"We just all have to sort of be uncomfortable and second guessing and triple guessing the things that we do and the behavior we do online and the things that we share and the things that we circulate." — Dr. Lauren Michele Jackson
It seems like every month a new cringe worthy picture of a public official in blackface is shared on social media. The pictures usually surface decades after they were taken but they are born out of a long tradition of blackface and racial mockery in America. But that tradition isn't just a part of our history, it's being replicated online through our use of GIFs.
Anil talks with Dr. Lauren Michelle Jackson, author of White Negroes: When Cornrows Were in Vogue & and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation and Kenyatta Cheese, digital enthusiast, cofounder of Everybody at Once, and founder of Know Your Meme, about digital blackface. They discuss how we can examine our online persona's and how algorithmic choices reflect systemic bias.
Big thanks to LinkedIn for supporting the second season of Function.
Anil Dash: Welcome to Function. I'm Anil Dash. Take a moment and think about the last GIF you used, whether it's on social media or in messaging. Picture it in your mind. For me, it was a GIF of Prince as you might be expecting and the reason why, to be fair, was because I was responding to somebody about politics in Minnesota and that's where he was from.
Anil Dash: But think a little bit bigger about the last few GIFS you used and what you were trying to express when you did that. If you searched for words like yes or no, using the GIF databases that are out there, these are apps like Giphy or Tenor. What you'll get back on the search results are usually a pretty diverse set of images. Cartoons or animals, or at least different kinds of people coming back on those searches. But now, what if you go and you search for stronger emotions, things like the word happy or sad?
Anil Dash: I bet you'll notice that you start to see more black faces. Now keep searching for even more evocative reactions or emotions like shade or sassy. I bet you'll find you almost exclusively get back images of black women. Like right now I'm going to search for the word confused and I get back a an image of Chris Rock and if I search for angry I get Rihanna and she doesn't seem like an angry person to me. But if I searched for something a little more neutral, a little more relaxed, like thank you, that phrase, I get Lady Gaga. And you'll get different results when you do this kind of search because these patterns and results change all the time. But notice the overall trend, when it comes to expressing our more complicated, stronger reactions online, we often end up seeing and using images of black people. And our use of GIFs isn't just limited to searching in these database apps.
Anil Dash: Think about the most popular viral GIFs that are used online, whether by people or by brands. So many of them feature an image of a black person who is having a very strong emotional reaction to something. And oftentimes that reaction is exaggerated just by nature of the fact that it's been taken out of context and clipped into a GIF. And don't get me wrong, I love GIFs. I love using them. I think they're an amazing tool and a great way to express our emotions in a digital world that oftentimes lacks nuance and feeling. But as we know by now, a lot of times the real world's racism and its race dynamics often get replicated when we go online. So this time around on Function, we are tackling the concept of digital black face.
Lauren Jackson: I think of digital black blackface most broadly as a form of racial slippage or racial masquerade, you could call it, enabled by digital technology, digital platforms.
Anil Dash: That's Lauren Michelle Jackson, she's a professor and author of the upcoming book, White Negroes, When Cornrows Were in Vogue and Other Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation. Now you know what the title like that this book is going to be hot. Looking forward to talking to her, especially because of this article she wrote a few years ago for Teen Vogue. It went super viral and it was explaining that basic concept of digital black face.
Lauren Jackson: That could mean 4chan who are orchestrating widespread attacks on online black communities, creating fake profiles and these very kind of organized means of "infiltrating discourse online" and really trying to disturb abilities for communities of color to organize. But it can also be something as simple as just trying to borrow the coolness or the cultural cache of something that is actually not really fluent to someone's body and someone's culture outside of the internet.
Anil Dash: We talked about what black face on the internet means in 2019 and how it's related to race and appropriation more broadly. So it's really interesting because there's a spectrum of both an orchestrated campaign to try and simulate or attempt to emulate being black and having a nefarious intent is very, very different than somebody who might not know they're being thoughtless and there still a harm there, but there's a very different purpose to what they're doing. So it seems like there's a pretty broad spectrum of the ways this plays out.
