Memes, Selfies, Money: Why the Ice Challenge Worked

As many have commentedat no point in recent social media memory has the difference between Facebook and Twitter been so apparent: over the past week, Twitter users have used the #Ferguson hashtag over 3.6 million times to raise awareness of protests against the police killing of unarmed Michael Brown in St. Louis, while in the same period Facebook has been dominated by videos of people performing the "Ice Bucket Challenge", where they dump ice water over their heads in exchange for avoiding making a charity donation. I spent more time on Twitter last week following #Ferguson, and so upon learning of the ice bucket meme and its popularity, it took a minute for me to untangle the logic of the challenge. 

Since the point of the challenge is to raise money, the meme's creators probably intended the "ice" part of the challenge to be more unpleasant than donating money, and were likely surprised that dousing yourself with ice water is as popular as it is. Rather than paying money to avoid the ice water, participants endure the ice water in order to have a socially-sanctioned reason to take a video selfie (example above). And the design of Facebook (as opposed to Twitter) works precisely to make the video-selfie aspect of the challenge its viral draw, causing the challenge to become more of an awareness raiser than a direct way of soliciting the maximum donations (in the end, some still pay something, and the viral spread multiplies those small donations).

That's to say that Facebook is designed to make personal content-- like photos, which have driven site usage since Facebook began-- spread most rapidly. It does so by making the primary nodal interface on the site be between "friends" rather than between, say, news sources and individuals, or other sources of content and individuals. Algorithmic weight is given to popular individuals and their content, and that weight increases in turn. People and their images and updates are the primary content that is being served on Facebook. To work otherwise, Facebook's algorithmic weights would have to shift considerably (a change that is reportedly in the works, though it is unclear to what extent).

Because Facebook is so tightly defined by the transaction of personal content, it actually creates a content production issue. Unlike Twitter where one can happily share impersonal links to news (though Twitter is developing an algorithm to move closer to Facebook's more opaque, personal model), the Facebook user must be prompted to post personal content, and that content must be broadly socially appealing. This is why weddings and babies are the main types of content on Facebook at present, as weddings by definition are an occasion for social participation, and babies are similarly understood as sites of social involvement (so much so that a woman apparently faked her wedding in order to drive attention to #Ferguson). This is the reason why Facebook perpetually experiments with the "status update" question, to find questions that prompt the widest range of people to post a personal update or even better, visual content, which performs best in News Feed.

The Ice Bucket Storm

If the Ice Bucket Challenge had not been invented as a fundraising drive, it would make an excellent social media site engagement driver, because it solves the problem of getting people to post and share personal, visual content. It does so first by providing an excuse to make a video selfie-- in the age of ubiquitous cameras, the biggest hurdle to content production is self-consciousness, which can be overcome by being commanded by friends or philanthropy. Second, the ice bucket meme's format includes a prompt to friends to create their own video selfies (this is the human equivalent of when Facebook apps used to ask you to invite people to the app before you had used it). The Ice Bucket Challenge is thus a perfect viral storm that, while generating millions of page clicks and new content for Facebook and other sites, happens happily to also generate awareness and donations for a good cause.

As such one could imagine a philanthropically inclined Facebook feeling moved to make its own donation to the cause; or even for its own benefit, building products that contain some incentive to produce and share personal content a la the Ice Bucket Challenge. Slingshot, Facebook's Snapchatty app, does a version of this by forcing people to share content in order to see content.

Direct v. Algorithmic Curation

Meanwhile, on Twitter, the motivating factor for #Ferguson tweets is of a different order: concern with the injustice and overwhelming force shown in Ferguson by police against Mike Brown and unarmed residents. The news is urgent and the desire to share it is equally urgent and direct, along with the IRL responses of people organizing and sending supplies. Fortunately, a selfie isn't necessary to spread the news on Twitter; while on Facebook, due to algorithmic curation, it may be. But just the same, this viral sharing benefits Twitter insofar as it drives content and usage. As such one could imagine Twitter, like one could imagine Facebook for ALS, acknowledging the cause with a financial contribution. Because if paying producers for content is no longer on the table, perhaps the next ethical step will be to pay the meme's original creators (or their causes) for the engagement they drive.

What Tech Offices Say

My new essay on Tech Aesthetics is up at Aeon Magazine.

The tech industry has reimagined the office as a vehicle for conveying workers’ social and professional prestige.

Orchid Halo

Pretty day on a boat in New Orleans.

