urbanThe physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap.  Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them.  And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.

This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location.  Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task.  Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower.  They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time.  Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.

In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means.  At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.

Discount furniture store IKEA  overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash!  Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”

In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.

In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services.  They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside.  Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team.  Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you?  Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.

Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities.  The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year.  Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery.  A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together.  Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues,  “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over

I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team  – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.

In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy.  Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.

But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it.  There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website.  Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away.  Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.

Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”.  One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”

As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this.  Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience.  But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.

In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time.  In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.

This is a piece I did recently for Source, a great learning in journalism side.  Interaction design for Journalists, the saga continues. 

5e4684711209c218b535a6c75098886cCopy editors, bless ‘em, they make our writing makes sense to people who are not us. Are there awkward phrases? Is it logical? Has anything been left out? Copy editors fix it. It’s a system that works because the editor can act as a stand-in for the end user, the reader, assuming that they mimic the intended reader’s literacy level. Digital journalism projects like data visualizations have no equivalent “digital” copy editor. We can never assume that the creator and the end user have the same technological literacy level, just for starters. Once a data team has created an interactive map or chart, their own familiarity with it nearly invalidates any self-critique of the end product. And by the time the piece gets in front of the end user it’s usually too late to adapt. Read the whole piece at Source>

In the wake of this week’s absolutely ridiculous IKEA fandom misstep, I feel moved to get down on screen once and for all how to properly handle a disagreement with your fans. Here it is, folks, what to do when your fans are engaging in activity you’re not sure about.  Without looking like a complete idiot.

Lets say you are the owner of a fan object, and your legal department tells you a superfan is using your brand name in a way you can’t control. Maybe you find out your fans have created a “Squishable Trading Post” to swap your after-market plush designs. Or let’s say a fan has started “World Nutella Day“, a celebration of your dessert-turned breakfast chocolate spread. Or perhaps they’ve started a website called “Ikea Hackers” showing the universe how to rework your terrible terrible furniture to be useful.  Do you have the right to be concerned? Yes! Its scary to know you’re outsourcing your brand identity. And hey, you employ all those shmancy lawyers (or in Squishable’s case, a dude named Charles who sometimes does lawyer stuff after lunch). You gotta keep them busy somehow.

So how can you disentangle your brand from your fans’ acts of love with finesse? Without looking like that idiot who loves kicking puppies? Puppies who incidentally make you a lot of money? Before you make a move, stop.  Just stop.  Think for a second.  I know it feels exciting and proactive to send that cease-and-desist, but many a brand meltdown could have been avoided by a deep breath and 5 minutes of introspection.  Your fans have a vast communication platform at their disposal, potentially a much wider one than you do. The second you react they’ll put the gears into motion spreading the word about your actions. When that happens you’re no longer in control, and throwing good intentions after bad won’t help if you change your mind. You can stop your fans from doing what they’re doing, but you can’t stop them from letting the world know you’ve stopped them from doing what they’re doing.

Put aside the legal ramifications for just a minute.  Put aside your corporate policies, not to mention your ego, and think.

1)  Is the activity your fans are engaging in actually harmful?   Or is it just scary?  Is it actively hurting your brand, or are you just nervous it might at some point? What are the benefits you’re receiving from their activity?  Is it giving the product free publicity, like World Nutella Day? Giving your brand a new platform, like the webcomic ‘Miss Officer and Mr. Truffles‘ – which came from a simple news photo? Is it providing your brand with a sexy new context, like when hipsters decided to rebrand PBR on their own (“PBR is authentic American that shows solidarity with the working class” beats “It’s cheap” as advertising any day).

If your only answer is free publicity, you might have some ground to stand on.  “But we’re giving them free publicity!!” is the excuse used for all sorts of blatantly criminal behavior, from pirating movies to plagiarizing writing.  But if your answer starts edging into context creation, you might want to think again.  Ikea Hackers isn’t just bringing the joys of awful furniture to a wider audience, it’s showing the existing audience new ways to desire it. That’s the equivalent of discovering that not only are your teddy bears comforting, they’re edible as well! This sort of activity makes the brand itself more valuable. If you move against them they’ll be seen as victims who understand your own brand better than you do, and rightly so.