Lauren Jackson: Absolutely. And the term actually originally came from Joshua Lumpkin Green who wrote a Master's thesis in 2006 called Digital Blackface, The Repackaging of the Black Masculine Image. And he in his thesis was looking at Grand Theft Auto, San Andrea and so in his definition of the term or his formulation of the term, he was really thinking about the way in which video games allow this sort of seamless connection between the character on the screen and the controller and the body of the person playing the game and the way in which you can essentially play act as a black person and live out the fantasy of what you would do in this racialized body.
Lauren Jackson: And it was Kate Brown who is an art historian in 2012 that actually applied that term to GIF behavior on Tumblr, which was the platform de jure, when she was doing a lot of her research. And so, you know, what I'm doing with the term is to try to connect all those disparate pieces but then also think about a much wider culture and basically what Tumblr has become, now in the year 2019 where we do have, what the platform itself calls trolls, but you know, are kind of much more than trolls. They're racists and Nazis who are doing really, really nefarious stuff online.
Anil Dash: Our first episode in season one, we talked about the game Fortnite, which obviously is a successor to the GTAs of the world. So a little newer take on that sense of you can play these other characters. But one of the things you can do in the game is you can use an emote, a dance. And we talked to 2 Milly about seeing the Milly Rock be in the game but not credited, not paid.
2 Milly: It's not an official Milly Rock if it ain't come from me. So how could you put that into a game and a brand without contacting the creator?
Anil Dash: How many people playing the game can do the Milly Rock the way that 2 Milly can, right? So there's this little bit of like this is letting me play act as someone else. Is that a facet of that same sort of desire, that same behavior?
Lauren Jackson: Absolutely. I would definitely put that in the same category of a cultural if not racialized masquerade. The very definition of a reaction image or reaction GIF, you're borrowing something from the image or the image is doing something for you, is delegating something that you are, on one hand unable to do because you're a person and there is an online space, unless we were going to, I don't know like record ourselves and have a kind of endless library of our own selves reacting to various news. But no, that's impractical. So of course you delegate that work to an image and oftentimes a kind of exaggerated image of what your feeling at that particular moment. And so there's always that sort of desire or that sort of reaching or the image doing for you, something that you actually cannot do for yourself at the time.
Anil Dash: Is there an aspect of how, especially black artists, because there's so many of the GIFs are of celebrities, right? They're actors or they're reality TV stars or they're singers or whoever they are. Is there an aspect of this that is about an artist sort of being tasked with representing a feeling, emotion, a thought, an idea that that sort of feels analogous to their art being taken or their creativity being exploited?
Lauren Jackson: I do think we're at an interesting point now where you could see how certain television shows like Insecure or reality stars on Drag Race or something like that are cognizant of the, I guess currency of GIF culture online. And so I think that creates a situation where you are in popular culture that is making itself sort of preemptively GIFable. I think you could add even this season of Big Little Lies to that as well. And so on one hand I think in the pop culture sphere, it's kind of expected that you're going to take a snapshot and GIF something and circulate it widely on the web. And I think that's something that a lot of creators want.
Lauren Jackson: But I also think there are moments from maybe an earlier version of the internet, late 2000s, early 2010s version of the internet where it was everyday black people going viral for whatever reason and their image being circulated so widely and not really getting any benefit from that.
Anil Dash: Right. They become memeified but it's not an exchange.
Lauren Jackson: Exactly. And they don't have a show that they get to promote. They don't have a publicity person they can run back and say, "Look at the numbers, look at all these people engaging." This is their life essentially. This is their image.
Anil Dash: In an earlier episode we talked to a T Kyle MacMahon who now works on Watch What Happens Live. And really starting out in fandom on Tumblr, he had created a lot of the first NeNe Leakes GIFs that were like, they're still, I think, staples. When you see people react to stuff online. And he's a gay, white man, which I think is always part of the conversation about how culture shifts, especially from black women to non-black cultures. And it was really interesting because what he expressed was really fandom. He was like, "I thought the show was great. I thought she was great. I wanted this to get out there in the world."
Anil Dash: And you know what he heard back from the people running the show was, "Oh this helped grow our audience because people are like, 'Oh, I know her. I know that person from what I see in social media.'" What do you think about that aspect of there being an element of fandom or this is somebody's they feel their method of expressing support when they're sharing these things?