Further Notes on Kink as a Platform

"Be the porn you want to see in the world," said our tour guide at the studios in San Francisco's Armory, deploying repurposed inspirational slogans as readily as any Silicon Valley CEO at a #TCDisrupt talk. Thus began a tour that, the farther along we went, started to seem like a revelatory mirror of the trends that are driving San Francisco's tech and business culture generally. As Melissa Gira Grant's recent piece in Dissent argues, porn like all other media these days wants to jump from content production to content platform-- not just publishing, but mediating and distributing user-generated content. I left the studios feeling that, in wanting to be a platform for sexual content like others are for social content, Kink has interesting things to teach us about platforms and our relationship to them.

The first thing our tour guide wanted to make sure we understood was that not only is tourist photography fine at Kink, it is also encouraged, as is posting photos from Kink to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. "If you feel inspired to enter a cage and pose for pictures, please do!" the guide said enthusiastically, cautioning us only that the professional performers in the building were not fair game for photos/friend requests unless asked. "Just because you've seen someone's asshole doesn't mean they want to be your friend on Facebook," our guide admonished.

This was the first of many uncanny moments I felt during the tour, where a porn platform representative was laying down rules for social media that are more explicit than those of social media companies themselves. When was the last time a social media platform told you the house rules for friending or distributing information? For social media platforms, all information flow is good flow. At Kink, there are rules, and the proprietors of the platform wanted to make sure we knew them.

"If any of the information I am telling you is too much, I'm going to teach you the safe words," our guide told us. "'Yellow' means that you are reaching your limit; 'Red' means that your boundaries have been reached and I should stop immediately." "Hmm", I thought, increasingly interested in the platform analogy. What if when I went to a website and it placed cookies on my browser, it would tell me what information it was registering, and if I said "yellow" it would slow down, or "red", it would stop? Why don't media platforms have safe words? What does it mean that they don't? Would we 'play' more freely on social media if they did?

At Kink, having safe words means that all possibilities for play seem realized, because within the "platform" people have boundaries that they can set and have respected. We went to the "electrosluts" room, which simulated a brightly-lit futuristic space where people could play with all kinds of electric gadgets. Aesthetic specificity is important at Kink: there are actors-turned-auteurs and set designers, and the Electro room was apparently modeled off of a science fiction movie, all white walls and bleeping consoles. Earlier we had visited the Abattoir room, a room decorated as a meat locker with meat hooks upon which could dangle enormous slabs of fake meat (there was confusion among the tourists about whether the "fake meat" was edible vegan meat or foam; it turned out to be foam).

fake meat for the "meat locker"

fake meat for the "meat locker"

crumbs as props on the "kitchen" set

crumbs as props on the "kitchen" set

cool vintage drinking fountain in the prop room

cool vintage drinking fountain in the prop room

Law & Order set under construction

Law & Order set under construction

The uncanny valley of fake and real within the Armory-- is the meat fake or real? is the creepy crawlspace just a creepy corner or a creepy dungeon set? is the drinking fountain real or prop?-- evoked other interesting resonances to social media. When we perform "pleasure" on social media is it "authentic" or show or both? What if our performance and our possessions are "props" in a show we are creating for our social media voyeurs-- not unlike the voyeurs who pay to watch people play on Does it matter? What "is" authenticity anymore? If not paid, for whom are we producing content, and for what reward?

"this corner was too creepy not to use," the guide said, speaking about an area of the Armory where Mission Dolores creek bubbles up from underground, creating a dank atmosphere.

"this corner was too creepy not to use," the guide said, speaking about an area of the Armory where Mission Dolores creek bubbles up from underground, creating a dank atmosphere. plays with the real-fake distinction as much as any social media platform: it invites people to play, for free, in its spaces, along with performers who are paid, in order to create "authenticity", a sense of unscripted fun. Unscripted fun, of course, is what social media platforms traffic in as well, and the unscripted amateurism of the production is what draws us to social media: anything can happen. On mainstream social media, porn is the one thing that can't happen, via the Terms of Service; on the other hand, at Kink, porn is the terms of service, a space of play that is created when the field around it is defined and made safe, and when the platform has been built and furnished so that the resulting content can be broadcast to paying customers.

The "Speakeasy" set, where bottles are filled with colored water due to regulations around serving alcohol in conjunction with nudity. However, according to our guide, the actors have monthly "employee appreciation parties" where they bring in real booze.

