There is Muzi a yellow radish wearing a bunny suit and his companion Con a mysterious baby crocodile; Jay-G a groovy mole/secret agent; Frodo a spoiled dog; Apeach a sexy peach; Neo a suave urban cat; Ryan a sensitive lion; and Tube an emotionally unbalanced duck.
If you have lived in South Korea for at least a month, you most likely know whom I just described above. They are the KakaoTalk characters and you can find them everywhere. Stores are dedicated to them. You can buy toothpaste with their likeness on them. Businesses use them to advertise. And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Simply put, they are a pop-culture phenomena in South Korea, much like how Star Wars is in America.
But why are KakaoTalk characters so popular? Why do people care about them so much?
The obvious answer is that like thousands of other emoji stickers KakaoTalk characters have become communication shorthand in the “bali bali” culture of Seoul, South Korea where everything moves with lightening speed.
Need to tell someone your busy? Send them Neo furiously typing on a computer with flames behind her. Want to convey to a coworker what you did on Sunday? Send Muzi watching television. Are you running late to meet your cousin and you feel bad about it? Simply send Apeach on a bike sweating.
Yet with such a cornucopia of emoji stickers, all created by artists with their own idea of what each represent, miscommunication is bound to happen.
For example, a friend once messaged me Apeach pulling down an eye-lid and sticking out its tongue. What was my friend saying? Was she sick? Feeling depressed? Just making fun of me? Meh-long! I wasn’t sure, so I replied with the same emoji sticker. She messaged back, “Oh, you too?” I replied, “Yeah.” Then she sent Apeach posing disco style. I took this to mean, “Cool? We think the same today.” Then the conversation was finished, but I was left both baffled and amazed. Baffled because my friend obviously has her own understanding of what her emoji stickers mean to her that I am not privy to, but also amazed by this very concept. This is truly why the KakaoTalk characters really matter to us, what makes them so appealing and charming, it is because we imprint ourselves onto them.
Another case in point happened to me a few years ago. An ex-girlfriend of mine often messaged me using the emoji stickers of Neo and Frodo to represent our relationship. One in particular that she sent frequently was Neo pinching Frodo’s cheek because she did that to me all the time. I was blown away. I thought, Wow! KakaoTalk made these emojis especially for her and I.
Of course the truth is that thousands of people right now are messaging the same emoji stickers to a special someone. But that does not change anything for me. I am Frodo because I have linked Frodo to romantic moments in my life. When I go dancing, I am Jay-G because he is often what I use to message that action. If I ever complain about something when texting a friend, I am Tube because sometimes I do feel like a frustrated duck.
Again this is what makes the KakaoTalk characters so special? We see ourselves in them and that makes them alluring like Shakespearean characters, which tells you why they are everywhere you look in South Korea and why they will be around for quite sometime.
Assistant Professor Christopher Linville earned his Bachelor of Arts from University of Washington and double majoring in Psychology and English Literature. He is currently in the Global Language Education Office of Ewha Womans University.