Facebook engineer Arturo Bejar talked to the folks over at Popular Science, discussing how the new emoticons available for Messenger were created. In early 2012, the engineer crossed paths with a UC Berkeley professor of psychology who specializes in emotions, Dacher Keltner, who soon partnered with Facebook to offer his expertice. Soon after Pixar illustrator Matt Jones was on board as well.
So far, Facebook uses 16 of 50 new emoticons that were created of a character they call Finch, with the potential to roll out more of them in the future being possible. The character’s creation was spurred by The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, a book published by Charles Darwin in the late 1800s, as well as research into user issues. Said Bejar, “This all began we were looking at the kind of issues people were reporting to Facebook. The reports had to do with things Facebook didn’t need to act on, but things people should address – what should happen when you say something that’s upsetting to me or put up a photo I didn’t like?”
The idea is that text alone presents issues when communicating due to its inherent lack of any sort of emotional context. Words alone can be ambiguous, and so users naturally began creating text-based emoticons to express the intention behind the words, such as the ever-popular :) smiley face. While text-based emoticons are better than nothing, they still lack the kind of emotional expression individuals are presented with when holding an in-person conversation, hence the eventual creation of image-based emoticons.
Keltner wasn’t satisfied with your average everyday emoticon, however, stating that he personally felt they were still lacking compared to what they could be. Because of this, Darwin’s work was partly used in the project to create richer, more expressive emoticons that tap into what the person behind the screen is feeling and helping the individual on the other side of the screen understand it better. One example given was sympathy: “It’s an under-appreciated emotion in Western culture. We now know what it looks like and sounds like because of science. They created this dynamic emoticon that when you see it, it’s really powerful.”
Because of this, the Finch emoticons are currently the most scientific set of stickers on Facebook, according to Bejar. He also hinted that perhaps one day audio will be added to the dynamic little character.