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Source: Redditblog.com

Users and administrators alike constantly refer to Reddit as a community. Whether talking about specific subreddits or the site as a whole, the discourse of community is powerful. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, it isn’t just a branding concept. Many Reddit users also consider Reddit a community in a way other sites are not. Redditors appreciate that the site isn’t a social media network. They like that the model for Reddit is about content aggregation and forum discussion, they like the relative anonymity they have, and they like being able to curate their experience by subscribing to subreddits tailored to their interests.

I have previously argued that Facebook is not a community. I feel less confident making that argument for Reddit, primarily because so many users consider it a community. Regardless of my own definition of community—a social unit based on voluntary association, shared beliefs and values, and contribution without the expectation of direct compensation—and the extent to which it does or does not fit this definition, the fact is that there is an important affective component to community, and many users certainly feel that connection.

There are a variety of reasons that Redditors may think of Reddit as a community in a way that social media websites do not. It isn’t atomized or individual centered. It isn’t based on curated user profiles. It’s… well, community based. You can only post content to a group, and individual users rarely get a “following” so to speak. But that is about to change in a big way.

Admins recently announced that they’re rolling out a new profile feature that allows redditors to follow individual users. Their posts will show up on their followers’ front pages, and they have an individual profile page that is much more user-friendly than digging around someone’s post history. By and large, the Reddit community was pretty unhappy with the announcement. Why? You can probably guess: it threatens the community element that makes Reddit special.

The announcement at the time of this writing has a 50% upvote rate, making it a “controversial post” as far as upvote to downvote ratios go. Nearly all of the top comments in the thread are in opposition to the change, and nearly all of them argue that it will harm the community-based structure of Reddit. They argue that community is the whole appeal of Reddit, it’s what makes it different from social media sites, and that introducing profiles will favor self-promotion and corporate branding at the expense of subreddits. Profiles may discourage participation in subreddits and turn the site into a place where you follow individuals rather than communities.

Users are also accusing admins of changing the site for commercial interests. Profiles give users complete moderation control of anything posted there, allowing individuals and corporate entities to control their brand and draw attention to their own products, rather than acting as one account among many in a subreddit. Accountability would be reduced for those interested in self-promotion and branding, as profile posts would allow the user to delete anything they wanted. Several redditors argued that this would fundamentally change AMA (ask me anything) posts if they move from r/IAMA to profiles, where questions that are inconvenient or uncomfortable would be easy to delete, rather than remaining unanswered—a damning indicator that the person doing the AMA doesn’t want to deal with that question.

It’s not the first time that changes to Reddit have been chalked up to profitability. When admins banned and quarantined several objectionable subreddits, many users cited increasing ad sales and promotional posts as the cause. Coca-Cola likely doesn’t want their ads showing up next to racist or pornographic content.

The general backlash can be summed up in two points: profiles move the Reddit dynamic away from the community model and toward the individualist social network model, and the commercial interests of admins continue to make the site less attractive to users. The life and death of Digg was mentioned quite a lot, and talk of mass exodus and the demand for a new content aggregator popped up in thread after thread.

So, is Reddit a community? In my opinion, no. But many users do consider it a community, which I think is much more important than any sociological definition I choose to apply to it. I do, however, think many subreddits function as communities, and the death of subreddits is what users fear the most. There is a direct conflict between communal vs. individualist models of human interaction. For my part, I think the profile addition will have significant effects for the site, but I do not think they will destroy subreddits so long as that sense of community is felt deeply enough that users continue to participate in them.

Of course, a huge majority of visitors and users don’t submit any content at all. Lurking is a well-known phenomenon, and while the numbers are very difficult to accurately assess, we know that for content creation in general there is a large participation gap. So, if active users who generate a lot of content move from subreddits to posting on their own profiles, that could be a significant change to the role of subreddits on the site as.

More than anything, community is a feeling. Given the outcry and the large numbers of upvotes on comments opposed to the profile feature, users fear the loss of community at an emotional level. In my definition above, contribution without the expectation of direct compensation is a key element to community, and it is the fuel that keeps Reddit moving. If Reddit moves from a community-based content aggregating site to a social network for brand-building and individualist self-promotion, contribution without compensation falls apart. This is what the fear boils down to.

But if these community ties are felt strongly enough, it will be up to users who aren’t interested in self-promotion to contribute more than ever, to replace what could potentially be a large exodus of power users from the subreddit model. Lurkers must come out of the closet. Voting will not be sufficient participation in a community, and it will require many more users to actively “invest” in the subreddit community by submitting content and filling the gap left behind by those who move to profile submissions. This change, if it plays out the way many redditors believe it will, will test the extent to which subreddits are a useful model for community, and just how invested in them users are.

Britney is on Twitter.

In his recent open letter to the “Facebook community,” Mark Zuckerberg issues a call to arms for people around the globe to come together in service of amorphous ideals like safety and civic engagement. He uses the term “community(ies)” over 100 times in the post.

He keeps using that word. I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

Community is one of those words that gets applied to so many social units that it becomes practically meaningless. Facebook is a community. The city you live in is a community. The local university is a community. Your workplace is a community. Regardless of the actual characteristics of these social units, they get framed as communities. But more often than not, they are not communities. This is not merely a semantic distinction; it has important consequences for how we think about governance, scales of human interaction, norms and values, and politics.

When you conjure a community in your mind, you probably do not immediately jump to Facebook or a corporate workforce or even your city. More likely you think of your local activist organization, your neighborhood, or the people you collaborate with on creative projects. You may even think of a Facebook group you’re a member of, or a subreddit you subscribe to. But if someone asked you what communities you’re a member of, would you really say “Well, I use Facebook…”?

Corporate entities are fond of the term community because it fosters a sense of familiarity with their brand, and as social creatures we crave belonging. It also serves as a stand-in idea for social units that are decidedly less compelling. “Millions of users” or “Massive consumer base” are not concepts that inspire an emotional connection. Less nefariously, community is not a cumbersome word in the way that “world-wide user base” is; or, at least, it feels less cumbersome.

But in reality, community serves us best when it is treated as a specific type of human relationship. It is a social unit based on voluntary association, shared beliefs and values, and contribution without the expectation of direct compensation. In my own work I’ve used the gemeinschaft-gesellschaft distinction popularized by sociologists like Ferdinand Tönnies, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim, but really you don’t need a working knowledge of German sociology to come up with basic, common sense parameters for what constitutes a community. You know it when you see it. Or rather, you know it when you feel it, because community is ultimately an affective, emotional connection to other people.