2) Are the actions you’re about to take consistent with the philosophy your brand claims to embody? The cult TV program Firefly is about a renegade starship crew and their fight for freedom against an uncaring bureaucracy. In 2013, Firefly’s owner Fox began sending out cease-and-desist letters to designers of Firefly hats on the grass-roots crafting website Etsy. What ensued was an uproar which might seem out of proportion to what, with an audience of consumers, might be a straightforward matter of defending copyright. But that neglects the deeper truth: fandom is the result of a tenuous compromise. No matter the level of loyalty to a brand, the true loyalty is, not to the fan object, but to the concepts which it represents. When a gap opens up between the values a fan object claims to embody, and the values of the fan object as commercial entity, this delicate balance is upset.

Are you really ready to force your fans to remember that you’re just a soulless corporate entity?  I mean,  fans do know it somewhere deep inside, but do you really want to shove it in their faces?  If you’re a brand like Abercrombie & Fitch, where warm fuzzies play no part in their brand context, then fire away!  But for most of us it’s not that simple.

3)  Do your actions respect your fandom’s social hierarchy? Modders who update their XBoxes so that they can play any game they want are considered the creme-de-la-creme of the Xbox gaming community.  It’s a tricky skill, one that takes time to learn.  So when Microsoft decided to ask the Department of Homeland Security to start arresting XBox modders, the community was rightfully taken aback. As a dog owner, the only metaphor I can think of is the turmoil that ensues when you accidentally feed the Alpha second. Superfans have their peers’ respect, they have a platform, and they have a lot of people who owe them favors. Your general population is going to react negatively if you start insulting their role models, the people they themselves have chosen as leaders. The superfans have their hearts. You only have their money.  Guess which one is stronger.  (Also, apparently Microsoft controls the Department of Homeland Security? Is anyone else really creeped out by this?)

4)  Is this an issue that could be solved through some kind of partnership?  Instead of fighting this situation, can you perhaps absorb it?  Bringing fan activity in-house is almost always a win.  For the fan it gives them the status they deserve.  For you, there’s the twin benefits of ready-made context development, and also control over the activity in the future.  So many fan kerfuffles could have been solved by partnering with the offending organization, as Nutella eventually, grudgingly, decided to do with World Nutella day.  XBox lost a chance to pick the minds of the best modders in the business.  Ikea has lost a born organizer and leader in the coveted community of do-it-yourselfers.  Don’t fight your fans, hire them!  Miley Cyrus did.

5) How about…just asking the fans to add a disclaimer?  You remember disclaimers, right?  The default method of explaining that a fan’s activity isn’t representative of the official brand?  That little snippet of text that used to be the answer to this problem for hundreds of years before lawyers got bored? “This thing is not affiliated with, funded, or in any way associated with that thing”?  You know, that really really easy solution that makes everyone happy? Ask them to add a disclaimer. Jeez.

6) If you truly decide that you despise the activity going on, you can ask them to modify content. Not their business practices, not their ownership, the content.  That way the fans can continue being fans, you don’t lose the extra context, and neither of you has to, say, go to court.  Is a fan-made forum for World of Warcraft suddenly full of racial slurs?  Before asking them to shut down their huge platform with thousands of completely innocent users, how about asking them to…stop using racial slurs?   Yes, there are many mentally unbalanced folks out there, people with no middle gears, people who love to play at being an outraged martyr every time there’s a suggestion to show just a little respect. But believe me when I say they’re few and far between.  And if the choice is between a little  modification and complete obliteration, very few will pick the latter.

7) Only once you’ve tried every single one of the above, and tried them truly, in good faith, should you unleash that cease-and-desist. The moment you hit send, be ready for that fan backlash. Start monitoring all your channels, and not just your own but every arena where you know your fans congregate. Get your whole team online and start answering questions. Every single one – every facebook comment, ever tweet, and at least read every blog and tumblr post even though commenting on them might be stalkerish. Do it with compassion.  Do it with humility. Do it with embarrassment.  Explain you’re only acting this way as a final resort.

It’s no hyperbole to say you are messing with your fangroup’s very core and self image – the way they spend their time – so don’t be a dick about it. Your fans have the right to be outraged, and any hint of high-handedness or disconnection will pour gasoline on the flames. Black Milk recently made itself a laughingstock by igniting a fan-war over a completely trivial post on their facebook page.  Instead of explaining themselves, or even asking for fan input, they chose the “no, you’re wrong and incidentally you’re banned for disagreeing with us” approach.  It went over great.

