Q&A: The Line speaks with Aaron Reynolds, meme machine and threat to democracy.
How the man known for profane birds and horny starship captains ran afoul of algorithms trying to protect American elections.
You might know him for his photos of profane birds, or his .gifs featuring Starfleet officers admitting to unspeakable acts with their starship's warp reactor. Aaron Reynolds is a Canadian content creator who recently found himself afoul — no pun intended — of a U.S. social media giant's overprotective algorithm. Reynolds took a break from creating Effin' Birds and Swear Trek memes to speak with The Line about his unusual business, a credit card debacle, and how lines of computer code can accidentally destroy careers.
The Line: OK, so, I know what you do ... but I don't know if I could describe what you do. So tell us — when you have to explain Effin' Birds and Swear Trek to someone who has no idea what they are, what do you tell them?
Aaron Reynolds: [thoughtful pause] Well, basically, I tell jokes on social media. And when people like the jokes, when the jokes really resonate with them, I convince them to buy merchandise. And that's how I make money. [laughs]
The Line: That's ... actually perfect.
Reynolds: I'm glad! I was worried it was too reductive but that's really what I do. Swear Trek is the more popular one — I take gifs of scenes from the various Star Trek shows and movies and I give them captions that make the characters say terrible things. But I can't make money off of it.
The Line: CBS would have your balls.
Reynolds: Right! It's all intellectual property. I can't just start selling t-shirts with Mr. Spock on them. CBS, my dear friends at CBS, have politely turned a blind eye and let Swear Trek continue. But I can't monetize it. So I made Effin' Birds. [laughs] I felt kind of bad about it, to be honest. But it was very mercenary. I thought to myself, how can I do exactly what I do with Swear Trek, but without having to worry about copyright and trademarks? I had a big ole’ checklist — what worked with Swear Trek, what didn't, and I applied it all to Effin' Birds. I even wrote a book, and it did well!
The Line: And as you said above, your marketing, basically is social media.
Reynolds: Yeah, exactly. Mostly Twitter. But I decided that wasn't a good idea. Too many eggs in one basket, right? So I thought I'd better start building the business on the other social media platforms to reach more people.
The Line: Live by Twitter, die by Twitter.
Reynolds: Well, exactly. What if they tweak their algorithm in a tiny way and that changes how much traffic they get? What if there's a policy change that involves my business? Or what if they just make bad business decisions? What if they screw up so badly they go bankrupt? I know that sounds crazy ...
The Line: Well, Myspace seemed unstoppable until it wasn’t. And also, you could do everything right, but Twitter could get killed by some random boycott campaign after something terrible about Jack Dorsey gets published. And then you're screwed.
Reynolds: Right. So I decided to start working hard on Instagram. For about a year and a half, I put a lot of effort into that.
The Line: And just to remind the reader, this is your business. You add new fans, and that's how you get your customers.
Reynolds: Yeah, and it's important. It's crucial. Because I can only sell one person so much stuff! So I need a constant flow of new people to discover the work, decide to buy something, hopefully buy some more, and then, by the time they're done, I've added new customers.
The Line: And that's where we run into problems.
Reynolds: Ha, yeah, exactly. So I've been working Instagram hard. I'm having a lot of success on Tumblr — who knew Tumblr was even still a thing? I don't do a lot on Facebook, but I know I should. But Facebook is kinda problematic right now, everyone seems mad it at, so I was focused on Instagram. And I start getting weird notifications. Every time I log onto Instagram, I'm being told that I need to turn on location services. [Editor's note: location services allows a phone to share its location with an outside company or application, verifying that the user is indeed where they say they are.] Here, I screencapped one.
Reynolds, continued: And I'm like, well, fine. OK. They're explicitly saying they'll limit my growth. That's bad. That is not in the business plan. So I want to avoid that and I'll do what they ask. I got it. It's the U.S. election and they want to make sure people are using the platform responsibly, right?
The Line: If all your memes were coming from some military intelligence facility in Moscow, that would be a red flag.