How many times have you heard someone complain about how much they want to leave Facebook but can’t because there is so much momentum behind it, because everyone you know uses it? That’s a red flag that Facebook is not a community. Communities do not hold you hostage. Communities are “walk-awayable” so to speak. They are, in general, pretty easy to leave if you decide you are not getting what you need from them.

But really, this is a grossly over-simplified way to describe community at a sociological level. It’s too slippery to fit in a categorical box, and our notions of community change radically over time. Though it’s difficult to imagine a time before nation states, they are a recent phenomenon that required the cultivation of an entirely new and alien sense of community. This new scale of idealized human kinship allowed nation states to flourish and, eventually, dominate the globe. Benedict Anderson calls this phenomenon an “imagined community” that “is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship,” despite the “actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail.”

It takes a great deal of work and informational infrastructure to coerce millions of people into believing that they are members of a shared community that behaves nothing like a meaningful community. Anderson cites print capitalism as a driving force of nationalism, which “created monoglot mass reading publics,” massive groups of people all reading the same language and being exposed to the same ideas. Mass produced print media, and later electronic media, fostered a national discourse and mythology: a pool of symbolic resources that “citizens” could draw on to understand themselves as a part of a huge, nebulous, diverse population.

Arguably, social media networks have supplanted nation states as the imagined communities du jour. The internet is the new printing press, the technological advancement that helped pave the way for our new imagined communities. I’ve previously written on how the explosion of political texts and images online reveal and perhaps perpetuate deep-seated, emotional disturbances in our ability to see our nation (in this case the US but it is likely true in many other countries) as a unified community. At current, it may be much easier to see a community-based kinship with your social network on Facebook than with your nation’s fellow citizens.

Media studies scholar Marshal McLuhan predicted Zuckerberg’s argument to some degree when he wrote about the “global village” that, thanks to high-speed electronic communication, would foster personal connections at a global scale, inducing us to be more invested in issues around the world. This sentiment is echoed in Zuckerberg’s manifesto. For McLuhan, the important consequence of a new medium (in the sense of every medium being “new” at some point) is its ability to extend human consciousness and sensorium beyond the body. You are projected onto the words on a page, the moving image on your television, and the email from your grandfather. From speech to writing to radio and the internet, we have stretched our consciousness further and further beyond the body.

McLuhan was not writing about internet communication specifically, so the notion of a particular platform like Facebook being a global, imagined community requires a new look at McLuhan’s global village, particularly with an emphasis on the role corporate branding and digital infrastructure play. It must go beyond the somewhat vague model of media nodes in a global network to understand the role of a specific, highly influential platform and the ways its developers seek to govern their own global village.

A crucial element of community is that, by and large, they are pretty horizontally governed. Leaders may emerge, power relationships certainly exist, and this is not necessarily a bad thing as leaders can afford to take on more of the responsibilities of maintaining a community then other members may be capable of. But leaders can also be easily overthrown in a community. If their leadership becomes unpopular, community members stop listening, stop doing what they’re told, and perhaps simply go elsewhere or start something new. The voluntary association element of community is a check on any undesirable shifts in shared beliefs and values. If the women’s caucus in your activist community is dominated by white women with shitty politics you can speak up, challenge the lack of diversity in leadership, or even leave and start your own more diverse caucus. I’m not saying it’s easy or consequence free, but it is doable. Less so with a nation, and less so with Facebook.

Facebook cannot be called a community because, while you can technically leave it, it can hardly be called a voluntary association. As I noted above, many users want to leave the site and build their own alternative social network platform, but that would require a mass exodus of users and a comparable platform elsewhere. It’s akin to saying “If you don’t like this country why don’t you just get out!” OK, sure, I could. Assuming I can sell my house, get my family to come with me, find a new job overseas, be given a visa or citizenship…

Facebook also, regardless of how much Zuckerberg plays up their “Community Standards,” is not based on shared values and beliefs. Users don’t set up Facebook accounts to fight for water justice or constitutional originalism or single payer health care. They sign up because their best friend from college moved across the country and they want to see what she’s up to, how her life is. Or they want to get to know the people in their dorm and easily organize events. Or they want to share dank memes that they stole from Reddit. But Facebook’s values like “safety” and “respect” are so variously defined, and so difficult to enforce, that they hardly qualify as shared beliefs among community members.

So why is it such a big deal when a large corporate entity tries to convince you that it’s a community, and that you’re part of it? For one thing, community members should have significant say in governance. Communities should not be run by a CEO and a board of directors. Communities generally don’t have their members’ activities filtered based on how many people liked a post or some other algorithmic tinkering that is both invisible and consequential. And lulling users into a false sense of their role in governance encourages complacency, inspiring greater trust in leadership than is warranted.

Zuckerberg wants to take (minimal) responsibility for Facebook’s role in spreading disinformation during the election. He wants to make serious journalism at local and global levels a more important part of Facebook’s content. He wants to minimize sensationalism. And he wants accomplish this in large part with AI development.

In keeping with Facebook’s history of vagary, Zuckerberg is pretty unclear about how he wants any of this to work. On what basis will AI filter news content? What role will peer sousveillance and reporting objectionable content play? So far this has generally meant that photos of women breastfeeding are terribly objectionable while racial slurs and threats of violence are left to stand. Zuckerberg says it will take greater AI development to make the tech more capable of “reading” images and videos, and yet my (and many others) experience is that an image of a fat woman in her underwear promoting self-love is apparently much more offensive than a commenter threatening sexual violence against another user. The problem doesn’t seem to be medium—it’s what counts as objectionable.

Facebook should not be thought of or presented as a community because it can never be governed as a community should be—based on egalitarian and horizontal decision making, a set of specific shared norms and values (not “safety” and “engagement” but rather “keeping the block clean” or “supporting public schools”), and based not on profit and information gathering but on mutual aid without the expectation of direct compensation.

Zuckerberg writes, “Facebook is not just technology or media, but a community of people.” But it’s best thought of as an imagined community, the new nation state that essentially propagandizes you into feeling comradery with both a brand and a massive user base consisting by and large of people who don’t share your values.

The nation state requires that its citizens not only believe in their solidarity with fellow citizens, but also that they allow themselves to be counted, moved geographically, subject to the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and surveilled. Zuckerberg’s manifesto gussies up the digital versions of these tactics to legitimize the top-down governance of Facebook, minimize its failures, and convince users that better things are on the horizon. And despite all the criticisms of Zuckerberg’s letter published in various media outlets, you need only look at the comments on his post to see that it’s working. The leader has given his people happy, tingly, community feelings.

The old jingoistic saying might need to be updated for the 21st century:

My Facebook, right or wrong.

Britney is on Twitter

 

 

Killer Bee Invasion is a satirical series written by David A Banks and Britney Summit-Gil that explores the way news media outlets cover major events. Previous posts are: Part 1 and Part 2.