Lauren Jackson: It feels very like early or mid-Tumblr to me because-
Anil Dash: I mean this was a while ago too.
Lauren Jackson: Because that was the love language of Tumblr like you go on Tumblr to see all the GIFs of Harry Potter, all the GIFs Doctor Who.
Anil Dash: Sherlock Holmes.
Lauren Jackson: Yeah, right? There's the five shows that people on Tumblr care about and you would go there to see all of those and then you would repeat them and recycle them. And then I think it is very different when you get to a place like Twitter where the GIFs are so de-contextualize or rather the context is replaced by whatever the user wants it to be when they employ that GIF. So yeah, like to this day, there's probably many, many people who would recognize NeNe Leakes but have no clue who she is, have no clue what Real Housewives of Atlanta is. They just know the face of that sassy black woman who is snapping her fan or wagging her finger.
Lauren Jackson: I'll actually use a specific example using actually NeNe Leakes. So there's this one episode where NeNe goes to downtown Atlanta to visit another cast member who has been like seeing at a hotel or something like that. And you know, she's in an area that she describes as the "ghetto."
NeNe Leakes:: Woo, yeah the ghetto.
Lauren Jackson: The way she says it is like super funny and can't be exaggerated because she's not in the hood, she's in downtown Atlanta. Right? And so that video turned into a catch phrase like, "Woo child, the ghetto." Right? And it became shortened and abbreviated and you have all these white people now who are typing out, "Woo the ghetto." Since they don't know the rhythms and the patterns of the language. So they're like, "Why are we talking about Chile? What does Chile have to do with it." Right? So [crosstalk 00:12:44] the problem of lack of context and what can happen to a kind of beloved black staple, whether it's coming out of NeNe Leakes:' mouth are coming out of my Nana's mouth, or just somebody saying it. And now it has-
Lauren Jackson: Well, there just somebody saying it and now it has turned around back on itself. So now you will hear black millennials saying, "Whew chile."
Anil Dash: One of the biggest breakers of context is brands. Companies. Everybody's trying to be the coolest brand on social media, on Twitter, on Instagram, whatever. A lot of brands are trying to be the most woke brand and a ton of them have used GIFs as part of how they're communicating out in the world. You've got the whatever, your Wendy's mixed tape and you got your Hamburger Helper mixed tape, I guess. I'm sorry, I'm getting my cool internet brands mixed up as to who has hashtags, who has mixed tapes, and who has whatever.
Anil Dash: But to that point, you have this sense of there are companies out there that are, well, very often they've got somebody who's relatively junior in the organization managing social media. Very, very often that person is not black. And very often what they're sharing is a GIF of a black person responding, reacting, emoting about something that the brand is saying. And then interestingly, those are never compensated spokespeople. That's not somebody who's getting paid to represent that brand. How much do you think companies have a culpability in this, in normalizing that kind of use?
Lauren Jackson: Absolutely. You will see brands trying to get on the train of digital culture. I think something that is somewhat funny is that I think we now take for granted that brands are going to be extremely late to the party. I think about the makeup companies now that are, and beauty brands, that are trying to capitalize on Hot Girl Summer without giving Megan her coins. That really is what my book, White Negroes, talks about, thinking about how much we take for granted that brands and celebrities are just going to keep scraping and scraping from the cool black kids, essentially.
Anil Dash: You know, we've talked about a couple of different ways this plays out. One is companies [inaudible 00:15:17] The second part is the technology is giving people almost the default of the here, here's how you should express yourself. If you just give us a word, we'll give this back to you.
Anil Dash: Is there a way for an individual to be responsible given that context? I'm out there on social media and I'm not black. I respect black culture. I want to be thoughtful. Is there a way for me to reflect, and if I want to be intentional, to make sure I'm communicating in a way that's respectful? Or is it just, stay out of this lane?
Lauren Jackson: It's not stay out of this lane, that's for sure. I get this question or some version of this a lot. When I wrote the article on Teen Vogue about digital blackface, outside of the people who I am super grateful for in engaging with it in a curious and thoughtful way, everyone else fell into these two camps. Which is on one hand, the conservative troll-ness that it was reposted on who are like, "This is ridiculous. Pulling the race car. Everything's racist."
