Jun 29, 2020 - Technology

A band of techies used emoji and a phantom app to make a point

Illustration of eye, lip, and eye emoji with “It is what it is” text

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech insiders on Twitter last week were fed a dose of their industry's own marketing medicine by an impromptu group of young tech workers who stumbled into what they called a "hype cycle."

What happened: The group of about 60 mostly twenty-somethings began tweeting "👁👄👁" as a lark, along with the phrase “it is what it is," and then linked to an email signup form that appeared to be for a secretive invite-only app launch. When signs-ups reached about 30,000 email addresses, they began encouraging donations to organizations helping Black Americans and selling merchandise.

Why it matters: The performance art-like stunt held a mirror up to the tech industry's marketing tactics in an attempt to get it to self-reflect, and to showcase the absurdity of some aspects of its culture.

What they’re saying: “Despite calls-to-action like that 'It’s Time to Build' essay we’ve all read, most of the industry (from product teams to VC) still stays obsessed with exclusive social apps that regularly ignore — or even silence — real needs faced by marginalized people all over the world, and exclude these folks from the building process,” the group wrote in a statement revealing its purpose on Friday. “As an industry, we need to do better.”

Between the lines: “It’s funny because a meme is the most accessible thing on the internet,” group member and entrepreneur Reggie James tells Axios of the lampooning of the invite-only tactic some apps employ. “You just copy-paste it. There’s nothing that’s excluding you.”

  • One example of the sort of marketing the stunt's creator's took aim at: Clubhouse, a mobile app for live audio discussions that's made headlines for being mostly only accessible to select Silicon Valley insiders, as it's still in testing phase and raising funding from top investors.
  • The tactic is far from new, but Clubhouse's early users notably bragged about having access on Twitter, creating buzz and envy.
  • As others on Twitter caught onto the "It is what it is" joke, they began to help the effort with their own contributions — one person created a fake screen shot of the alleged app, while others pretended to have gained access to it.

Yes, but: It wasn’t without its missteps.

  • The merchandise shop, whose proceeds are aiding nonprofits, named one of its shirts “Breathtaking,” which reminded some of the cries of "I can't breathe" from Black victims of police violence.
  • “It was a copy-and-paste slip. The minute someone called it out, we changed it,” says James, adding that the group worker quickly and used a widely lampooned Pepsi ad campaign as a model.
  • Some also criticized the group for seemingly trivializing racism by using an absurd social media performance to get people to donate to anti-racism efforts. James says that for him and his peers, memes are simply how they communicate online — though the group ultimately apologized for not ensuring its intentions were clearer and responding to feedback sooner.

The bottom line: This is far from the first group of techies to use the internet to make a cultural point via an attention-getting online trick, and it certainly won't be the last.

Go deeper: Read the group's full statement

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