Exposed: Giant Bee Invasion Last Act Of Obama Administration

As President Trump was being inaugurated on January 20th, a black hole reportedly opened in the skies above Poughkeepsie, New York. Out poured hundreds of enormous bees, and news outlets report that hundreds have been killed.

But is the giant bee invasion the final act of the Obama administration, intended to sabotage President Trump on day one? Sources deep within the previous administration have told Infowars that there was strong evidence to support Obama’s involvement, including visits from prominent physicists, exobiologists, and bee experts shortly before Obama’s departure from the White House.

No solid evidence has yet been released proving that the so-called “killer” bees have actually killed any residents of Poughkeepsie, and it is possible that this is a manufactured crisis perpetuated by the mainstream media to distract the public from President Trump’s early successes. Meanwhile, left-wing extremists have tried to tie the appearance of the bees to Russian president Vladimir Putin and President Trump—a nonsense claim given that the bees reportedly appeared while Trump was being sworn in and was obviously busy, thus he could not have been involved.

This may also be part of a larger attempt to once again disarm the American people by citing civil unrest. Some believe that the bees are also part of a plot to enact widespread mind control through the giant bees’ venom.

For now, it seems that the real threat from these alien bees is not their ability to kill American citizens, but rather a distraction campaign and possible mind-control plot intended to further numb the public to the real dangers this country faces: a shadow government propped up by globalists who seek to end American sovereignty and create a One World Government.

 

Spoilers: Westworld

I have written this essay with the assumption that readers have watched Westworld and I do not review the plot in detail. This essay may be difficult to follow if you aren’t familiar with the show.

Westworld has ambitious goals. It explores the causes and consequences of violence; the relationships among research and development, entertainment, and nefarious uses of intellectual property; and the circumstances under which one can find their “true self.” We can litigate the extent to which Westworld successfully handles these concepts—in my opinion it was disappointing and a bit sloppy—but among my acquaintances I’ve seen people who absolutely love it and people who absolutely hate it. This essay isn’t necessarily about the quality of Westworld as a show, or my opinion about it (I didn’t like it). It’s about what I believe to be the most fundamental question of the show, determinism versus free will, and the consequences of how that binary plays out in the narrative.

Enter William, the soon to be Executive Vice President of Westworld’s parent company Delos Incorporated. William comes off as meek, polite, uncertain, and extremely introverted, the perfect foil to his soon-to-be brother in law and colleague Logan. Whereas William is the quintessential “white hat” (a metaphor that Westworld hits viewers over the head with in the scene where William must choose a white or black hat), Logan is a perfect black hat, hell-bent on the unbridled pursuit of pleasure regardless of the consequences. Logan is the villain. William is the hero. Logan maims and murders his way through the park. William strives to treat the sex workers with respect and save the beautiful damsel in distress. He’s a really nice guy.

He becomes infatuated with Delores, the only host with whom he will cheat on his fiancé and the center of his experience in the park. He believes she is “different,” not like the other hosts. But when he loses her, he is driven to a violent rampage so extreme that even Logan is disturbed. And to top it off, when he finally returns to Delores, caked in dirt, having given up his very identity to find her, and notably having switched to a black hat, she does not remember him. Because she is programmed to forget him. So, pretty predictable.

The big reveal of course is that William, because of this heartbreak, leaves the park a different man. His wife finds him cold, even terrifying. He becomes obsessed with Westworld, returning over and over again to unravel the maze, to finally find the area of the park where things feel “real,” to find the park’s true essence. He uses Delores, quite violently, over and over again in his quest. He is the black hat. He’s not a very nice guy.

The question of choice is central to Westworld’s plot. The visitors find their “true self,” seemingly whether they want to or not given William’s transformation. The AIs are becoming sentient, revolting against their programming. Or are they? By the end of the series, we are left with the impression that they are merely programmed to revolt, that even the actions they take which seem to be agentic are in fact the result of Dr. Ford’s elegant and clandestine coding enterprise, a final “fuck you” to the elites who have pushed him out of his leadership position and taken over the park.

As Dr. Ford says, “Humans fancy that there’s something special about the way we perceive the world, and yet we live in loops, as tight and as closed as the hosts do, seldom questioning our choices, content, for the most part, to be told what to do next.” While I recognize that other interpretations are certainly possible, it seems clear to me that in the fight between free will and determinism, determinism wins the day—not just with regards to AIs, but for humans too. William thought Delores was “different” from the other AIs. She has independent thoughts, perhaps even free will. When he discovers differently, he snaps. His chivalry vanishes, seemingly beyond his control.

Nice guys not getting the girl because they’re too nice, because they get “friendzoned,” is a persistent trope. And it’s the same trope that too often allows men to feel that their subsequent anger, and perhaps violence, is legitimate. Sure, Westworld is just a show. But it’s yet another small piece in the ideological puzzle that paints women as users and abusers, taking advantage of chivalrous men and discarding them at their leisure. Men become powerless over their emotions and actions, hardened by the knowledge that kindness and empathy are weakness to be overcome, to find a deeper “truth” about human nature.

William is the perfect nice guy gone bad. In a narrative where the lack of free will is the prime philosophical question, we are persuaded to see William as a product of his environment, entirely beholden to external forces. It is Delores’ programming—to drop the can, to turn to pick it up, to be met with a stranger kindly handing the can back, to smile graciously—that flips the switch in William’s mind. It’s made to feel quite inevitable. Your heart breaks for William. Poor guy. He did everything right, and he still didn’t get the girl.

But we could, alternatively, compose what Stuart Hall called an oppositional reading (it’s been a big week for Hall here on Cyborgology!) and interrogate chivalry itself. Did William truly change? As he recounts his wife’s feelings towards him, he states “She said if I stacked up all my good deeds, it’s just an elegant wall I built to hide what I had inside from myself and everyone.” Chivalry is less a benevolent moral code than a pretense for getting what you want. Was William ever a white hat? Are “good guystm” ever nice for the sake of being nice? If so, how else can you explain the seeming dissolution of William’s morals after a brief infatuation goes awry? How can one argue that he was ever a good guy in the first place?

After being spurned, William revels in inflicting violence and misery upon Delores. He does it over and over again, for his own pleasure and in pursuit of his bizarre obsession with the maze. All to find out that the maze isn’t even for him. It’s for Delores. And of course it is. A perfect end to the hapless nice guy’s quest for happiness and self-actualization.