Show your fans that you’re there for them, you’re listening to what they have to say, and that you understand how they feel even if it won’t change your mind.  Tell them why you had to do it. Tell them how much they still mean to you.  Handle this like a breakup where you know its your own fault: It’s not them, its you, and you’re really really sorry. Because if you’re not, believe me…you will be.


When My Little Pony was relaunched in 2010, most everyone in the know (granted, a small group) suspected it would be a success.  A bunch of recent studies had shown that young girls preferred ‘social play’, play that mimicked the emotions of interacting with others in a group.  For a toy industry with desperately low profit margins this was pure gold.  Girls had been heavily targeted  in the past – often by coloring boy’s toys pink – but rarely captured for long. The impact of the study was fast and friendly: Dora and Friends. Lego FriendsDisney Fairies. Franchise after franchise scrambled to re-imagine themselves as a community of characters.

My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic had an advantage right out of the gate – their legacy already included themes of loyalty, morality, and friendship.  Animation icon Lauren Foust developed a group of characters with complex personalities and quirks. It was a serious improvement over the “prissy blond princess/earnest red-haired nerd/sassy sporty ethnic person” trinity most shows settled for.  Her “flash” style of animation provided the visuals, audio came from an exceptionally, almost unnecessarily talented cast of voice actors. The results were good. Really really really good.

We really shouldn’t be surprised that unexpected groups immediately started noticing just how good My Little Pony was. Social Play might be intended to match the learning styles of a 5 year-old girl, but it’s catnip for other folks as well.  Like lonely 20-something men.  MLP has a writing and animation style that’s more than sophisticated enough for older age-groups, and a theme of caring, understanding, and belonging that’s pure wish fulfillment for the socially awkward.

Even saying the word “Bronies” out loud in the right company can be enough to get a laugh. Really! Try dropping it into conversation tonight when you’re at the bar.  If your friends don’t know what a Brony is, explain that these are adult dudes who are really super into a show aimed at little girls.  Then watch their noses wrinkle in disgust and their fingers curl . There will be nervous giggling. Ewwwww.

Now, there will never be a great romance movie about zombies. Real zombies, the kind with organs hanging out. But there will always be room for another romance movie about vampires! That’s because, weird though blood sucking might be (mosquitoes aren’t especially debonaire), there’s something very human about using another person’s body to fulfill our appetites. Not so for zombies, based off of humanity’s deep-seated stigmas against rotting corpses and disease!  Nothing tips off our “Argh argh argh” response like a sick person touching us, and nothing in the world freaks out our primeval lizard brains like a dead body. After all, whether the cause was berries or a saber-toothed tiger, you might be next!

Like Zombies, Bronies hit at two of our very core taboos as a society: fear of being non-age appropriate, and fear of violating gender norms. It is wired, actually wired into our primeval mammal brains to distrust an adult who behaves “childishly”. Our subconscious asks, what else might be immature about them? When a child behaves inappropriately they can be disciplined (or at worst, out-run), but that same behavior from a full-grown adult might be dangerous. Our brain protects us by providing that creepy feeling. Danger. Get away.  Ewww.

It is not hard-wired into our heads to fear gender fluidity – lots of cultures have no stigma attached to it at all.  But, at least in the U.S., where My Little Pony originates, the cultural norm of “Guys do guy stuff, ladies do lady stuff, mix the two only for laughs” is still going strong.

These are the wrong reasons to hate Bronies.  While fear of age-inappropriate behavior is hardwired into our heads, and rightly so, what constitutes age-inappropriate behavior is a cultural construct.  There’s no reason that a well-written show, with edgy animation and catchy songs (just try to get “Winter Wrap Up” out of your head) should ring any alarms. And fear of non-traditional gender activities is just plain old dumb.  You listen to NPR.  You should know better.

So should we all go out and hug a Brony? Well… that’s where it gets a little bit complicated.

Ask any member of a fan group why they do what they do, and you’ll almost always get a canned response.  In fact, one of the main purposes of fangroups is to club together against the potential stigmatization of their activities, and find a socially-acceptable face to show the world. Star Trek fan talk about the egalitarian vision and hopefulness embodied in the show.  Sexy aliens and shirtless dudes will not come up. Teenage fans of the Twilight novels are likely to go on about the story’s themes of outsider-ism and innocent love. They are less likely to mention the eroticism of the central plot device: two sexy guys fighting it out over a shy wallflower.