Reynolds: [laughs] Well, exactly. That's not what we want. So I really did understand the problem. But here's the thing: I was pretty sure that my location services were already turned on. And they were! I made sure. But I'm still getting the notifications. So then I think, well, most of these posts aren't being sent directly by me each time — I'm scheduling them using a posting service. So maybe that's the problem? Maybe the posting service location doesn't match my location services and that's causing a problem? So I start posting by hand, not using the posting service. I'm turning on location services by hand, posting by hand, making it explicitly clear that I'm in Toronto. Two things happen: a little bar starts showing up under the posts, saying they're from Canada. OK, that's fine. I start getting replies from people saying, oh, OK, I didn't know you were Canadian. So people are obviously seeing the posts being marked as Canadian.
But the other thing that happens is that my growth completely stalls. Just a huge drop in growth. For Effin' Birds, I was adding four or five thousand people a week on Instagram. That was great! I was exceeding my targets. And a lot of that was coming because I was on Instagram's "explore page" — Instagram is different than Twitter. Twitter, you can retweet stuff, and that exposes you to new audience — if someone who follows you retweets you, all the people that follow them can see your tweet. Instagram doesn't have that, it has the explore page, where accounts you might like to follow are recommended. And I'd been getting on that regularly. It was driving my growth. And it just stopped. Zero. Because I am not an account in the United States, and most of my audience was in the United States, I'm not welcome on the explore page.
The Line: Did a human being make this decision? Or is this a line of code at Instagram HQ deciding your fate in a microsecond?
Reynolds: I have to assume it's an algorithm. But that's often something I just tell myself. Instead of getting angry, I just assume no person is responsible. [laughs] Look, like I said, I get it. It's an election. I'm not in the United States and I'm putting a lot of content into the United States. But ... like ... it's pictures of birds. Birds swearing. A human being would not think this was a problem. And the election is over now, and nothing has changed.
The Line: What can you do?
Reynolds: I'm figuring it out as I go. I'm asking people explicitly to share my posts and that helped. I even spent some money to boost my posts. It worked. I was able to get back to where I was a few months ago, but that growth before, using the explore page, wasn't costing me anything. If I have to spend hundreds of dollars on advertising to get new followers that will eventually be worth hundreds of dollars in business, that's a sign that the platform has tapped out for me, right? And I don't think paying for followers really works. If someone finds me organically, and they love the jokes and the content and they want to spend money on me, that's a more useful relationship for me than someone I find by spending money on them. You can't buy love.
The Line: This is what I've found in my romantic life, yes.
Reynolds: Oh wow, yeah. [laughs] What a horrible, horrible but totally perfect comparison.
The Line: And this is all, again, some line of computer code.
Reynolds: I have to assume that. It concluded based on my posting pattern that I'm a bad influence. I'm a bad influencer!
The Line: It was very on brand for you to immediately turn that into a t-shirt.
Reynolds: Well, yeah. I mean I doubt I’m the first person to think of the term "bad influencer,” but I'm probably the first to put it on merch and sell it.
The Line: Can you talk to anyone at Instagram? A person?
Reynolds: I haven't. I've just been trying to bypass the problem. But in fairness to Instagram, I've had good experiences with them before. I did have an issue once with an account getting suspended and I talked to someone there and they were helpful.
The Line: And that's kind of the meta-narrative here, right? Because the computer codes are nailing stuff that a human wouldn't. A human employee is going to look at your content and go, oh, OK, well, it's birds swearing from an account in Toronto. No problem. But an algorithm just says, "A bunch of images are coming from outside the United States," and it has no idea what the images are. It's just been trained to spot that kind of behaviour, and it clamps down on your account.
Reynolds: That's exactly it. And what's worse for me, I'm not even sending text. If I was sending text, and algorithm could check that out for keywords. It wouldn't be perfect, far from it. But it would be better. But algorithms are really bad with images and context. And understanding humour, too. I mean, no computer can do that. I'm telling jokes in picture form. This is where algorithms are going to be at their worst.
The Line: What's absolutely fascinating on this is how this is a really quirky and unique look at a very real and growing problem. So you're a guy selling books and merchandise using social media, and you post a lot of potty-mouthed sparrows and Captain Kirk humping the warp core. But the algorithm has no idea if you're just pumping out, for instance, anti-vax insanity, or propaganda about Trump or Biden being evil. All it knows is that it's images. But we can take this one example and scale it up: our communication for everything — financial information, cultural content, news content, education, everything — is moving through data networks and across platforms. And the companies that control these networks and platforms have real issues to tackle. They have money scams and fraud and child pornography and foreign-government propaganda and hate speech, all this terrible stuff, and they're turning to automated programs to crack down on this. But the programs aren't very good.