Lauren Jackson: Which was expected and almost didn't bother me as much as the quintessential white liberal response, which was, "I'm never using GIFs of black people ever again. Everybody look around, you're being very racist right now." Basically saying all these things that I never said. I never wrote.
Lauren Jackson: That almost bothered me more, because it was like one, you didn't read it, two you actually don't care about improving, the ethics of your behavior. Because if you did, you would do the harder job, which was to be constantly vigilant about how you use an online space versus taking the easy route, which is to just throw your hands up and be like, "Okay, I'm not going to engage. I'm never going to use a black person GIF. So then I'm in the clear and then I'm good."
Lauren Jackson: No. We're all implicated into the racial assumptions that we make and there is no opting out or really easy way around it, I guess. We just all have to be uncomfortable, and triple guessing the things that we do and the behavior we do online. The things that we share and the things that we circulate.
Anil Dash: Lauren, thank you so much. This has been extraordinary conversation. Deeply insightful.
Lauren Jackson: Thank you.
Anil Dash: Okay, I'm hardly an artist, but I'm going to brag a little bit here because I am the first person to have a GIF exhibited in an art museum. I'll take you back to 2006. The internet was young back then, and the World Cup was taking place that year. There were all kinds of memes being shared about soccer, football, whatever you want to call it. And I thought they were pretty interesting. So I wrapped up a bunch of what people had been sharing into this one elaborate GIF. It took me hours of work, but I put it all together and obviously some people thought it was funny or interesting, and it ended up catching the eye of some people in the art world. Next thing I knew it was exhibited at the new museum here in New York City and later ended up being added to their collection.
Anil Dash: The thing is making that GIF back then, it took me hours of work. I did a lot of this manually. But these days it's a lot easier. If we want to use a GIF and a message, we just go to one of these little databases like Giphy or Tenor. There's a lot of different apps out there. Or it can be even simpler. Your phone probably has a button right next to the keyboard that will let you drop a GIF into whatever app you're using right now.
Anil Dash: After the break we're going to talk about that evolution and especially about the role that tech companies now play in perpetuating digital blackface. By speaking with Kenyatta Cheese, the co-creator of Know Your Meme.
Anil Dash: Welcome back to Function. Last season we spoke to Kenyatta Cheese, the co founder of Know Your Meme for an episode that was sort of an oral history of GIFs.
Kenyatta Cheese: First time seeing a GIF. My gosh, it was probably an under construction looping GIF on a Geo Cities or an . page the first time where I saw it and understood that there was a cultural relevance to it was probably dancing baby.
Anil Dash: I invited Kenyatta back onto function to take this deeper dive into race appropriation and GIF culture, because it was something that was top of mind for him when he founded Know Your Meme.
Kenyatta Cheese: There's a time where a bunch of us were sitting around and we're watching culture flow back and forth on the internet and in particular you would see things, new jokes, new virals, new pieces of content, pop up in places that felt nontraditional. There were internet forums. Hell, there were news groups. That was awesome, because all of a sudden we felt like this was the true culture of the internet. It was emerging out of us all coming together and using it.
Kenyatta Cheese: Then there was another piece of it that wasn't awesome, which was all of a sudden we were seeing advertisers come in and appropriate these internet memes and turn them into their own for profit ads and stuff.
Kenyatta Cheese: I thought, this isn't right. No. Somebody has to set this straight. And then realize, if I recognize it, I have to do it. So, we started building Know Your Meme, which was both a internet meme database, every single time somebody sends you the same cat picture over and over again, and you're like, why are people sending me this? If you go and you hit search, you're going to get that explanation on know your meme.
Kenyatta Cheese: What's great about is that it's a resource where it's people telling their own histories. We sparked it and there's a team of folks who admin everything from the middle, but it's still people coming in and realizing that nobody's telling the story that's significant to them.
Anil Dash: We're going to get deep into it, but I want to start for folks who might not know, how does something become a GIF in the first place? When I go into my Twitter app, or whatever, I can search for somebody laughing and I get this picture back. How did that get there?