Ask Bronies why they love MLP and there are a couple standard responses. “It helps me understand life and relationships better. It makes me a better person.” “The community embodies the values of the show.  I have friends now that I couldn’t have otherwise. It’s a safe, accepting place to be me.” And sometimes even, “I really connect with the characters/writing/animation.”

These are the standard self-explanations in most stigmatized fangroups, from Star Wars to 50 Shades of Grey. They’re socially acceptable and, more importantly, logical.  And there’s no reason not to believe them! The show certainly encourages this view. It routinely incorporates fan-service into its scripts, from the inclusion of in-jokes, to the creation of entire new fan-generated characters. Sly nods to its more adult audience that the 20-somethings will treasure and the little girls won’t catch.

This is what used to be called “Fandom as utopia“. Insiders think of their fangroups as a refuge away from the cruelty of the world, a place where higher ideals prevail and everyone is free to be themselves. When Bronies talk about the love and kindness in the show, they mean it in earnest.  But as Bongwater pointed out in their 1991 Folk Song, “…it’s a lot easier to accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior when he looks like Willem DaFoe.”  Acting from baser instincts is always simpler when there’s an acceptable veneer on it.  By the 1970’s  “Fandom as Utopia” had fallen out of academic favor; too much discrepancy had been observed between the idealistic self-explanations fangroups used to defend themselves against ridicule, and the actual behaviors observed within them.

My preferred framework is called “Fandom as societal reconstruction“.  The concept goes like this: “I don’t fit into mainstream society.  I’m sick of being picked on by the jocks, and I’m never going to date a cheerleader.  So I’m going to make a subculture where my differences are prized, and then it will be ME doing the picking on people who don’t fit in!  Maybe I’ll even be allowed to date this group’s equivalent of a cheerleader.”  Fandom as societal reconstruction means the creation of spaces where there’s a chance to re-align the pecking order around a more accessible set of criteria.  It means redefining the caste system, but few would ever consider abolishing it.

Bronies do tend to be socially awkward, something that they often freely admit when you talk to them. The whole purpose of Social Play is to teach those with no experience how to interact in a group, whether you’re 6 or 26.  And while the Brony fan object is decidedly feminine, the fanlike activities aren’t always – a meetup might just as easily include a spontaneous game of Magic the Gathering, D&D, or swapping porn (equine). These are dudes.  Manly nerdy dudes hanging out with the boys, enjoying a rare feeling of belonging and membership, and that is completely absolutely fine. It should be encouraged.

The problems arise from a different source: even though we all need a place where we can feel like an insider, it’s really easy to project that feeling into finding outsiders to exclude.  Brony machismo may be coming from a highly unusual source, but it can turn into the same thing, which is to say that ladyfolks aren’t always welcomed here.

That’s not to say that female fans of MLP don’t exist – there are some girlfriends involved, and there are crafters who create merchandise like stickers and hats and T-shirts.  And there are a few really gung-ho fanatics. But these are exceptions to the rule – in the 2014 “State of the Herd” Report less than 18% of fans identified as female. A higher percentage show up at conventions (with its safety in numbers and cosplay competitions, which are still female-dominated), a much lower percentage attend local meets,  but on average 18% sounds about right.  It’s almost exactly the same percentage to the amount of ladies in gaming.

And yes, there’s the usual litany of harassment, rape jokes, threats of violence against whistle-blowers,  and all the other stuff we’re used to hearing from, say, the tech community, but not from a fan object that is still technically aimed at prepubescent girls.  As one fan put it, it’s tough to remember this is a show about friendship when you’re getting death threats for asking not to be groped.

The issue can best be summed up by a tumblr post, put out after a large-scale bullying, hacking, and threat campaign Bronies carried out last January against a 17-year-old girl who was critical of MLP porn.  The post, by user officialsaionji, read:

“why bronies think people hate them: they watch a TV show marketed at little girls

why people actually hate bronies: they sexualize technicolor horses, they’re misogynistic despite the show’s feminist messages, they harass people, they think “coming out of the stable” is a big deal, rape jokes, they make everything about them, do i even need to go on”

Is this all just a self-defense mechanism from a subculture that’s used to being stigmatized?  A wise dude (…my dad) once said we should never read malice where stupidity might suffice. The equivalent to that might be: we shouldn’t assume that Bronies set out to create an uncomfortable environment.  It’s just that when people get together with poor social skills and that first intoxicating taste of belonging, the results are often the same.