Reynolds: No, I get it. I'm not even mad. I've moved onto the t-shirt-selling stage. But you're right. The amount of content on these sites is huge. You can't possibly have actual human beings monitoring all of it in real-time, so you rely on the computer code to flag problems. So it sees my post, and it goes, well, a quarter million people saw it, 700 liked it, it's mostly being consumed in the U.S., it's not from the U.S. So throttle it. It's bad. But you're right. This stuff happens all over the place now.
Let me tell you a different example: a few years ago, I have a credit card from, in theory, a Canadian institution. And they keep locking my card. Like I'm not even kidding, I'm going through a card a week. And I'm on the phone with customer service all the time, and they tell me, over and over, that the problem is that the system is flagging a bunch of repeat transactions, all low value, from the same merchant. Their algorithm has been trained to spot unusual behaviour, and it thinks that’s unusual. So they're locking my card out. And I ask them what the merchant is, and they say, "CPC — we don't know what that is, so we locked your card." And I'm like, "Uhhh ... that's the Canada Post Corporation, and I'm in Canada, and my business is mailing out merchandise. And each shipment is a separate small fee. And I do a bunch at a time. And if you're also a Canadian institution, shouldn't you know what Canada Post is?"
But the person I'm talking to, they don't make a lot of money and they have to look at a lot of material. They aren't given any authority. They just do what the algorithm tells them to do. They don't question it.
The Line: I don't want to sideline this conversation entirely, but at The Line, we write a lot about the media, and something that has happened over and over in recent years is companies trying to figure out how to crack the code, so to speak, to win the battles for Google clicks or Facebook likes. You have all these journalists focused on algorithms instead of journalism, or you have special teams inside newsroom doing this stuff. Just a huge investment in time and energy at a time when these media companies are already struggling with major fiscal problems. But they’re spending what little money they have to win these online battles. And then some line of code is slightly tweaked by a tech giant and your traffic tanks to zero and you have to start all over again. This is probably benign. The tech companies update their code all the time and for their own reasons. But one little line of binary gets changed and a dozen Canadian journalism institutions have their revenue vanish. This has happened over and over.
Reynolds: I see this with a lot. People try to trick the algorithm, or do what the algorithm wants. It's gonna end in heartbreak. You have to let the algorithm be damned a little bit, you're not going to win in a battle with the algorithm. And you're not going to outsmart the algorithm. I was on a panel once, a strategy session for influencers and social media experts. And all these people were talking about how you get your friends together in a group to like each other's posts so that they are forced way up on the Instagram algorithm. I was like, how is this like a sustainable business strategy? As soon as they figure out you're doing this, that will go away. Sure enough, it did within the next three or four months. And unfortunately, that advice to do that — to crack the code — is still out there. None of these things pay dividends anymore. They used to, for a very brief period of time, until people, you know, until Instagram or Twitter, figured out that users were tricking their algorithm in this way. And as soon as they figure it out, that's the end of it.
The Line: We at The Line wish you every success. May you live a thousand years and sell a million mugs and t-shirts and books. But it could be a very much a bigger deal than a guy with his jokes. Whole political campaigns live and die online. Social causes and charitable campaigns exist in cyberspace. Billions of dollars are spent trying to influence people and change the world. It's going to be a place where future wars are fought. And like you said, it's all being run by people who aren't paid very much, don't understand the algorithms, probably have never spoken to the people who do understand them, and I bet the people who wrote the code actually have any idea how it's being used in the real world. Our entire life now exists online and no one really understands how the system works.
Reynolds: Exactly. And it doesn't slow down. Look, I feel like I got into this kind of backwards. I know a lot of artists. People who wrote a book or a comic book. And now they're like, well, I'd better figure out social media. I figured out social media and then thought, well, I should write a book and then sell it via social media. [laughs] It has worked out well for me. I make more than a living wage on Effin' Birds — I make more doing this than I did at the job I quit to do this full-time.
But I'm 45 now. I'd like to work for another 15, 20 years. And these tools are not going to stay static. Nothing that works today will work then. I'm actually now looking to legacy media! Their reach is still huge. Social media is going to just keep mutating in ways no one understands and I can't stand still here. No one can. It changes too fast.
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