Kenyatta Cheese: We've talked before about how GIFs have had this recurrence on the internet. It's old file format, which all of a sudden becomes useful again because it's so open and because you don't need proprietary software, you can just hit play and you have this little animated loop. [crosstalk 00:00:21:52].
Anil Dash: It'll work anywhere.
Kenyatta Cheese: It works anywhere, right. What ends up happening over time is this loop becomes very useful to communities, folks who are just trying to share small moments of culture where you don't have to hit a play button, there's just the thing you might absolutely love is that one facial expression that some character makes in a show or something. You can take that video clip and pour that into something like Photoshop, turn it into an animation, and then output into a format that actually works for the web.
Kenyatta Cheese: Early on there were a lot of GIFs that were made purposely as design pieces, but over time we start to see this use of GIFs as culture. This is use of, I'm going to take this one moment and I know that this one reaction face that someone's making is actually more expressive and more indicative of what I think and what I feel than anything I can express myself in 140 characters, or a thousand characters. So we start making GIFs. In particularly we started making them of TV shows and movies, which makes sense because those are cultural touch points.
Anil Dash: We talk to each other by saying quotes from movies. Or referencing funny jokes that we've seen on TV.
Kenyatta Cheese: So, might as well share that moment visually, especially in a visual medium. As that happens over time, at first you have people making GIFs because they are fans of that work, or they happen to be in a community where they know that they can drop this GIF in and people are going to react to it. People are going to get it. People are going to get that joke.
Kenyatta Cheese: But over time what happens is, as GIFs become a way for people to communicate online and the way that the culture happens online, then suddenly you see the IP holders, the creators themselves, getting involved. And they start making GIFs themselves. It's what I did.
Anil Dash: It becomes official.
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah. The official GIFs.
Anil Dash: I think of the other day I looked I searched the word happy on the GIF feature in one of my apps. It pulled up Alfonso Ribeiro doing the Carlton dance on Fresh Prince. Which is obviously culturally incredibly widely known, but decontextualized is, whew, that's... There's something there. There is a little bit of buffoonery going on. In a way that, that's not Alfonso Ribeiro, but that is about what does this person represent?
Anil Dash: One of the things you realize as we started talking about this idea, just getting ready to have this conversation, was how many words. If I search happy, I search sad, I search surprised, I get back an awful lot of black people who are in character maybe, or on a TV show maybe, or in extremes in some dramatic moment in their life maybe, and are the faces of that emotion. There's a lot to unpack here, but how did that happen? Where are those faces coming from?
Kenyatta Cheese: On one end of the spectrum, you have people who are fans. People who absolutely love that moment. They're sharing it because-
Anil Dash: They've seen every episode.
Kenyatta Cheese: That's it. Right. Yeah. [crosstalk 00:12:06]. That's why they're making it. Maybe somebody takes that GIF and says, "Actually this expresses happy, and I can see that posted to this forum that everybody reacted in a way that they all agreed that this was happy."
Anil Dash: So it started from sincerity.
Kenyatta Cheese: Complete sincerity. But that doesn't necessarily mean that everybody who's using it is also going to use it for reasons originally intended, or in a sincere manner. That's the, in many ways, the cultural use of GIFs and memes in the first place. You're going to take a piece of media, you're going to take it and recontextualize it, and use it for whatever it means in this moment that I have right now.
Kenyatta Cheese: The interesting thing that happens is as GIFs become more important and you have say a platform like a Giphy, or Tenor, or platforms that have indexed tons and tons of GIFs, suddenly a fluid meaning. All of a sudden that meaning becomes a little...
Kenyatta Cheese: ... a fluid meaning, all of a sudden the meeting becomes a little fixed, right? Because somebody has to make a choice, right?
Anil Dash: Right, because it doesn't have context anymore. So you've got to just pick what you think it means.
Kenyatta Cheese: Exactly, and so you're maybe starting to, if you're trying to make a GIF database, you're starting to add some meta-data.
Anil Dash: Right, and a little context here, so Giphy, Tenor, or there's a couple of these companies that are these GIF databases, they've got maybe thousands, millions. How many?