Don’t hate Bronies because they’re bucking (hur hur) gender and age norms. If anything we should be proud that someone is doing it!  And the show truly is worth all the fuss. But feel free to judge away when it comes to the real tension in this, and lots of other herterogenious fandoms. There’s absolutely no reason Bronies should make our lizard hind-brain go “Ewwwww”, but that doesn’t mean it’s always nice

ImageThe 1993 softcore classic Sex and the Single Alien contains a moment of unexpected clarity. On his way to a clandestine tryst with a young lady, our undersexed lawyer/strip club owner is kidnapped by aliens. His travel companion is a gladiator (these are time traveling aliens). One alien asks the other ” Why do they dress this way?” The other alien replies, “It is to impress their women.” Then our hero is granted the superpower of involking orgasms with his mind and returned to earth to wreak vengance on those who have done him wrong. Oh TNT’s up all night with Gilbert Gottfreid, how you are missed.

13-year-old me, whose interest in the movie may have been other than purely ethnographic, may have missed the moment of insight. Just a year earlier I’d endured my first teenage crush, a skinny lad in my 7th grade Intro to Computers class. His name, alas, is lost to posterity. The class was taught in BASIC, the command-line kind, and, being a lady of the world I decided the best way to woo my love was a personalized computer program.

For two weeks I skipped lunches to sit in the poorly-ventilated janitors closet that was the computer lab and wrote my labor of love. It was a fill-in-the-blank affair, a set of questions feeding into a story mad-libs style. The story probably had something to do with asking him to the next dance.

The elderly matron who acted as lab monitor thought it was charming as hell. The object of my affection not so much – when I finally presented him with my completed valentine he gave me a confused look (granted, 7th grade boys wear that a lot). A week later he made fun of my plaid leggings in front of everyone, probably out of self defense, and my digital affair was over.

Oh the music careers launched on the not incorrect premise that ladies dig a dude who can play the guitar, the cartoonists who picked up a pen for the first time on the completely incorrect premise that some dude might be impressed into makeouts… I suspect that puppy love is never about the object of our affection, always about what it inspires us to do. I’m not sure if self betterment is always best invoked in an environment of dissatisfaction, but it doesn’t hurt. I learned to program for the first time in an effort to impress…what’s his name. Thanks skinny dude from 7th grade Intro to Computers, wherever you are.

18408619-brain-on-the-plate-with-fork-and-knifeWhat better funereal tribute could there be for a dearly beloved aunt than to eat her brains? If the cause of death is an ill-timed antelope stampede, or a disagreement with the chief over who makes the sharpest spears, then go right ahead! Let her memory be preserved, at least for a couple of hours, through the digestion of her venerated noggin.

But if her method of decease was almost anything else – sickness, poisoning, more sickness (there are so many interesting ways to get sick), then that is precisely what you won’t do. Neurological body bits are where many of the toxins that can cause death are densest, and passing them along in culinary form is one of the fastest ways to create a vicious spiral of grey-matter munchies. The diseased brain is consumed, which spells the end of the eater, who is then consumed as part of her own mourning rituals, which then causes…but you get the idea.

Outside of cannibalism, the only other area I’m aware of affected by this issue is the pet food industry, which routinely buys euthanized animals from shelters and zoos to mix into Fluffy’s dinner. However, Fluffy’s consequential mess on the floor might never be connected with the penguin who passed away a year ago at the Baltimore Aquarium, whereas surely, we assume, someone would notice if half the community suddenly goes the way of our beloved aunt. Surely someone would say “Hey, maybe just this once, let’s eat the toes instead“.

Not so, says the law of negative memes! One study noted that a negative meme can wipe out 70% of a population before someone questions its underlying validity. But here it becomes more complicated because it’s not just a blindness to facts that must be overcome. Without an understanding of germ theory, we can imagine our poor cannibals mulling over the issue of a population die-off, and after many long days of pondering, coming to this conclusion: “We are all dying! The gods must be angry with us! Quick, pacify them by eating more brains!”

