It’s 1997. You’re hooked up to a modem and are typing away on a Microsoft document when an animated paperclip pops onto the screen.
“It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?” was a familiar, annoying refrain from Clippy.
Surprisingly, Clippy is hot now, undergoing a cultural renaissance that is a little bit cute and a little bit baffling.
Clippy was underappreciated
Clippy was the default Microsoft Office Assistant for a decade from his introduction in Windows versions in 1997 until his retirement in 2007.
As an interactive user guide, his job was to keep an eye on documents and suggest improvements to users.
Sounds simple enough, but that’s not exactly how it worked out.
Instead, Clippy was roundly criticized as a failure by designers and reviewers, who found him to be more annoying than helpful.
In an insightful interview with Motherboard, the creator of Clippy, Kevan Atteberry, describes how Stanford social psychologists found Clippy, googly eyes and all, to be the most “trustful and engaging and endearing character of them all.”
Still, despite Clippy’s charm, he was also invasive, showing up randomly on Office documents while people were trying to focus. The results: users turned on Clippy. In 2010, Time listed Clippy as one of the 50 all-time worst inventions for its inability to “[hold] its tongue.”
Recognizing Clippy’s polarizing effect, Microsoft created a tongue-in-cheek campaign about what Clippy’s next move should be in 2001.
The triumphant return of Clippy
But even as Clippy failed as an office assistant, he has endured as a cultural artifact. He has been parodied as an unhelpful guide in “The Matrix” and turned into an Internet meme.
Atteberry suggests that since Clippy is so easy to draw —he is after all, just a paper clip with eyebrows and eyes— this makes him easy to copy and meme.
One Stanford University student even wrote his honors thesis on why users came to scorn Clippy.
The problem: Clippy was a robot that looked human, but wasn’t human enough. By making Clippy act like a person, Luke Swartz argued that “users will expect more from the interface than it is capable of, leading to inevitable disappointment, frustration, and dissatisfaction.”
Swartz drew upon research that found that the “anthropomorphic styles are cute the first time, silly the second time, and an annoying distraction the third time.”
This may have been why user testing did not initially find Clippy to be a distraction: “if one merely tests an interface once, annoyances may not present themselves.”
Clippy made this man’s career
Atteberry created Clippy as part of a freelance project for Microsoft, so he is not receiving royalties for his creation. Instead, he’s currently writing children’s books in Seattle.
Atteberry himself has moved from once being embarrassed to put Clippy in his portfolio to now recognizing the cultural capital Clippy gives him: “I am not put off by people hating him. The fact that people know who he is is the important thing to me. That he’s still part of our culture.”
He said he still receives fan art to this day, including bizarre anthropomorphized pregnant versions of Clippy.
Atteberry welcomes it all.
Clippy’s never-ending afterlife is an example of how fandoms can overtake a creator’s intent and reclaim a corporate symbol for their own entertainment.
In fact, Clippy may be an example of how a fandom can arise even around corporate logos and other business business symbols — something media theorist Henry Jenkins predicted. Some savvy businesses are even creating symbols that are fan-friendly to get ahead of the trend— so future fan versions of computational assistants may have even longer and more popular afterlives than Clippy, who may be looked upon as a pioneer.