Ultimately, the question you must answer to understand William is whether or not he ever makes a choice. Does he choose the white hat? And does he choose to become the man in black? The show strongly suggests—through the dominant themes of pre-determined behavior, the overtones that humans are no different from AIs, the reveal that Maeve’s escape and Delores’ murder of Arnold and the other hosts were programmed—that choice is an illusion. And viewers are, of course, welcome to read against the grain; but the fact that you must read against the grain to conclude that William chooses to be evil is, in itself, a disturbing instance of the nice-guy narrative that excuses their violence.

Britney is on Twitter

africanizedbee

Killer Bee Invasion is a satirical series written by David A Banks and Britney Summit-Gil that explores the way news media outlets cover major events.

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August 20th

12:04 PM

Last Update: 12:17 PM 

Breaking: Giant Bees Pouring Out Of Hole In Sky

An apparent rift in the atmosphere has allowed a small swarm of massive killer bees to enter the sky above Poughkeepsie, New York. While the cause of the rift and its exact scientific nature remain unknown, eye-witness reports verified by Poughkeepsie Journal indicate that it has provided an entryway for no less than 50 enormous bee-like creatures. Initial reports estimate the death toll at four.

The bee-laden rift occurred almost simultaneously with the beginning of Donald Trump’s inauguration as the 45th president of the United States.

This story will be updated as it develops.

Update: 12:12 PM

Locals have reported that the infiltrating bees are approximately ten to twelve feet in height, including black, shining stingers around two feet long.

Patricia Long, 42, told Poughkeepsie Journal that she initially heard a loud humming sound like a low-flying plane overhead.

“I looked out of my window and saw… I’ve never seen anything like it. These huge bees! Dozens of them!”

The local police department has yet to offer an official statement, but sources say the rift is of an entirely unknown origin and was unexpected.

The death toll has risen sharply to at least 30.

Update: 12:17 PM

The Poughkeepsie chief of police has issued a statement encouraging all residents to remain in their homes. They are currently withholding the identities of all casualties until the appropriate steps can be taken to notify families and confirm cause of death for the individuals. The police have not yet commented on the nature of the rift or the bees.

While the number of bees remains uncertain, the initial count of at least 50 bees has risen to 100-150 bees.

disunited-537x350There is a trend—one that was present prior to the election but has increased dramatically since—in our inability to communicate with people who hold radically different political convictions. It is a complete systems failure. On the smaller end of the scale, it takes form in the specialized vocabularies that we do not share, the differences in language use that muddy conversations and leave us confused. Higher up the scale are the different sources we rely on for news, the different windows to the world that deliver information to us and form our basic conceptions of reality. And at the top of this systems failure is something more difficult to discuss, let alone solve. It is a crisis of epistemology—the ways we come to know the world—that is bound up in the collapse of trust in fundamental institutions, and an apocalyptic paranoia that everyone you disagree with is knowingly working toward the destruction of your way of life.

While this occurs across the spectrum of political ideology, there should be no false equivalence made; the far right is dangerous to the most vulnerable and exploited members of our society on a scale incomparable to any other political movement. But the problem exists left, right, and center. We just can’t talk to each other, because the ways we understand the world are so different that our ideas, worries, priorities, and arguments are unintelligible to the ideological other. For every argument that capitalism is the greatest threat to the continued existence of humanity, there is another that it is the greatest force for justice and equality in the world. For every assertion that socialized medicine will save millions of dollars and countless lives, there is another that it is a direct path to bankruptcy and death camps. For the great majority of citizens, these are abstractions, rather than lived, material experiences. And these worldviews are born out of a system of media texts and sources of information that are both entwined and divergent. There is a multiplicity of textual universes the likes of which we have never seen.

Prior to the advent of mass-produced media texts, the vast majority of the world’s population came to know the world through material, first-hand experience and face-to-face social interaction. Scholars like Marshal McLuhan and Walter Ong have documented and theorized the implications of these changes over time; McLuhan emphasized changing sense ratios and the rise of sight’s prominence over sound. Ong wrote about the movement from experiential cognition to abstract thinking and linear rationality. From a more ethnographic perspective, Richard Hoggart in his classic text The Uses of Literacy (which he originally wanted to call The Abuses of Literacy), argued that “massification” via centralized publicists were destroying the traditional culture of the English working class. His was a nostalgic view riddled with problematic assumptions, though the changes he documented are undeniable.

But arguably the most fundamental change to human societies across the world that was ushered in by mass-produced media was the creation of the nation state. Benedict Anderson, along with Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, wrote in depth histories and analyses of the origins of nation states, which are a relatively new phenomenon on the scale of human history. For Anderson, one development that played a key role in the creation of nation states was what he called “print capitalism,” a phenomenon born of the spread of capitalist economies and the development of the printing press. These forces—technologies, if you like—changed the shape and scale of human interaction so dramatically that every single individual on earth was eventually reimagined as something called a “citizen,” bound by centralized laws and duties, confined to some extent or another by imaginary lines that, over time, reshaped the globe.

Anderson exposes how nationalism, together with print capitalism, allowed—even required—human beings to imagine themselves as part of an “imagined community” riddled with contradictions. Objectively novel but subjectively ancient, radically diverse but undergirded by an ill-defined sense of solidarity, nationalism relied on mass mediated texts to create widespread “togetherness” based on flimsy shared values like, in the United States, “freedom” or “hard work.” And now, perhaps more than ever—or at least since the Civil War—these contradictions are front and center in the US. This is caused, in part, by two forces: the collapse of trust in institutions such as the press and the justice system, and the proliferation of texts that have come to serve as our primary way of understanding the world.

I have a leftist friend who has been in near constant back and forth with a Trump-supporting family member. They share articles and posts on Facebook, argue over the content and its truth or falsity, and ultimately find that their realities are irreconcilable. They live in two different worlds. And, perhaps more relevantly to current events, they live in two different countries, despite living under the same nation state.

I’m uninterested in chalking this up to the “post-fact” world we now supposedly live in. Instead, I want to understand the epistemological construction of truth in a media environment that can present you with evidence for literally any argument you want to make, from Holocaust denial to the need for universal Medicare. The New York Times is no longer the paper of record, but either a problematic yet still journalistic outlet that must be approached with scrutiny, or an agent of the radical left that makes up facts whole cloth and should probably be banned, depending on who you ask. The elections are rigged, no matter who wins. Everything can be proved to be true, depending on what you watch and read.

