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The Creators of Emojli: 'Don't Build an App'

The much hyped emoji-only messaging app is now a 'millstone round their neck.'

In the app economy, it's painfully common to come across a new app that's only as ridiculous in its content as it is in its apparent success. Just think back to Yo, which launched a few months ago to much fanfare and with a million-dollar investment. Wouldn't it be just great to invent an entirely ludicrous app that somehow captures the public's all too easily satisfied hearts, minds, and phone-tapping fingers?

Apparently not. Just ask Tom Scott and Matt Gray, the creators of the latest buzzworthy social app: Emojli, the emoji-only messaging network.

They gave a talk at hacker and maker event Electromagnetic Field Festival this weekend, which they called, "Emojli: How we accidentally built an app and why we never want to build one again."

"We're not app developers," said Gray.

"And we don't think anyone else should be, because it's awful," added Scott.

The Emojli story started, they explained, outside a Jamie's Italian restaurant at the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford, London. Apparently it's a more inspiring venue than you might think, as that's where they got the idea for the app.

It was around the time of Yo, and emojis were a hot topic after new emoji icons had been introduced into the keyboard. The only thing that seemed more absurd than an emoji-only messaging app was the fact no one had made one before.

On the way home, Gray reserved the emoj.li domain. It wasn't intended explicitly as parody; it was just a fun idea and they thought they'd do it. Then,  Time.com picked up the pair's video announcement and within two days, before they'd built the thing, 70,000 people had reserved usernames for the app (which have to be written in emoji).

WE'VE MADE A MILLSTONE ROUND OUR NECK.

That's where things began to get less fun for the team. They had put an email address for support on their website and soon got dozens of messages, asking things like why they couldn't register as a smiley face (that username was already taken). "So within a couple of days, this idea had turned into a technical support job," said Gray. Both of the creators already have jobs they're happy in; they built Emojli in their spare time.

Making an app with little experience, they found, was also no walk in the park, and getting the backend and front end to work together using what they knew was a trial. Scott explained the backend was coded in PHP and the crowd booed; Gray said he built the front end almost like a web app using HTML, CSS and JavaScript—but no browser supports emoji.

There were additional hurdles. Scott had to register under the Data Protection Act—"Registering costs £35!" he complained—and they soon realised that emoji messages could perhaps contain more sensitive information than you might initially think. An emoji of a same-sex couple holding hands, for instance, could suggest a user's sexual orientation.

The finished app was approved by Apple on Friday. Don't even ask them about an Android version.

In the meantime, their project had caught more attention. The biggest misconception, they told me after the talk over email, was that people thought they were a professional startup. "We're two guys who had a fun idea, and decided to make it," wrote Gray. They really don't want to be a startup.

Ultimately, despite the app's spike in popularity, the pair has no plans to do much more with it. The economics simply don't make sense, especially with the amount of tech support emails they have to deal with, and they don't want to quit their jobs to work on it. "Don't build an app," summarised Gray towards the end of their talk. "We've made a millstone round our neck," said Scott.

They would perhaps consider selling it if they didn't have to deal with it any more. "We don't want it to die," said Gray. "We just don't want it to live either," Scott interrupted.

But for all the trouble it's given them, you could sense that a part of them was pleased with building the app and gaining first-hand experience of the app bubble. I asked if they wished they'd never built it, and they responded, "No regrets."

As for the future of the app? "It exists! Beyond that, no idea," said Scott.