Kenyatta Cheese: Oh, just millions upon millions.
Anil Dash: And how do they make money giving GIFs to people? Is that a business? I'm a CEO of a tech company, I'm a little befuddled.
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah, so some of them are ad based, some of them are wanting to become the repository for GIFs. Then all of a sudden maybe someone comes to you wanting to make a deal.
Anil Dash: Oh, okay. So I'm going to search for happy, and it's going to be like, "Drink a Coke."
Kenyatta Cheese: Exactly.
Anil Dash: Okay. All right, so it's ads, it's the same answer as everybody else.
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah.
Anil Dash: Okay, so you've got a database of all these GIFs and they're coming up, and correct me if I'm wrong, but these are tech companies and their staff probably looks like a lot of tech companies, which is to say perhaps not proportional representation on a racial basis.
Kenyatta Cheese: Even if it does, how many people actually are aware of what it means to assign happy dance to to this one GIF from The Fresh Prince, and what kind of effect that could have, say, beyond the original context? Beyond the context of a fan community, beyond the context of a particular set of users that you think have good intentions?
Anil Dash: Or even globally, right? There's different cultural meaning.
Kenyatta Cheese: Especially globally, right? All of a sudden you're wondering, oh, you realize that they're in a position to export meaning and export the representation of an entire people, because of the keywords that they're adding to these GIFs.
Anil Dash: It's stunning that almost every one of the suggested terms in my Twitter app and my WhatsApp, the first result and most of the results will be black people, and many times decontextualized in a way that makes it a more extreme, exaggerated kind of view. Does somebody make that choice at these companies?
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah, but the question is how aware are people of that choice, right? How many contexts are they paying attention to it one time, and you know, it's tough, right? You may think you have everything covered. You may think you've thought about what this means to a particular set of users and there's a lot more semi-wokeness among tech folks nowadays, and so maybe they're thinking about it.
Anil Dash: Or maybe they're just worried about like we don't want to have a violent image on there. They're focused on a different kind of harm.
Kenyatta Cheese: Right, right. Maybe this is something that they're not as aware of, and maybe it's not easy for people who might be sensitive to this, to raise this within an environment like that, especially in a giant production environment where you're just trying to batch a bunch of GIFs all the time, right?
Anil Dash: What is their responsibility? What should these companies be doing? Should they have a cultural editor reviewing the top GIFs?
Kenyatta Cheese: I think that might be an interesting way, an interesting approach. I think it's hard, because no matter what, GIFs and memes are things where the meaning of the GIF changes depending on its use, and that use is always local. The effect of that media though, because we can get a bunch of bits from here to halfway around the world in a millisecond, does go beyond whatever we think our local use is, and so whether it's me as an end user or a platform, it becomes a tough thing to figure out. And so one of the things that is kind of interesting, I think, as you mentioned, Anil, is what happens if you start to think about how you educate people?
Anil Dash: Well, I was going to say, you say me as an end user, how do I teach a billion people on social media this is the way to thoughtfully use a GIF without it being black face?
Kenyatta Cheese: Right. Maybe it's about how you curate those GIFs. Maybe it's about taking a look at how that user experience is. If you're getting a bunch of GIFs and it all happens to be extreme emotions and all happens to be people of color, then maybe you need to take a look at changing that up and evolving and tweaking your metadata a little more.
Anil Dash: Is there a responsibility for me as a GIF user, as a person who expresses themselves through GIFs?
Kenyatta Cheese: That's a tough one. That's a tough one.
Anil Dash: Because I tried for a while. I was like, I'm going to only use South Asian people.
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah.
Anil Dash: Right, and I had like four Mindy GIFs in a row, and then I was like, I feel conflicted about using it as a GIF right now, and that's about it. Nobody else is in here, you know? And I looked, you can scroll a long time and not see any Indian people in your app, right, and at companies that I'm sure have some Indian engineers at them. So I'm curious about what do I do? How do I learn to be thoughtful about what I'm putting out there? I don't want to hurt somebody when I'm just trying to have a good time with some silly thread online.
Kenyatta Cheese: Yeah. For me, I only use GIFs that are made by the man.