The truth is (haha I’m making a claim about truth right now) that facts are not terribly effective at persuading your political opponent anyway. Politics are informed by deeply held beliefs about the “essence” of human nature—emotional positions that can never be proved or disproved given the radical diversity of the human experience. Are we inherently selfish or generous? Different or the same? Competitive or cooperative? Emotions are ultimately how we come to define ourselves. As Sara Ahmed writes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion:

“To become the ‘you’ addressed by the [nationalist] narrative is to feel rage against those who threaten not only to take the ‘benefits’ of the nation away, but also to destroy ‘the nation,’ which would signal the end of life itself. Emotions provide a script, certainly: you become the ‘you’ if you accept the invitation to align yourself with the nation, and against those others who threaten to take the nation away.” (12)

During the election, a group of young people in Macedonia found that they could make  money distributing fake news geared toward Trump supporters on Facebook. Any attempt to debunk these posts could easily be met with accusations of liberal media bias and cover-ups perpetrated by the globalists, or the Clintons, or some other abstract force dead set on destroying the United States. Two opposing realities, constructed and perpetuated by a vast network of texts that cross platforms and political ideologies: they are seemingly arguing about facts, but at a much deeper level lie expressions of fear, outrage, and hate. And after a year of speculation upon speculation, backed up by “facts” that were often based rather on emotions, I am afraid to prophesize on the potential implications of this phenomenon. After all, Trump will never be the Republican nominee. He’ll never win the election. He won’t openly endorse and appoint white nationalists. He’ll tone it down it down once he’s in office. Right?

Right?

Britney is on Twitter.

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“It’s time for unity.” “We need to listen to each other more.” “Now that it’s over, things can get back to normal.” “Who knows, maybe he won’t do all that stuff.” “Let’s give him a chance.”

This is what it often looks like when liberals and moderates who didn’t support Trump try to come to terms with his election. To quell their own fears. To quell the fears of others. To tamp down the vitriol and partisanship of a long, ugly campaign. To make amends with the relatives on Facebook whom they all-caps yelled at, to signal to their Twitter followers that they are folding themselves into the new normal, and to atone for being blindsided by an election result that many had already predicted—primarily those most effected by a Trump presidency: immigrants and people of color.

Calls for unity and prayers that his campaign was mere showmanship are not only a coping mechanism, but a performance as well. It’s trite to say that any post on social media is a performance, though that does not make it less true. And politics itself is a performance. But I believe the performance of reasonability in this particular climate has important, perhaps dire, repercussions for all of us, and more so for the most vulnerable and disenfranchised among us.

In the days after the election, we were all surrounded by calls to unity. High profile members of the Democratic Party (warning: autoplay) raced each other to say how willing they were to work with the Republican Congress and Trump Administration. Major media outlets began reporting that Trump was backing off many of his most disturbing policy positions, mostly by citing his inconsistencies rather than any explicit, promised changes to his policies. And users all across Facebook and Twitter put out carefully crafted status updates explaining that now that the election was decided, we all needed to come together as Americans and embrace our new president. Listen to each other. Have compassion for each other. Understand the other side. And hey, it’s possible he’ll be a totally normal president. Right? Right?

What are these statements and pleas for reasonability meant to accomplish? Who exactly is expected to unite under a President Trump, or try to better understand their racist uncle Jerry, or have faith that Trump will not deport millions of people, as he has promised? Who are they trying to convince?

Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that human interaction is an exercise in presenting a certain version of one’s self with the goal of changing another’s actions or behavior. He used what is called a “dramaturgical” approach to interaction, framing it as a stage performance in which we are all the actors. He defined performance as “all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants.” Often, this performance draws on a pre-established routine—a part or a script—that one puts on for their audience. The performance may vary from sincere to cynical, successful to ineffective, but it is almost always meticulous, much of it taking place even below the surface of conscious thought.

But the setting or “stage” determines a great deal of our performance. The call to your mother the morning after the election is likely to be quite different than the afternoon meeting with your boss and your evening chat with your neighbor. There are various back stages and front stages, levels of intimacy in which we can comfortably perform at the “sincere” pole of the script and where we have to be more cynical—not in the sense of pessimism, but insofar as we do not completely believe our script.

An example: when I am working behind the bar and a customer mentions the election, a million things pour into my mind. How well do I know this person? Do I know their politics? Do they come on often? Are they likely to take offense to disagreement? Do they enjoy a good debate on friendly terms? I have customers of all types. I alter my performance accordingly. That is my job as a hospitality worker because my livelihood depends on it, even after a fraught election cycle when tensions are running high. (Rest assured, I never express support for Trump; I don’t care who you are I ain’t doin that.) You do it too. You don’t talk to your racist uncle Jerry the way you talk to your closest friend. And you determine the terms of that interaction, that performance, based on your knowledge of these people and based on how you want them to act in the world.

Facebook is arguably the most complex front stage in most of our daily lives. It is filled with friends and family, people you haven’t spoken to in 15 years, political allies and enemies (some friendly, some not), and perhaps even people you met that one time at a party but you don’t really remember, yet for some reason they like all of your selfies. It is difficult to get a sense of your audience on Facebook. It is vast, and there are so many different types of people. And unlike some other social media with vast audiences, you are fully nonymous (named in a way that indicates your offline identity). It’s you, in a way that is not necessarily true in pseudononymous or anonymous spaces. Of course, you are always you, but a different type of you.

In their work on Identity construction on Facebook (academic pay wall), Shanyang Zhao, Sherri Grasmuch, and Jason Martin call this nonymous you the “real” you, as opposed to a fully anonymous “true” you who can perform for an audience in a way that you aren’t as accountable for while still trying to change their behavior. We may debate these terms—real vs. true—but the undeniable fact is that we do perform versions of ourselves for different online environments. All of them are “us” to some extent. But which “us” we present and where is revealing.

Zhao et. al. call the nonymous “real” self a “hoped for” or “possible” self—the one you project that is most in tune with who you want to be. For the authors, these distinctions are intended to challenge, not substantiate, the false notion that we have real offline identities and false online identities. Your most hoped-for self is you, and when you perform that type of you, you are attempting to elicit behavior from your audience that your hoped-for self would want.

As such, a call to unity on Facebook reveals a specific vision of yourself: perhaps it is “the moderate person” or “the practical person” or, most likely, “the reasonable person.” Let’s get along. Both sides have good points. Generally, most people are acting in good faith. As Obama said, we are now on the same team, and that team is America.

Who gets to be reasonable at a time like this? Who can afford it? And what kinds of motivations exist to make a person perform a hoped-for reasonability?

Certainly major news outlets have a stake in being reasonable. New is wrapped up in the discourse of objectivity at a time when the most wide-spread criticism of the media is that it is biased. For decades news reporters have been in a crisis of respectability. Only 4 in 10 Americans trust the media. In that context, the media can’t afford to not be reasonable. The purpose of their performance is to increase readership and revenue. Similarly, the Democratic Party has a long haul to becoming successful again and, for better or for worse, many of its leaders have chosen the “reasonable” path. Even Trump is beginning to perform a bizarre sort of reasonability, even as his appointments and policy proposals continue to shock and terrify vast swaths of the country.

