The initiation of WhatsApp in 2012 was welcomed wholeheartedly by Omanis, since it offered an intimate, safe, and semi-private channel to connect with family, friends, and colleagues. As WhatsApp is not an open forum of social media, it proved to be beneficial for Omanis, who strive to maintain a positive public image.
Thereafter, when stickers, the next generation of memes, were introduced to WhatsApp in 2018, an immediate paradigm shift ensued in the manner Omanis communicate and express themselves.
Increasingly, stickers have become an extremely popular part of texting cultures, or cultures that rely on text messaging for communication. This includes all the countries of the Middle East, not just Oman, and Asia.
Stickers’ popularity is due to their visual richness and proportionate size (i.e. they are neither too large like memes or gifs nor too small like emojis). As a result, they allow complex emotions to be easily conveyed without the use of text. Most importantly, unlike emojis, stickers can be customised to fit one’s personality by combining photos, texts, and emojis. Therefore, they are more conducive to all forms of expression.
To date, Sticker’s pragmatic functions have included expressing emotions, clarifying or emphasising messages, adding playfulness, opening and closing conversations, and signalling individual personality.
In the Arabian Gulf, the main function of stickers among Khaleejis is to comment on daily news, as demonstrated by research. That is, to participate in civic engagement, Khaleejis create personalised stickers to express their attitude regarding the events of the day when news of local or global importance breaks out.
Through my research, I have discovered that Omanis use stickers to communicate not only their creativity but also their desire to build Oman.
As an example, in a co-authored journal article on WhatsApp stickers published in 2023, I demonstrated how Omanis in 2020-2021 created and nationally shared WhatsApp stickers that translated government and Word Health Organization instructions on how best to handle COVID-19.
They did so because the Omani officials had difficulty convincing Omanis, who come from a culture built on socialisation, to comply with the quarantine and social distancing rules. As a consequence, Omanis developed stickers, which they shared on WhatsApp as public signs to clarify (and help enforce) the pandemic regulations.
Omanis were finally able to follow the rules and regulations and also create a sense of community during this pandemic because of this action.
Based on this paper, a reporter for the Spanish newspaper El Pais interviewed me for a piece he wrote about WhatsApp stickers published on August 2, 2023.
My work on stickers provide insight into a side of memes and stickers that has not been adequately explored: I have shown that stickers function as more than mere fun tools; they indeed serve as cultural tools of reflection or lament, signaling a nation’s thoughts on topics of the day.
In other words, studying the COVID-19 pandemic through a cultural and semiotic perspective has demonstrated how Omanis’ cultural tone was reflected in stickers during the historic 2020-2021 pandemic. I have further shown that bottom-up management approaches by the public can also be successful in responding to global crises, as opposed to the typically documented measures taken by governments from the top down.
It caught my attention in particular how Omanis managed to encourage public cooperation through the juxtaposition of textual and visual elements. In keeping Omani traditions intact while requesting change of behaviour that might be perceived as culturally offensive, such as not shaking hands, the stickers struck a key balance.
In light of this, stickers (and memes in general) should not be dismissed. Rather than preventing people from taking actions that would otherwise be difficult, they allow people to manage them. Engaging in civic engagement is one thing; engaging in civic engagement through stickers and memes is quite another. By using stickers and memes, the public can express their opinions in a playful manner, circumventing accountability while also creating a healthy level of public participation.
Notwithstanding their simplicity and levity, stickers are highly effective. It is for this reason they have become a staple of chatting platforms by both young and old for playful purposes as well as to build personal and national identities and create healthy communities, one sticker at a time.
[The writer Najma Al Zidjaly is concerned with topics on self, national and cultural development; researcher; and associate professor of social media and Arab Omani identity in the Department of English Language and Literature (College of Arts & Social Sciences) at Sultan Qaboos University]