Stickers and social media: a cultural communication revolution?

Admit it: All of us have at one point laughed out loud seeing that cute, animated stickers sent to us by our loved ones. Who could resist? Over the last decades, stickers have conquered the world of social media. Originally designed to help convey expressions in social messaging, they have won the hearts of digital society from teenagers, organisations, even politicians.

But where did this digital invention originate? Strangely enough, they began when the 2011 tsunami wreaked havoc in Japan. In the middle of Japan’s landline disruptions, LINE, a new social-media platform using data-based texts was created. Originally designed to navigate the country’s strained network, it went on to develop the first social media stickers (Russell, 2013). At the time, no one could imagine that a small, creative invention from a recovering nation will create a new trend in social messaging. How have these stickers transformed our culture of communicating?

This article aims to tackle this question through a semiotic perspective. By understanding stickers as a social mediator, we will analyse their interplay with cultural discourses (Reershemius, 2018, pp. 2-3). Furthermore, we will approach this by tracing stickers to their physical roots as transgressive, vandalising urban subcultures that encourage one-way radical self-expression. Consequently, we will observe how they have transformed into their officially recognised social-media versions that have aided the breaking of cultural barriers and promote two-way communicative fluidity. Lastly, we will highlight how this also triggers a digital divide between the stickers’ most avid users, the millennials, and other generations. To begin this journey, we must head back to the streets of urban communities where the sticker-sharing culture first originated.

When asked about ‘stickers’ back before the age of social media, then teenagers would most likely point at the nearest covered lamppost or graffiti walls instead of opening their smartphones. That’s right, the colourful animations we use on our Instagram stories have a much humbler origin. Commonly associated with urban communities at pedestrian transit areas, stickers were already a popular means of communication as early as the 60s. Originally intended to garner attention, sell, convince, warn, and exhibit, street stickers became a token of self-expressions (Reershemius, 2018). In the 70s, they are used to indicate membership or mark territories of specific political groups or subcultures (Vigsø, 2010). However, these street stickers are far from their modern versions. The one we see on our social media have revolutionised stickers’ original interplay with spaces, language, agencies and discourses.

Stickers, Places, and Community

Walls, lampposts, windows, bins, telephone booths, and traffic lights: Those who have spent their adolescence in any growing urban city can easily locate their neighbourhoods’ worn-down stickers at these urban spots. Although it might seem irrelevant, stickers’ placing also plays a crucial role in their communicative function. In fact, the meaning of signs is fundamentally connected to how and where they are posted (Reershemius, 2018, p. 6).

In their original physical form, stickers are commonly associated as illegal and transgressive. Concurrently, their posting serves as a transformative process, claiming a certain place as a platform for the stickers’ posting agents. For instance, Reershemius (2018) has highlighted how football stickers have become a part of the fan culture to establish territorial claims within a city, for instance in the divided Manchester. They are likewise commonly linked to certain street art communities or urban subcultures.

However, stickers in their revolutionised digital versions take on a different space. Instead of walls and lampposts, they are posted in social media platforms that concurrently improve their communicative function. They no longer become a one-way media of self-expression but a new two-way communicative process to interact with the spatial community. This is because stickers in social media can be constantly reproduced by the digital society (e.g., through tagging, responding, etc.).

Stickers therefore enable an even stronger attachment towards a larger community to which they culturally relate to. For instance, during the US General Election, the Instagram sticker “I voted” or “Yo voté” took over the platform by storm (fig.1), starting a new trend for users all over America. As friends tag and re-shared the sticker, the social movement to vote create a communal sense between American users. Digital stickers therefore motivate people to make stronger connections beyond their local urban community onto a nation-wide or even international spatial level.

fig. 1. The “I Voted” sticker campaign launched by Instagram during the US Election (Instagram, 2018).

Language and Cultural Barriers

Another aspect that has been significantly transformed is the stickers’ use of language in facing cultural barriers. Research analysing Digbeth’s public spaces highlights that stickers are commonly posted monolingual. In fact, they often use local slangs comprehensible only to those within the community (Reershemius, 2018). This culturally specific practice in turn creates clear lines of exclusivity towards outsiders.

On the contrary, modern digital stickers are presented in diverse languages that enable people to tap into different cultural communities from around the world. For instance, Instagram’s day marking stickers are available in various languages. This allows you to express your joy over Friday in Spanish (Viernes), French (Vendredi) and many others! Instead of closing the community, these stickers instead promote digital inclusivity across cultural barriers. Research among international students in New Zealand has shown that animated stickers have become crucial starters in building intercultural friendships due to its expressive and harmless nature in social messaging (Shiau, 2016). Therefore, the multicultural digital stickers have transformed its previously exclusive localized communicative process into one that is trans-cultural and inclusive.

Stickers’ Agencies and Recipients

Originally, urban street stickers have been associated with criminal damages and unauthorized vandalism that protect the posting agency and the recipients’ anonymities (Reershemius, 2018, p. 12). However, the digital version offers a more open and mutual communication based on common recognition between the posting agency and the recipient. No longer a trend adopted only by grassroots, urban radical movements, digital stickers have earned the official authority of organisations, public figures, even politicians.