An interesting natural experiment of just this phenomenon is occurring in Japan as we speak, and no one has to eat anyone. Since the 60’s, Japan’s anti-feminist culture has been playing havoc with their population prospects. While men and women receive the same education and early professional pressures, women are often let go after marriage, and professional ladies with children can expect to be stigmatized as “devil wives” (at least one female CEO recently visiting Japan was forced to re-title herself as a secretary to her male subordinates in order to attend her own meetings).

With almost no tradition of daycare, and, do forgive me, no system of child-brides or slavery in place to counteract female unwillingness, it’s not a surprise to find that a huge percentage of the lady population has chosen to opt out of relationships. And not only them – lots of men are rejecting the monetary pressures of keeping a spouse in a society that won’t allow them to share the stress of being sole breadwinner. Celibacy in this sort of climate is one route to freedom and equality, and as a result, the Japanese population will soon be losing a million people every year. Current trends place its complete extinction sometime in the next century. Which, to use a scientific phrase, would just suck full of suck.

As a western-raised feminist white Jewish liberal short lady (I’ve been assured the shortness has a lot to do with it) it’s very easy to point the accusing finger of righteousness and demand, how hard would it be to just to pass a couple little equal rights concessions? Offer a couple daycare tax breaks? Maybe even, dare I say it,  full-pay maternity leave like that offered by that bastion of women’s rights Iran (yep, even Iran has better protection for working moms than Japan. Full disclosure, they have better protection than the US as well, so.) And yet, such risque proposals haven’t made much headway.

Like our unfortunate cannibal friends, when a negative meme is firmly entrenched there can be a lot of confusion about where the problem really comes from. Many of Japan’s conservative LDP party would argue that the true issue is not Japan’s anti-feminism, it’s that Japan has not been anti-feminist enough. If only women (and increasingly, men) would adhere more closely to their traditional pre-world War II roles the problem would be solved! As of yet there have been no dystopian-style attempts to criminalize female employment or enforce a one-child-per ovary policy, but it seems imaginable as the situation becomes more dire. The true power of a negative meme is hidden and subtle: the meme offers a solution to the problems it causes by propagating the meme even more strongly. Our people are dying! Quick, eat more brains!

This all sounds really depressing, but the good news is that negative memes, the truly virulent ones that can take down an entire population, are usually self-correcting. Here’s a good metaphor: the absolutely pants-wettingly terrifying super-virus Ebola. Ebola can rip through an entire population in weeks. It’s intensely contagious and can survive outside of the human body for years, a combination that should have turned the world into a scene from Stephen King’s ‘The Stand’ decades ago.

And yet, we’re still alive to spout social science at each other. The key is in its extreme virulence – the virus is so deadly, and kills so quickly, that there’s rarely enough time for the victims to spread it beyond the immediate vicinity. Ebola’s very toxicity acts like a natural quarantine – in a small, immobile village population, the virus perishes with the last available host.

Now consider the case of Krokodil. Like Ebola, Krokodil turned up in the 70’s, this time in Russia, as a quicker, cheaper, more addictive alternative to heroine. Krokodil is the crack to heroine’s cocaine, the Ebola to heroine’s mild flu. It will also kill you stone dead in a particularly gruesome fashion, by rotting your skin off from the inside, but that’s almost beside the point. Krokodil is relatively easy to manufacture – any number of websites will give you the instructions on how to stir up the codeine/iodine/phosphorus mix. And yet, so far, the streets are not full of rotting zombie corpse people.

The key seems to be in Krokodil’s very virulence – even though any kid with access to a CVS and her mom’s stove can saute up a batch, who would want to? Like biological pandemics, memes survive through repetitive propagation – the passing of a piece of information from mind to mind, or in this case, victim to victim. But while someone could technically take Krokodil for a year or two before checking out, they usually succumb to a gory list of secondary infections long before then.

There is no peer pressure to sample Krokodil because no one lives long enough to pass the meme along. No one is saying, “Hey, I just tried this stuff and it’s awesome and you should too” because, not to put too fine a point on it, that would require still having a mouth, and anyway, who would take advice from someone who looks like they’ve taken Krokodil? Despite its persistent availability, Krokodil as a meme is just too nasty to spread beyond isolated outbreaks here and there.

