The creators of Zoobe intended to make their program cute, clean and simple: a mobile app that turns voice recordings into 3-D animated videos, starring woodland creatures with gigantic heads. It was introduced in 2013 as a playful alternative to text messaging and quickly became a hit on its home turf in Germany. Users record brief messages on their smartphones, and anthropomorphic beings recite them back, in a video that can be shared with friends or posted online. The craze soon spread to neighboring countries, especially social-media-obsessed Russia, spawning some 170 million short videos that delivered short messages from the app’s cast of bears, rabbits and foxes.
While they talk, Zoobe characters dance and undulate in a disturbingly sensual manner, making the videos exploitable in a way that the Internet tends to quickly discover. Earlier this year, when English-language Zoobe videos began surfacing on American Twitter, YouTube and Tumblr feeds, the Zoobe menagerie adopted a saltier vocabulary.
Kylee Henke, a 26-year-old artist whose Zoobe videos were among the first to go viral in the United States, said that she started experimenting with Zoobe over the Fourth of July weekend, trading jokes with her family outside Seattle. The more she played with the app, the more she realized that obscene messages made for great videos. ‘‘The juxtaposition between the character’s appearance and the horrible things I have it say makes it 10 times funnier,’’ she says. Over time, Henke explains, ‘‘the language got more foul, because as it turns out, it’s hysterical to watch cute, fuzzy little characters yelling obscenities or spewing dark humor.’’ As Zoobe spread, it became clear that Americans were determined to put a twisted spin on the app, forcing the doe-eyed creatures to do their dirty work: ranting about celebrities, cursing out frenemies and complaining about daily indignities.
Lenard F. Krawinkel, the founder and chief executive of the company, claims to embrace this bizarre deviation. ‘‘I love it!’’ he says, adding, ‘‘I always hoped this would happen.’’ Krawinkel sounds genuine when he says he wants the service to be used for personal expression, regardless of how that expression evolves over time. That may be true, or it may just be that he recognizes the sheer impossibility of controlling a creation once it’s out in the wild — even one as soft and fluffy as Zoobe.