow boots,” Trujillo said, recalling a text conversation. “She was like: ‘Boots on fleek.’”

Since their debut in October 2014, Bitmoji (which started out as Bitstrips) have influenced the way people express themselves in profound, unexpected ways. The app’s founder, Jacob Blackstock, has said that “these avatars are like your id, and that can take any form.” In a profile of the company for Slate earlier this year, Amanda Hess argued that “Bitmoji can help encourage emotional disclosures and accelerate bonding, and that the virtual expression of love can help encode the real thing.” The New York Times’s Ashley Parker posits that Bitmoji aid in “marrying our own sense of self with our public image, yet in a safe, quirky way that we ultimately control.” But in the case of the platform’s more mature users — the parents and grandparents who are frequently encouraged to download the app by their children — it has become a vehicle to establishing an origin for their online identities. Through these characters, generations of people who were never privy to late-night AOL chatrooms, weepy LiveJournal entries, or the rise of Myspace are finding an entry into this new world. What may have started as a tool that mommy blogs said would earn parents “cool points” has become an avenue for baby boomers and beyond to become more connected with online society and their digital selves.

Older generations are able to feel comfortable soul-searching via Bitmoji largely because of the way it’s set up. The app was never designed to be a social platform, but rather a kind of Build-A-Sticker station where you construct an avatar with great detail, down to the shape of your eyes, the lines on your face, and the cut of your hair, and then copy-paste it into whatever online medium you like. It turns out that 90 percent of the time, that place is a private text, group chat, or an online messenger, according to Blackstock. Though the company’s more than $100 million sale to Snap in March may have brought more Bitmoji to public platforms, its appeal as a private communication tool remains especially clutch for parents who feel uncomfortable airing the more playful sides of their personalities publicly. While it’s become second nature for young online professionals to share intimate moments on Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat, that remains odd and suspicious to a generation that wasn’t reared on social media.

“My mom is really funny in general, but life can get in the way,” Trujillo said. “At work there’s a certain decorum for how you talk to your coworkers or whatever. But this encourages her more whimsical side. And it feels appropriate.”

Susan Liehe and her Bitmoji

Susan Liehe and her Bitmoji

Melissa Halas-Liang, a dietician and cocreator of the health-oriented lifestyle and recipe FoodLeap app, said she must maintain a professional appearance on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook. But when communicating privately with her friends and 11-year-old daughter, she can let loose in ways that she’s rarely allowed. Enter her Bitmoji.

“I’m not going to go out and say ‘bo-kaka-shaw,’ and have a baseball cap on backward and big diamonds and rhinestones around my neck,” the 40-something Halas-Liang said, referring to an amalgamation of Bitmoji available on the app. “But maybe I would like to. And my Bitmoji gives me a chance to do it.”

Halas-Liang downloaded the Bitmoji app in October, after a friend recommended she use it to stay in touch with her daughter while away on a business trip. That weekend, they exchanged a slew of Bitmoji, and Halas-Liang felt like she was able to offer a level of support that she couldn’t via texts. Since then, she’s become fluent enough that she’s comfortable using Bitmoji that depict her avatar saying “Word” instead of replying to a question with the tamer “Yes.”

“When you try to be cool in person as a parent, your kids just roll their eyes and laugh at you,” she said. “But somehow Bitmoji lets you be cool, and express those sentiments. If I try to do some hip-hop move, she’s like, ‘Oh my gosh you can’t pull it off.’ But if I send her a little Bitmoji where I’m doing the nae nae, suddenly I’m cool in her eyes, I’ve lightened her day, and I’ve connected with her and her generation.”

Bitmoji also functions as a unique genre of communication — somewhere in between a fleeting text and a serious phone call — that is especially helpful for parents and children as a lightweight way to check in with each other.

“For parents who have dual custody, it’s a way to connect with their children quickly and briefly, so you’re not stealing time away from the other parent, but you’re letting them know, ‘Hey, I’m here, I love you,’” Halas-Liang said.

This became clear to me this past Halloween, when some friends and I gathered in our costumes for drinks before heading out. One of them — a pal named Cristina dressed as ’80s-era Madonna — got a series of texts from her mom that included some spooky Bitmoji for solidarity. This was par for the course ever since her mom discovered the app. Cristina couldn’t even go to bed without receiving a “goodnight” Bitmoji from her each evening. But that didn’t keep her from showing me the Halloween-themed avatars. There was a cartoon sketch of Mrs. Martin, first dressed in a witch costume next to the word “LOL,” then in a skeleton costume napping in a recliner, and finally in a Halloween costume, dabbing her heart out.

“My mom is really much sillier than I ever gave her credit for,” Cristina said.