Krokodil is back in the news this month thanks to a scattering of reported incidents in Illinois, none of which have come up conclusive. Let me repeat that – without even a single verified case, that is to say, not one person who has actually tested positive, media outlet after media outlet has spent the last two weeks seeking to outdo each other in righteous condemnation and gory pictures. This isn’t yellow journalism, or at least, it isn’t just yellow journalism. This is what a negative meme is up against: society’s immune system is extremely clumsy in its targets, but it can be fantastically powerful in its effects.

For example, in a different section of these same outlets earlier this year many sites devoted a few paragraphs to “Gallon Smashing”, that brief-lived prank which saw teenagers walk into grocery stores and stage a massive pratfall while carrying (breakable) containers of dairy. Like many pranks, a forgiving viewer might view this as a sly social commentary: the action loses money for a large corporation and inconveniences it by the necessity of cleaning up the mess. All while the stores’ wrath is hamstrung by their own customer service policies and existing social mores: it looks goshdarn mean to take out your wraith on a kid who just metaphorically wet themselves in public.

Now, that feeling of control over a large institution, even when it’s through an act of self-humiliation, has a lot of appeal. The high-minded might attempt a parallel to the passive protests during the civil rights era, when workers who could not outright rebel nonetheless protested by pretending to be more stupid or clumsy than they actually were. That’s the idealistic view of it. In reality, let’s be honest, this was just unbelievably dumb. Grocery stores are often locally owned, and the wage slaves forced to clean up might easily be classmates of the perpetrators. A long-term propagation of this meme might have meant damage to the nearby economy, the complete collapse of the national dairy industry, mass calcium deficiencies, plagues of hungry kittens everywhere

News outlets duly wrote up the Gallon Smashing phenomenon, with many a ‘crying over spilled milk’ pun, as the new Harlem Shake. The elements weren’t that dissimilar – the same ritualized humiliation and the same sly anti-authoritarianism (part of the fun of Harlem Shake videos lies in witnessing a sedate office environment transformed into…whatever). And yet days went by, and the internet reacted to Gallon Smashing, not through a loud outcry of support or condemnation, but through the worst possible punishment that can be meted out, to ignore it. Despite high viewing numbers – in the same class as early Harlem Shake videos, milk spilling videos received just a fraction of the Harlem Shake’s comments. Very few clips, meme-wise, were actually ever made, and even fewer once perpetrators began to get arrested. Eight months later there are less than 38,000 spill clips on youTube. That might sound high, but for comparison, even a year after the Harlem Shake broke there remain more than 4,640,000 clips, and every single one is hilaaaaaarius.

We’re well-aware of the ugly side of social pressure – the side that advocates on behalf of established social standards against the rights of the individual. The Oscars love nothing more than the story about a hero’s valiant struggle against a fiendish societal presumption, and rightly so. But it’s easy to forget that social pressure has another duty: to nip negative memes in the bud before they get going. This is social pressure at its very best. In a way it’s what social pressure is for. When a meme goes wrong, the white blood cells of our disapproval swing into action – whether it’s to prevent an epidemic of zombies, or just a little spilled milk.

Low grade negative meme-infections surround us all the time- in fact, fighting them is an important part of a healthy society, and it gives socially awkward undergrads a reason to get excited and meet new people, which is also of vital importance. I’m looking at you, me­­­­ of 1998. Japan is a rare opportunity to witness a negative meme so subtle that it has managed to use a society’s own natural defense system against itself. What sort of inoculation might jump-start Japan’s baby-friendly antibodies is anyone’s guess.  Speaking as an outsider, all I can say is, whatever you do, stay away from the brains.

Earlier this week an unexpected blog post was penned by American photographer Sara Rosso, explaining why her website, a collection of recipes, stories, and resources about the celebration of ‘World Nutella Day‘, would shortly be shuttering.  The culprit:  a cease and desist order from Ferrero SpA, the owner of Europe’s favorite breakfast junk food, Nutella.

Now, fans are used to these official-looking documents. They’re sent to music aficionados who remix their favorites, to the writers of fan fiction containing proprietary characters, and sometimes just to people selling hats.  I received one myself back in the late 90’s, and the scary letterhead – and expense implied therein – was enough to make me shutter my very first startup faster than you can say “copyright infringement“. (Hopbooks, you’ll be missed).