Facebook, for instance, is thoroughly open about its campaign to purposefully influence the US mid-term elections in 2010, promoting ‘Get out the vote’ stickers and messages in its app (fig.2). Instagram went the extra mile by running ads in stories and starting the voting stickers trend that automatically linked them to voting info such as the nearest voting station(fig.3). Concurrently, prominent politicians such as Barack Obama and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have utilised stickers to campaign and voters alike have responded to these messages. Before we know it, stickers have transformed from a transgressive, anonymous one-way communication into an effective and open two-way practice that bridge the gap between the posting agency and the recipients.

fig. 2. “Get out the vote” campaign by Facebook (Constine, 2018).

fig. 3. Instagram’s voting sticker campaign (Constine, 2018).

Stickers, Discourses, and New Functions

So far, we have discovered that digital stickers have revolutionised communication by enlarging our community space, breaking our cultural-linguistic barrier, and building agency-recipient connection. However, how do stickers’ discourse and meaning change our way of communicating? Physical stickers predominantly convey their message through tagging: Claiming public space by making their presence known in a territory. After this initial phase, the sticker’s agent makes use of this identity to achieve the sticker’s purpose such as selling, appealing, or conveying a message (Reershemius, 2018, p. 19). For instance, a political sticker on the street often that attaches a link to their website to intrigue readers for more.

However, the characters that we send to our friends or use in our Snapchat filters daily have a more elaborate meaning than their simple functional utility. Firstly, they also possess social utility by promoting interpersonal communication in its usage (Al-Maroof et al., 2019, p. 372). According to Lim (2015), this social aspect is enhanced due to the ‘human aspect’ that the characters bring to our distant communication.  Sending that cute cat sticker grumping around for food brings a level of playfulness and sentiments that a simple “I’m hungry” text might not convey.

Lim (2015), for instance, accounts a particular interaction with a travel guide that she has never encountered and has only interacted with via chat (fig.4). Although the initial conversation is distant, she recounts how it quickly changed once the agent asked to communicate with her via LINE (What Are Social Stickers? Here’s What You Need to Know, 2018). The sticker features of the app immediately warmed up the conversation as users are presented with more expressive ways to convey their emotions (Lim, 2015). This unique social function brings a new communicative fluidity to our digital conversations.

fig. 4. Instant messaging conversation made animated by LINE’s stickers

Furthermore, stickers also bring a certain hedonic utility: a new enjoyment lacking from our normal day-to-day texts and social media updates (Al-Maroof et al., 2019, p. 372). They allow us to connect on a deeper emotional level and to convey artistic moods that would otherwise be lost within words. For instance, the Instagram music sticker brings a static photo or a video to life through its addition of matching music that can be sorted through ‘moods’ (fig. 5). This allows us, as the posting agent, to build a deeper emotional basis with the viewers, letting them in on our personal experiences.

fig.5. Music stickers on Instagram story matches out the feelings conveyed by your photos (Hermann, 2018).

Lastly, digital stickers have surpassed their original version’s functional utility. Not only are they able to claim their presence and use their identity to relay information, they also allow the recipients to react. This builds a direct exchange of information beyond reading a sticker as a passer-by. The secret weapon for this? The interactive stickers! The commercial field has taken an advantage of this feature to increase engagement with their potential buyers. Take this example from @heystephanieliu who used the Instagram slider sticker to inform her followers about the wine she is drinking, a creative way to boost business for wineries and restaurants (fig. 6) (Hermann, 2018)!

fig. 6.  A slider is an interactive way to engage with viewers on Instagram (Hermann, 2018)

The two-way communication not only makes stickers an effective way of giving information but also of gaining one. The posting agency can now build a common communal feeling by gauging the recipients’ responses to their information. This has been proven as a powerful tool in the political context. For instance, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@aoc), one of the most active politicians on Instagram, uses her stories to know the public’s opinions on policies. With a simple click of a button, these stickers can help us build connections, promote causes, and gain feedback on our work!


Summing up, the culture of stickers has transformed from their previous transgressive one-way self-expression communication process. Digital stickers are now officially used worldwide to enhance two-way communicative fluidity and to break cultural barriers through their social, hedonistic, and functional utilities. These stickers have not just made social media more fun but also changed the way we communicate with each other. They promote a new culture of inclusivity and openness in digital conversations.

Nevertheless, as with all great inventions, there is always a catch: In a study conducted by Harris Poll, it appears that the benefits of the stickers are still enjoyed mostly by millennials, leaving other generations behind (Shokurova, 2019). With the ever-increasing technological growth, inter-generational gap has become an ever more pressing issue. The crucial decision therefore lies in our hands, do we leave others behind in this cultural communication revolution? Or do we make use of stickers as a new bridge to break through not only national but generational borders? It is never too late to bring our parents and grandparents in on the fun ride. After all, nothing says “I love you” more than that cute cat sticker giving your grandmother the biggest smile in the world!


By Florencia Edgina
Socio-political academic researcher and content writer.


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