The elegant chaos of WhatsApp stickers

Samantha Cheh on the appeal of random meaninglessness.

Like any self-respecting ‘90s kid, my big sister had a massive sticker collection: glossy books full of pillow-soft mattes, glittery Disney princesses, and cheesy Saturday morning cartoons. Karjie doesn’t have that collection anymore (that’s partly my fault, but that’s another story) but like many other regurgitated, late-20th century trends, stickers have gotten a second life in the internet age — in this case, as messaging app stickers.


I remember thinking in the beginning that stickers felt pretty redundant considering we already had emojis and GIF-integrated keyboards — but really, they were doing something entirely different. Emojis and GIFs work well because they allow us to wordlessly express emotion through the complete decontextualization of mass media — only reaction is left. Stickers, in comparison, work the other way around: though there are what I call “pure reaction” stickers, the best ones are highly dependent on context. They’re the ones that won’t make that much sense if you don’t already have some idea of what’s going on, and that appearance of random meaninglessness is part of their appeal.

Take for instance LINE App’s iconic Friends stickers with their casual violence and absurdist tableaus — without some understanding of the kimo-kawaii genre, these might be cute if baffling, but with the right context, the genre’s humor is identifiable on sight, as is its rich, underlying history that makes these stickers highly relatable and a lot funnier to use. I love the cross-cultural ones — most Asians are at least functionally bilingual, and used to consuming media across languages and borders (also so!many!great!BTS stickers!). That's why we get genre hybrids like smoggybelle’s excellent BB Never Tell series — which blends elements of kimo-kawaii with salaryman archetypes and Hokkien-inflected English — and The Untamedcharacters in chibi form.


However, the true joy of stickers lies in the freewheeling, somewhat chaotic world of localized customs. Dive deep enough into sticker culture and you’ll encounter a range of customs that are so niche and specific to the point of being completely illegible to anyone outside a community. They require not just working knowledge of different languages, but also local political trivia, advertising, mass media and history.

There is a subgenre of Malaysian WhatsApp stickers in which iconic logos are turned into visual gags, such as the cropped Ngan Yin Groundnuts thumbs-up, a parody of the Yakult oval, or the halal-turned-haram JAKIM certification badge. I recently acquired a delightful set of stickers featuring national icon, P. Ramlee (as below) as well as a bomoh who claimed to be able to locate the lost MH370 with the help of two coconuts (no, really).


WhatsApp stickers, in particular, are especially appealing. WhatsApp is more widely-used in Malaysia than other platforms but also it feels less secure (thanks, Facebook). As a result, some of its terrifying openness has bled into local sticker aesthetics: they feel more slapdash and rough than LINE’s slick professionalism, more disorganized and chaotic compared to Telegram’s neat, tightly-encrypted environment. The humor is also much weirder: one sticker splices the Toy Story 2 collector into an imam’s robes; in another, a cucumber gets remixed with the “I’m just a fish” Spongebob meme.

I chalk part of this up to how easy sticker-making and usage has become — apps like or Top Stickers, and easy-to-access sticker keyboards have only enabled the compulsive habits of Malaysia’s meme lords. The Venn diagram of sticker obsessives and political junkies in Malaysian Twitter is a circle, which is why some of the most popular stickers are of extremely expressive corrupt politicians. In one, a now-sacked minister wears a food container on his face, in reference to his flouting of pandemic mask rules but also a related parody by a local comedian.


Inasmuch as stickers can be a rather flippant medium, there is a stark intimacy to them. In chat groups, you often find participants using particular stickers as shorthands for big, inarticulate feelings; some go so far as to turn their friends into stickers too, creating an in-group lexicon only they understand. In one tragic case, the sticker of a friend lingered long after he had died.

Stickers work because they get at something beyond language by ignoring language altogether. They collapse the space between words and feeling by way of the visual, distilling otherwise complex ideas and issues into very funny yet potent jokes — and let’s be real, jokes are easier than arguments, just as pop culture is more fun than politics. Stickers don’t pretend to be much more than entertainment, even when they are.

And in the face of successive crises and lockdowns, where the same events and emotions recur ad nauseam, words feel not just inconvenient but insufficient. A friend told me that for her, “roof cat” has become a useful shorthand for expressing a repetitive cycle of emo-ennui — it says, “I don’t want to talk, but I need you to know,” without having to sound out the words’ desperation. Used in response, it says “I understand.”— By Samantha Cheh


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