But this cease and desist order was different.  For one thing, International Nutella Day was just so darn silly, and so obviously did more to help than hurt  the Nutella brand.  Now, it’s true that this excuse is  trotted out by brand violators to defend a suspiciously long list of crimes, from file-sharing and console-modding to downright design theft. And it’s also true that, at least in the US, companies are required to pursue every instance of infringement on pain of trademark erosion.  But in this situation it really is difficult to imagine what damage might have been done. Full attribution was given, no properties were stolen. It was the most vanilla of crimes, right up there with “assault and makeover” or “breaking and donating“.

But the other reason this cease and desist differs is because Rosso is a superfan.  Superfans are the true believers in a fan object, the multipliers, the ambassadors, the evangelists, the advocates, the brand leaders, the “insert business 2.0 term” of commerce.  They may be drawn in for any number of reasons (the joys of community membership,  a love of fannish activities, or just the status that comes with knowing a lot about something.)  But no matter the reason for their their romance, all superfans should be treated like cherished, beautiful, delicate elfin princesses…who also might rip your arms off and eat your brains at any moment .

By the time a Superfan has attain such exalted status they’ve already found followers who care about their opinion.  They’ve found an existing platform on which to express it, and they have a deep-seated motivation to keep their fan object true to the ideals they’ve already internalized. And when the leadership at the top of any cultural hierarchy is attacked, the sugary chocolate goop hits the fan. Primal instincts, developed long ago on the savannah for tribal defense, swoop into action:  a pack will always rush to the rescue of their alphas. Barely had Russo blogged her note of resignation before a large portion  of the breakfast-eating web rushed to tweet their betrayal and outrage. Nutella’s Facebook page overflowed with comments like “Sorry to hear that you value your attorneys so much more than your customers. This is what happens when you take us all for granted, I guess. Would you prefer a worldwide boycott of Nutella until you give your customers what they want?” and also the more direct “Your spread is tasty, but your lawyers are idiots.”

It’s been noted that all fans make a conscious choice to ignore one fact: that their item of worship is a commodity created for moneymaking purposes. But just because they ignore it doesn’t mean they’re not aware of it. Somewhere, deep inside, every fan acknowledges the make-belive aspect of their love: they feel very strongly, but they could also chose not to. Very few Team Edward fans would truly turn down a date with Jacob if the opportunity presented itself, very few Apple owners truly wish to lay down their life and liberty for a war against Microsoft HQ (although you never know).  To upset this delicate balance – to forcibly remind a fangroup of the corporate entity behind the curtain – is part of the map that should be crossed off with a huge skull and crossbones and ‘here be dragons‘.

Nutella has quickly backpedelled with a Facebook post of full of thankfulness to their fans and an intention to to drop legal charges, but they may have yet to see the big picture.  For one, according to Nutella, the fault lies with a routine lawyer task. Had it been brought to their attention, they say, it would certainly not have happened.  This has prompted many fans to question Nutella’s entire fan philosophy – as one fan put it, “Gratitude, but no apology?”  For this to be treated as PR mistake instead of as a policy mistake is remarkably tone-deaf; many companies might have reacted by requesting the fan enter into a formal agreement, or have the fan place a disclaimer on their site, or in extreme cases, immediately hiring the perpetrator at a huge salary to head their PR team.

Compare this with Beam Inc’s reaction over fan outcry over their plan to reduce the alcohol content in Makers Mark. I haven’t seen that level of groveling since the last time my puppy got too excited on the carpet.

In any case, thus ends a week in which at least some of Nutella’s fanbase realized that sugar mixed with palm oil isn’t the best way to start the day after all (I kid. Nutella tastes lovely, especially on… everything).  But lest we grow too smug in our condemnation, to paraphrase the author Neil Gaiman, “May all your moral decisions be so easy”.  There are times, true times, real times, when the business imperatives of an institution really do outright clash with fan demands, and no satisfaction can be brokered even by participants of goodwill. When that day comes, God help you – there will be no solution except to put on a brave face and hope your company will outlast the outrage.  Fandom is a small tempest in a teacup, but it’s a tea cup that can easily spill over and swamp the whole breakfast table.