The "Speakeasy" set, where bottles are filled with colored water due to regulations around serving alcohol in conjunction with nudity. However, according to our guide, the actors have monthly "employee appreciation parties" where they bring in real booze.

I was left to wonder what else Kink, the porn platform, has to teach social media platforms. What if a social media platform was created where we did know our privacy boundaries, where we could play freely because we knew where our information would go, and that it would be safe if we said "red"? How much do we curtail our social media play because we don't have those safe words and we don't know where our information is going? What would a social media platform built on consent look like?

What's in a Free Fjallraven Backpack

I read Mat's piece on F8 (taking its place in the pantheon of Mat tech fever-dream pieces) and the symbology of the backpack got stuck in my head: why this backpack? Why give this out for free to conference members, beyond the obvious affiliation with a European hipness? And I started free-associating the things that the backpack conjures: #scandinavian #schoolkid #youth #healthy #europe #healthcare #socialservices #import #expensive #utility #high-end-utility #boyish #play #fjords #crisp #modern #picnic #hostel

And then I realized why the backpack was selected as the conference gift for F8: as our own American economy crumbles, the tech economy becomes a kind of substitute/fantasy of a privatized European model of nationhood in the midst of America's deepening socioeconomic crises. If one joins the private nation of the tech company, one can have healthcare, healthfulness, youth, innocence, travel, pink-cheeked men in floppy haircuts, modernity, utility, luxury, hope. Or you can just be an attendee with a backpack that evokes the possibility all of these things.

This reminded me that the original Facebook-employee logo bag was the Jack Spade messenger bag -- a very newly optimistic post-99-crash kind of bag, evoking a kind of youthful-yet-adult professional masculinity [in the Facebook model, which has been amplified by the media and Hollywood, the model is always a man]. Now the company's bag of choice is a backpack, evoking nonprofessional pursuits like travel and school. It's as if the effort is to imagine a company in which the ideal employee is perpetually a young man on his gap year, never quite professionalized, never quite here nor there, but always in the flush of a cresting youth and prosperity, only to be replaced, like a new school class or stock or app, when he peaks or settles down.

And like all of tech's other contemporary stylings, the European backpack is both precious and basic-- a more expensive version of an everyday thing. Tip to the procurement team: to be truly hip in this #normcore age, Facebook would have to have given out Jansports.

#normcore advertising?

This ad for Dockers khaki pants grabbed my eye and confused me immediately. "Open a can of khaki?" What does that mean? It seems to be wanting to align the wearing of khakis with drinking beer in a kind of #dadcore way (though "Wear the pants" is a kind of retro-paternalist invocation that lacks enough irony to appeal to anyone who isn't already concerned with appearing in control).

My question though is, would this ad work? Who is the person who wants to break out a pair of khakis and a beer and be paternalistically in control who doesn't already do that? Also, why the reclaimed wood background? My guess is the ad is trying to capture some kind of ironic hipster segue-ing into #norm/dadcore, but I don't think it 'gets' the relevant demographic.

On final thought, maybe what this ad is about is the fact that reclaimed wood now IS normcore, like the khaki of design materials, instead of its other.

The Speculum of the Other Brogrammer

It isn’t an accident that the term “brogrammer” gained usage around the same time as the current media obsession with tech companies, tech power, and tech money. The "brogrammer" is a media fantasy that coincides with the mass interest in programming for those outside of the industry; the term serves more to advertise the mainstream media’s fetish for a familiar model of masculinity as it does to critique tech culture's real issues.

Organic vs. Mass-mediated Tech Culture

Before the current media craze around the tech industry, media and culture around tech was largely created from within. Tech workers communicated with one another on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook (as well as forums and channels like IRC and instant message). Even the ra-ra tech blogs had a modicum of modesty given that tech was still an industry affair and not the mainstream media obsession it is today. As a result of this lack of attention from the outside, tech culture and memes came from within and largely remained within the culture, undistorted by the fetishizing lens of outside media.