Anil Dash: Authorized GIFs only?
Kenyatta Cheese: A lot of people use reaction GIFs from black folks who happen to have, you know, there'll be on the local news and it's like, that's not somebody who, that person has no control over their own representation, so why should I use this?
Anil Dash: Yeah.
Kenyatta Cheese: Right? Whereas there are a lot of folks who they're consenting to the use of that GIF, or I'm sorry, the use of their image. They're hopefully making some bank off of it.
Anil Dash: Yeah, or even putting themselves out there maybe.
Kenyatta Cheese: And they're putting themselves out there on purpose, so maybe that's okay.
Anil Dash: So, consent.
Kenyatta Cheese: Fast forward a couple of years later and I'm in rural China, and I remember having a conversation with folks who asked me, because I'm half African-American and half Chinese, and they asked me, "Oh, you're half African-American," and they said, "Oh, you don't look like African-Americans." And I said, "Yeah, well I'm mixed." Then they said, "Oh, but you also, you don't make the faces like they do."
Anil Dash: Wow.
Kenyatta Cheese: I was like, "What?"
Anil Dash: So the viral videos of essentially black people in peril in the news are their conceptualization of this is what black people are?
Kenyatta Cheese: And become their first, you know, it's like their first contact of who we're supposed to be. Now we talk about GIFs, and GIFs have even greater portability.
Anil Dash: And work on more devices and on lower speed connections and everything.
Kenyatta Cheese: And not only that, we're organizing the mass export.
Anil Dash: And they're even shorter, so even more decontextualized.
Kenyatta Cheese: Right, shorter and it's looping again and again and again.
Anil Dash: I'm curious about how do we carry it forward so it doesn't feel like appropriation, it doesn't feel exploitative, it does feel consensual? Can you imagine some mechanism by which there is consent and context built into the tools, built into the technology?
Kenyatta Cheese: Oh, completely, right? We've made small attempts at it in the past, everything from a creative commons to a different schemas for verifying identity. The reason why we built Know Your Meme was because we were seeing culture sort of emerge out of these nontraditional spaces, and then be appropriated by those who sought to turn it into profit, and that didn't seem right. So we decided, oh, you know what? If we actually become the place of record for this stuff where we just say, "Hey, here's where this comes from," then maybe that starts to give people the context that they have before. There's no reason why a Giphy, a Tenor, or anybody else couldn't start adding a lot more about the history and the context, and what are the receipts? What's the lineage of this GIF?
Anil Dash: This whole season on Function, we've been wrestling with the question of trust on the internet, and especially the broader question of whether we can trust the role technology plays in our lives. If we're thinking about such a lofty topic, it can seem a little odd to look at something as casual and fun as GIFs. Honestly, most of us are just using them to send a funny picture to our friend and when we're communicating with people online. But the way technology works these days is by pulling those images out of the real world and taking them out of their context. Whether it is a celebrity who's out there putting their face into the public, or sometimes even just a regular person living their lives. A lot of times removing that context and reusing that image in the digital world starts to replicate a lot of the patterns of exploitation that we've seen in the non-digital world.
Anil Dash: What I'm saying is, sometimes that machine is making us do something that replicates the systemic racism of the world around us. I don't think anybody intends that, but maybe by talking about it, what we can do is encourage each other to be a little bit more thoughtful, a little bit more mindful about which images we use, whose images we use, and the way we use them. And if we do that, we can keep the machines and the software and the technology from undermining other people's ability to trust in our good intent when we send them a message.
Anil Dash: That's it for this episode of Function. We'll be back next week with a new episode. Function is produced by Bridget Armstrong. Our Glitch producer is Kesha "TK" Dutes. Nishwat Kirwa is the executive producer of audio for the Vox Media Podcast Network, and our theme music was composed by Brandon McFarland. Thanks to the whole engineering team at Vox and a huge thanks to our teammate Glitch, and you can follow me on Twitter @anildash, but you should also follow the show @podcastfunction, all one word. Please remember to subscribe to the show wherever you're listening to us right now, and also check out glitch.com/function. We've got transcripts for every episode up there, apps, all kinds of stuff to check out about the show. We'll be back next week and we hope you join us then.