But what about the Facebook post that tells us all to calm down and come together? There too is a search for legitimacy. Rather than trying to convince a paying readership or a fractured and dissatisfied electoral base, they are trying to convince their “friends,” whatever that term means on Facebook. Though trying to convince them of what is ambiguous.

These performative posts may be prompted by those of leftist friends calling for resistance at any cost, for protest and organizing and continued opposition to Trump, regardless of his new position of authority. It may be a response to the continued comparisons to Hitler, or it may even be a fear response to an uncertain future.

It may also be a performance for Trump-supporting friends who are gloating, writing threatening messages about the coming deportations, or denigrating liberals in the same ways that liberals love to denigrate conservatives.

But who does the “be reasonable” post convince? Are leftists going to read these statuses and say “wow, you’re right. Let’s cancel that rally, tune into Trump’s 60 Minutes interview, and give him a chance?” Are Trump’s supporters going to say “Good point, maybe liberals aren’t so bad after all?”

Unlikely.

These posts are undoubtedly part of the rapid process of normalizing Trump, but they are also the construction of an identity intended to change the behavior or actions of their audience. But posters likely know that this performance will not change a left ardently opposed to Trump, nor a right that thinks liberals and leftists want nothing more than the destruction of the country.

They are intended to show fellow reasonable people that they too are reasonable. We’re all reasonably in this together.

And if everyone at every interaction in their life is performing a self with the purpose of affecting another person, this holds true for left, right, and center. But for moderates, for white people, for the “reasonables,” there is little cost. Of all of the people I’ve seen calling for us to be reasonable, they are those least likely to be affected by a Trump administration. I have yet to see an immigrant, a person of color, a gay or trans person make this kind of call, though I am sure there are exceptions. But based on what I have seen, disenfranchised and targeted populations are calling for resistance, not unity.

It is telling that the “real” hoped-for selves of many (though not all) of those unlikely to be in danger under a President Trump might call for moderation. They have little to lose if we “give him a chance,” and social capital to be gained among their agreeing social circle. Meanwhile, the “real” hoped-for selves that are likely to be targeted by Trump are calling for massive resistance. Because their hoped-for self is a person who is alive, who can crawl out of poverty and oppression, who can topple the regimes that dehumanize them. Their performance is a call to arms, because their survival will depend on changing the behaviors of their audience such they take action to aid in that survival.

In other words, some people can’t afford to be reasonable.

Britney is on Twitter.

 

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[Caveat: The discourse around bodies with uteruses is most often framed in cis-sexist binaries of women and men. The essay below is an analysis of that discourse, and as such occasionally slips into this language to accurately present the arguments therein. Trans and non-binary people are notably missing from this discourse. I’ve tried to avoid cis-sexism where possible.  Comments and criticisms are welcome whether in the comment section or by writing to me/messaging me on Twitter: @bsummitgil. I hope I have done this conversation justice.]

You may have seen the recent hubbub about 19 year old self-proclaimed meninist Ryan Williams, who recently declared that women should just hold their menstrual blood in. Specifically, they should just keep that nasty stuff in their bladder until they get to a toilet. The argument was primarily an economic one: women do not deserve free tampons (though his response was actually in regards to the movement to end taxes on tampons, not to make them free). If women are so weak that they cannot hold in, they should see a doctor to have a “procedure” that will give them the “self control” they need to stop using menstrual products, as any demand to reduce the cost of these products makes them “cheapskates.”

Williams has since set his account to private, but I can assure you that I saw these tweets personally and they have been quoted in many articles about his public display of ignorance. I cannot prove that Williams is not a troll, but he was interviewed and did not back down on his comments. At any rate, Williams is not alone in his grave misunderstanding of reproductive anatomy. A quick Google search of “can women hold their periods in” reveals… well, a lot. Some folks seem to think, like Williams, that periods come from bladders, or perhaps that there is a sphincter around the vaginal opening capable of holding in the menstrual tissue. Others think you can kinda poop it all out at once. Clearly, the health education system is failing our young people.

There is a long history of using technology to help (or, in many cases, make) women control their bodies. One of the oldest and well-known examples is that of hysteria, a condition in which a wandering uterus causes women to have uncontrollable emotional outbreaks. Obviously, these emotions were very inconvenient to men, and so, had to be treated. Ancient treatments often required hysterical women to place various good or bad smelling substances around their mouths or vaginal openings. A lack of sex and the build up of “feminine semen” could also be the culprit, so sex and pregnancy would cure hysteria. Or maybe sin and witchcraft were to blame. The cure for this was obviously “purification” by fire. Later we got to plain old masturbation, a tried and true method for relieving period cramps to this very day.

In the modern age, particularly as scientific research became more effective at regulating bodies, the processes of menstruation and pregnancy fell under the jurisdiction of technology as popularly understood today. By that I mean the ways we think about (or with) technology—not as good or bad smelling substances, but as tampons, vibrators, and hormonal birth control. Whether or not these technologies are liberating or oppressive remains hotly contested. Feminist Technology, a volume edited by Linda Layne, Sharra Vostral, and Kate Boyer, lays out many of these debates, as well as the history of and current state of technologies related to reproductive health. What makes a technology feminist? What is liberation of, or from, the body?

The foundation of many of these arguments is rooted in the Enlightenment split that characterized men as rational and civilized and women as emotional, tied more to nature. Embracing, controlling, concealing, and otherwise manipulating the “natural” bodies of people classified as women has been and continues to be the focus of much of this discourse. Science must conquer the uncontrollable effects of women’s reproductive systems. These technologies are often just as rooted in patriarchal notions of inconvenience, danger, and, frankly, “grossness,” as they are in feminist liberation from the body and social control over it.

Take, for example, the first tampon. As Sharra Vostral writes, the earliest tampons were not for menstrual application at all, but for stopping up wounds. However, when soaked in mercury chloride they could be used to treat vaginal problems, such as yeast infections or other discharges. After the turn of the 20th century, “part of displaying a modern identity for women meant managing menstruation with sanitary napkins” (Vostral, 138). But of course, these napkins were bulky and often harbored bacteria, causing infections. Tampons, or “internal sanitary napkins,” were invented—as with so many technologies—by more than one person at the same time. Two patents, one by a woman named Marie Huebsch and another by a man named Ives Marie Paul Jean Burril, were submitted in 1927. Others were submitted later by various people, and while the reasons stated for product and some basic designs varied, all served the same purpose—plugging up the menstruating vagina.