Enter the bro

For most of the 2000s, the term “bro" was an unironic term for the average frat dude; but towards the end of the 00s that changed. Around 2008-2009, popular alt-culture blogger Carles began widening the usage of "bro" to refer to a range of types of people. “Bro” was modified by typological terms-- "tank top bro", “altbro", “indiebro". Bro moved from being a term for an average frat dude to being something like a unit of being within the culture, the substrate of a subculture. There were many types of bros, and with the de-articulation of the bro from its fratboy origins, there was a craze for rewriting any and all terms in "bro” to see what kinds of bros one could identify in the cultural wild. The intention of much of this early work was humorous blog play (I wrote a blog that itemized emergent bro styles in Dolores Park); at its most utopian and optimistic, the discourse of the bro was expansive, unfixed, self-aware. “Bro" was silly, playful, open-ended, a chain of cultural significations, a site of inquiry: what kind of bro is this? What kind of cultural brand is he trying to implement? What does this type of bro "mean"? Implicit in these questions was a postmodern sense of shifting identity in a branded digital landscape: a bro who was one thing might brand as something else the next season. To be a bro was to be, like everyone in our branded society, a person in search of community, however temporary.


In this play of significations, the moment when someone said “brogrammer” is where, if one were making an MTV documentary on this topic, the record would screech to a halt. In the midst of this tongue-in-cheek game of bro-ology, a few new engineers at Facebook made a Facebook page that was called "Brogramming”, taking an ambient pastime that was about mocking the importance of any particular kind of bro and centering it on one: the supposed “bro” (in the old, fratboy sense) programmer. The thing is that the “bro” programmer didn’t exist: to be a programmer at all involves an attention to detail, focus, and often a disregard for heavily masculine representation that would be lost on the caricatured “brogrammer” who bullies his podmates into going to the gym or the club.

It was thus that “bro” went from being a term of play to an aspirational term used by a few guys who wanted to will the carefree, obnoxious “brogrammer” into being. Unlike most programmers, these aspiring "brogrammers" attended to their physiques, created "lounges" in the office that simulated Vegas clubs, and listened to Pitbull, posting his videos on the Brogramming page (for historical comparison, Facebook’s original golden boy programmers were more forum-kid than gym-rat, pulling their culture from the deep internet and not from the pages of Maxim).

For a while the office was split between people who still used "bro" lightly and those who were making the "brogrammer" a caricatured reality (as the old saying goes, "first you mock it, then you stock it"). Eventually, the easy, Facebook-aided virality of the Brogramming page to outside observers meant that the term "Brogramming" had been cemented in the aspirational, unironic meaning of the term. Journalists followed the page and assumed that a stereotypically masculine programming practice was a widespread phenomenon, and at that point we entered the media fun-house tunnel of the "brogrammer", where journalists gleefully adopted the fantasy identity created by a few anomalous Pitbull-imitating programmers and extended it to an entire Valley of technologists.

The problem is that aside from those few guys reveling in their spray-tanned fantasy "brogrammer" masculinity, very few people in programming identify with the term "brogrammer". The brogrammer is always someone else-- he is THOSE Facebook guys who yell too loudly at parties and wave bottles in the air, he is not the nice, shy guy who gets paid 30% more because of his race, gender and appeal to the boy-genius fetishes of VCs. The loud and tacky "brogrammer" is a false flag-- if you are not a brogrammer, the logic goes, you must be an outcast genius who has suffered long and would never oppress a fly. The industry is full not of the former but the latter-- programmers who are smart and may present as harmlessly "nerdy" but whose sense of themselves as being "the underdog" means that it is very hard to see the ways in which they participate in unconsciously but potentially harmful ways in an industry that has coded them as kings. In reality, programmers in Silicon Valley can be fully and invisibly privileged without ever touching a Grey Goose bottle-service setup or a tube of hair gel. 

Meanwhile, the mainstream media's rapid adoption and celebration of the imaginary “brogrammer"-- imagining him as the updated version of a Wall Street man, rich, callous, and central to a new American story of wealth-- means that this fantasy character is being rapidly heroized and glorified across popular culture. This means that shows like Silicon Valley that claim to "critique" the “brogrammer” only end up re-centering the self-centered young male as American hero, failing to see or critique the deep, coded subtleties by which power in the Valley really works.

Who cares, tho?

All of this is to say that the creation of the mythical brogrammer has had very real consequences. New classes of startups in the Valley, anxious to "fit in" to a culture that is now shaped as much by external media as by internal community, are emulating the same flat stereotype imagined by the Brogramming page (a sponsored ad in my Twitter feed recently read "seeking brogrammers" :/). The "joke" becomes real, the brogrammer becomes the flat, oppressive ideal, and the fact that "bro" was originally a term of complex, critical affection within a community is lost, replaced by a distorting mirror in which people see themselves reflected as comic Hollywood caricatures, while disavowing their own, very real participation in what remain very real cultural issues.