The emotional pull of cartoon (apps)

by Bruce Kasanoff on March 7, 2011

There’s a reason why Disneyland exists: to millions of people – not just kids – Disney’s imaginary characters represent important relationships in their lives. Cartoon characters have facial expressions, and that allows them to express emotional with incredible subtlety.

You don't have to be an artist to make wonderful expressions with Smurks

I just had a fascinating conversation with cartoonist Pat Byrnes, who is the creative force behind an addicting new app called Smurks. This app is to emoticons as a bullet train is to a horse and carriage. Forget about primitive typed images. By dragging your fingers on your iPad or iPhone screen, you can convey over 340 different facial expressions.

Once you’ve formed the face that best captures your feelings, you can easily post the result to Facebook, Twitter or email. So if you emerge from a tough meeting, instead of typing a long email, just stretch “your” face into a grimace and send it along.

Pat, whose cartoons have appeared in The New Yorker and dozens of other publications, says that someday Smurks could open up a whole new channel of social influence and communication.

He says that each of the 340+ expressions fits into a scientifically valid category. That is, each represents a certain emotion. The combinations can get pretty specific, say, anger tinged with a hint of humor.

So, you might walk by a sports bar one night and see a Smurk face in the window. It might represent one person’s opinion, or the collective perspective of all in the bar. One glance would be enough to let you know the home team is way behind.

A company could collect data from Smurk posts about their products, and learn that in recent days consumers are getting angry about the firm’s hottest product, perhaps because of a packaging change. Or a retailer could quickly judge how consumers are reacting to their latest fall fashions.

Byrne has not yet built such a backend, but it’s only a matter of time until someone does. Think about it: we can’t yet quantify the smiles, grimaces or apathetic looks of customers as they open emails and ads. But with something like Smurks, where every emotion is actually a data point, companies would acquire an excellent surrogate.

In the spirit of total disclosure, there are some issues. Smurks has no such backend at the moment. Any such venture would have to be designed very carefully to protect privacy and to avoid tinging a fun interface with the spectre of Big Brother. But developed properly, Smurks could morph into a killer app.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I am a partner in two cartoon-related ventures: Multiverse Labs, where we leverage The Art of Buzz to create Hollywood-style illustrations that motivate and focus employees, and Draw the Dog, which offers a daily dose of funny and heartwarming dog cartoons.

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