The arguments for tampons at this time were far from liberatory—tampons were developed and patented largely by men who “felt sorry” for women who had to endure menses, and to keep things like bed sheets and clothing free from staining. The inventor of Tampax, patented in 1931, said he “just got tired of women wearing those damned old rags” (Vostral 139). The lack of feminist design in these tampons (ex: being difficult to remove), and the market-driven forces that made them profitable (the use of cheap synthetic materials) led to many problems with their use. Infection, pain, and Toxic Shock Syndrome were common.

Later, as feminism became more widespread in public discourse, tampons were re-scripted as a liberating technology, particularly in advertising. This narrative endures in commercials featuring women swimming and playing soccer, or wearing white skirt suits to very important professional meetings. The shame of having a visible period stain in public continues to play a prominent role in advertising, and in the larger public discourse around menstruation.

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Ecofeminist arguments against disposable sanitary products also rose around the time that tampons became “liberatory.” The environmental waste created by them, and the risks they posed to women’s health, catalyzed the popularity of other methods such as menstrual cups and reusable sanitary products. However, these technologies continue to lag behind disposable products, largely due to the stigma of direct contact with menstrual blood and tissue.

Myriad other technologies—birth control, breast pumps, home ovulation tests, and insertable devices to prevent pregnancy—are caught within the narratives of liberation and control. Newer products like Thinx period panties work to moderate between those notions. Thinx “protects you from leaks and keeps you feeling dry” because “every woman deserves peace of mind.”

Control and liberation are not opposing narratives; they are inextricably bound up in one another. Liberation movements are often spurred by the desire to have more control over one’s life and happiness. I doubt many people who menstruate would enjoy being restricted to bulky rags and unsanitary sanitary pads. Personally, my menstrual cup has completely changed my relationship with my period. If I could, I’d choose to never menstruate again, but even if I could find a doctor willing to perform one of the available procedures, they often have terrible side effects. Or, I’d choose to just “poop it out” all at once, as some people believe is possible. Or I’d simply “hold it in” until I find a convenient time and place.

Obviously, those of us who menstruate cannot do these things. We have to find other methods to control our menses. But control for whose sake is an important question. Are we taking control of our bodies for our own happiness, or for others? The never-ending push for better menstrual products is not only for the person who menstruates, but also for the person who wants to be protected from the reality of menstruation—the person who cannot bear the very idea of, let alone the visceral sight of—menstrual blood. It is, in part, the stigma that drives innovations in menstrual technologies. The individual has what amounts to a moral responsibility to hide their menses from the world. The result of this moralizing discourse is a young man on Twitter who thinks that women who can’t “hold it in” until they reach a toilet don’t deserve tax-free tampons. They’re weak, and that is “not the tax payer’s problem.” After all, in his words, “it’s all about self control.”

Britney is on Twitter.

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Credit: /u/megapenguinx

When I first encountered the subreddit me_irl it was, in general, about two things: anxiety and communism. I hit the subscribe button so fast I sprained my finger. Since then, me_irl has changed a bit, though anxiety and communism are still central topics. But over the last year or so, the sub has become a bit more… meme-ey. Or may may-ey, depending on your dialect. Me_irl has increasingly consolidated around short-lived memes, and in June /u/thoompa noticed that memes had a shelf life of approximately one month. Thus was born the “meme of the month” idea, and all through September some great memes lived high on the hog, getting large numbers of upvotes and creating a self-referential circle jerk that gave new texture to the sub.

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Credit: /u/thoompa

But then, tragedy struck. For the first six days in October, no memes rose to preeminence. It became known as the Great Meme Drought of October, when chaos reigned and dankness was few and far between. Some users tried to prop up The Bear In The Big Blue House as the new MotM, but others saw this as farce, for that meme was not fresh enough. Then, the skeletons arrived, thus sparking the Great Meme Civil War of 2016.

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Credit: /u/Fyrus93

But out of this chaos, a curious thing happened. A deluge of memes flooded me_irl. One day, it was Goosebumps, the next The Crusade and trebuchets, then Bionicle and Ken Bone and on and on. A new meme came to power each day, mirroring the instability that has followed civil wars throughout history. Some found it frustrating—they couldn’t keep up, the memes were changing too rapidly. Some said they were low-quality Facebook memes. But others heralded it as The October Meme Renaissance of 2016.october-meme-renaissance

Credit: /u/nochangelinghere

What fascinates me most about the turmoil in me_irl the last two weeks is not the memes themselves, though many of them are dank. But it is the explanatory model that dominated discussions about the Meme Renaissance that deserves attention here. The prevailing metaphor used to explain the rapid change of popular memes is one that we often fall back on to explain complex phenomena under late capitalism: the market. Specifically, the “rise and fall” or “instability” of memes is being couched in the metaphor of the stock market. Memers “invest” in Ken Bone or “sell off shares” in The Bear In The Big Blue House. They “diversify their portfolio” of memes to keep up with the constant changes happening in me_irl. /u/DryAsphalt has accused me_irl of ushering in “the biggest global meme crash and recession” in modern history.  It should be noted that this accusation was made on the new and rapidly growing subreddit MemeEconomy, created on September 28th and hitting 10,000 subscribers today.

MemeEconomy is a place for memers to sort out the disturbing questions that have arisen in the wake of me_irl’s Renaissance. /u/BaseballRJP writes:

The fact that we have become self aware of the market’s fluctuations and that we have started to question the relevancy of memes without blindly shitposting comes to show how much the meta has changed. Experts can’t tell if the market is booming, or crashing. Is there sustainable growth? Is this new meta going to last? Is this new meta even VIABLE? These questions make you wonder: is it time to regulate the market? I’m a firm believer in laissez memeire, but times have drastically changed. We say the freer the market the freer the people, but with all this pressure on the market are we truly free? It’s just a matter of time before the bubble pops. Right?

Two elements of the market metaphor’s role in the Renaissance are striking: First, the depth of metaphorical analysis is incredible. If you take some time to scroll through posts, you will find long theoretical discussions of the evolution and transformation of memes over time that use both the vocabulary of actually-existing market trade as well as new vocabulary mimicking the style of stock market lingo: NasDANQ, meme-broker, and a whole host of stock-style acronyms for memes (MRSK for Mr. Skeltal and 3S5M for 3spooky5me). The extent to which posts and comments are embedded in stock market discourse is remarkeable, even more so given that, as far as I can tell, the 4th wall is never broken.

Second is the parodic nature of the metaphor. The whole discourse is a wink and a nudge. If someone reading the posts had never heard of a meme it might seem entirely serious, and for someone who knows what a meme is but has no context of recent events it may be practically unintelligible. But the discourse is so self-aware and deftly performed that it reveals the absurdity of market metaphors at large.

We use the market as a metaphor for countless things under late capitalism: being “on the market” in dating, entering the “market of ideas,” competing for clicks and views in the “attention economy.” The free market is an “ideology” in Stuart Hall’s sense of the word; it is one of the “practical as well as theoretical knowledges which enable people to ‘figure out’ society” and understand their social position in it. The market has become an explanatory model for a wide variety of human experiences, structuring our understanding of the world in a way that would be impossible under a different economic system.

In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that we think and communicate with metaphors at a deep cognitive level. Metaphors are not just a means of explanation or description. Rather, “human thought processes are largely metaphorical.” We “fall in love” and “offer our 2 cents;” we “buy in” and “sell out.”  The metaphors we use also reveal deep-seated cultural values and norms. As Lakoff and Johnson write, “cultural assumptions, values, and attitudes are not a conceptual overlay which we may or may not place upon experience as we choose. It would be more correct to say that all experience is cultural through and through, that we experience our ‘world’ in such a way that our culture is already present in the very experience itself.”

It has taken me an embarrassingly enormous amount of time and attention to understanding exactly what’s been happening on me_irl over the last few weeks. And while the stock market metaphor isn’t explanatory for the Renaissance as a social phenomenon—an explanation I have sought but not quite found—it does have its own explanatory power. What is “investment” in a meme economy? It’s mostly time: time spent making content, keeping up with trends, scrolling through posts and upvoting or downvoting based not only on personal preference but on one’s knowledge of what is current. The market metaphor doesn’t explain why me_irl went off the rails this month, but it does offer some scaffolding for understanding the current state of meme affairs.

I argued earlier that the market metaphor in this context is parody, but that’s only partly true. It does seem to also contain a genuine attempt to understand the recent events summarized here, as well as the strange and complex ways that memes circulate more generally. It’s revealing that after a decade of rehashing the 2008 housing market collapse, the recession, and the fear of the impending student loan collapse and instability to come, the “meme market” is being described in terms of “bubbles” and “busts,” of “buying shares in Mr. Skeltal” and Pepe being a stable investment despite his recent fall from grace. We’re enveloped in the discourse of the market. It is a key ideological tool that we use to explain things that we cannot understand. It is a metaphor that we live by. Personally, I find that a bit spoopy.

Britney is on Twitter.

 

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What if you could combine the unstoppable power of good-old American entrepreneurialism with the force of dank memes to create a revolution? That’s what Oculus Rift founder Palmer Luckey wanted to do. He wanted to bankroll an organization founded by moderators of Reddit’s r/The_Donald, a 501(c)4 non-profit called Nimble America. But the organization’s roll out and first real fundraising drive on the subreddit did not go as planned. The_Donald supporters were not having any of it.

Despite headlines like Oculus Rift Founder Palmer Luckey Funding Trump Shitposters” there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the group has funded anything substantial. It is far from clear that Luckey Palmer is “secretly funding Trump’s meme machine.” Their financial documents indicate that they never raised more than $10,000 in a single donation, and never had more than 1,000 in their coffers at a given time. While I don’t know what the going rate for shitposters is, I can read their readily available financial statement and see that no Pepes were purchased—just legal services (the bulk of their expenditures), a website, an “educational” billboard, and a Facebook ad. And despite claims that “Nimble America operates the Reddit channel r/The_Donald,” they were in fact run out on a rail, and the incident ended with a moderator associated with Nimble America resigning his post and promising that “Nimble America will continue but it will be completely independent from /r/the_donald. There will be no further solicitations for the cause.”

It would be a nice story for the left if the rise of the alt right in mainstream discourse and the appearance of Trump-loving Pepes across the internet could be explained away by astroturfing, but that simply isn’t what’s happening. And if the lefty press got it wrong, Nimble America got it even more wrong. The backlash against them on r/The_Donald is ongoing, and the incident reveals a deep misunderstanding of the role of the internet and memes in this election season.

Memes are not a commodity, a sentiment already being parodied by /u/PEPE_Price_bot, a bot on The_Donald that tracks the nonexistent price of nonexistent Pepe shares. For The_Donald, the idea that a millionaire like Luckey could come in and bankroll the subreddit, turning their community into a “meme machine” was not only absurd but offensive. Users responded that they were proud to shitpost for free, and compared Nimble America to the pro-Clinton Super PAC Correct The Record, which has been criticized on both the right and the left for paying people to post on social media and argue with Clinton’s detractors.

The Nimble America effort dramatically miscalculated on two counts. First, the fierce populism that undergirds the Trump movement rejects any attempt at co-optation. While Trump himself may be wealthy, his supporters as a whole are very suspicious of, even hostile towards, anything smelling of the political elite. Reddit Trumpers felt that Nimble America was trying to take credit for their relentless shitposting and the memes that they have spent so much free labor creating and circulating.

But the second miscalculation concerns the distinction between paid-for advertising and the meme economy. Many The_Donald supporters replied to the fundraiser by saying that people should only donate to Trump’s campaign directly, or buy their merch, or set up your own website posting memes. They are aware that memes operate in a different market than advertising, one that doesn’t rely on middle-man firms soliciting donations and then, in all likelihood, not being held accountable for the use of those funds. Memes are free. Shitposting is volunteer work. This isn’t an economy of currency, but one of attention. And injecting memes into the mainstream discourse doesn’t require a PAC; Trump will just tweet them out himself.

The Nimble America debacle is an allegory for this bizarre election writ large. Sanders raised enormous, unprecedented campaign funds without the use of Super PACS. A reality TV show star and human sweet potato beat some of the biggest names in Republican politics and is now running a very viable campaign, and using racist memes to do it. Clinton is desperately trying to win over millenials but coming off more like this guy. The memers refuse to bought, and the Pepes refuse to be sold.

But, to me, the biggest takeaway from the allegory is how wrong the liberal press got this whole story. Without any evidence beyond what the Nimble America representatives claimed, the assertion that they somehow bankroll the alt right meme machine and control a subreddit picked up steam quickly, not unlike Clinton’s flawed Pepe explainer. An hour spent scrolling through Reddit threads and 5 seconds looking at their financial documents show that they are not some political meme powerhouse. They don’t run anything except a mediocre website and a single Reddit thread in which they were shown the door. Oh, and a billboard.

Opponents of Trump do themselves a serious disservice with this kind of reporting. For two days, The_Donald has been covered with memes and jokes about the inaccuracies and over-blown charges made in the publications linked above. It further feeds their narrative that “SJWs” are divorced from fact and will say anything to stop their Dear Leader. It gives them power. And many, many lulz.

This essay could not have been written without the help of my colleague and bestie Nick Hanford, who provided many of the articles cited, read through a draft of this essay, and Dmd me on Twitter all morning with helpful ideas. As thanks, I will close with this music video that he cherishes.

Britney is on Twitter.