The ‘Eye Mouth Eye’ Debacle Sums Up Tech’s Race Issues

The group behind ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘ says that wasnโ€™t the intention. โ€œWe were just fooling around online,โ€ says Reggie James, the founder of the startup Eternal, who put the symbols in his bio after he saw friends Athena Kan and Tina Zheng, both young women in tech, do the same. Others on Twitter began to join in. David Bui, another friend, took 45 minutes to make a website that showed the emoji bouncing around ad infinitum.

โ€œI kept seeing ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘ early Thursday, and I was like โ€˜cool, weโ€™re shitposting,โ€™โ€ says Regynald Augustin, an engineer at Twitter. โ€œI posted it a couple places, and then I saw the first product mock-up. I DMed Tina, and I was like, โ€˜I thought we were shitposting, what is this?โ€™ And she was like, โ€˜We are, join our group chat, change your name to have ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘.โ€™โ€

It was just young people having fun on the internet. Then Jamesโ€”who is black and who has been critical about systemic bias in venture capitalโ€”thought it would be funny to raise a fake round for ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘. He tweeted about the startup receiving a $4 million investment on a $40 million pre-money valuation, a pointed joke about the kind of FOMO that drives tech valuations. โ€œIn terms of what happened,โ€ he says, โ€œthe next 36 hours were just shot.โ€

Overnight, James says, more than 30,000 people entered their email address into Buiโ€™s website, which made no promise of early access to the app but resembled many of the other invite-only betas. Then the hype started to build on Twitter. โ€œOnce we saw that, it was like, โ€˜We should do something. And it should be the most important thing going on in the world right now,โ€™โ€ says James. โ€œWe played with the boundaries of the internet as we know how to use it.โ€

By this point, there were about 60 people in the ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘ group chat. Most of them were already internet acquaintances, and they quickly started adding to the joke. Many alluded to the group in their Twitter bios, writing that they were โ€œworking on something new ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘.โ€ Others gave themselves fake titles, from the ordinaryโ€”head of content, social media managerโ€”to the more colorfulโ€”head of vibes, chief gay. Someone started a rumor that if you sent in a receipt for a donation to a racial justice organization, youโ€™d get bumped up on the list for private beta access. They started keeping track of how much money theyโ€™d raised this way.

Josh Constine, a venture capitalist and the former editor of TechCrunch, wrote about the nascent app in his newsletter, speculating that ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘ was a platform that lets people โ€œshare your voice and imagery to a map and Stories-like bar that you can serendipitously tap through.โ€ Other investors, like Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, tweeted about it too. (Chen has since deleted his tweet.)

James says several investors made serious inquiries about pursuing ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿ‘„๐Ÿ‘, though he declined to name names. โ€œListen, there are no boundaries when something looks this viral,โ€ he says. โ€œThere were multiple conversations about the round and if I was helping raise it.โ€

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In about 36 hours, the group hit $50,000 in donations. Then, on Friday night, they made their big reveal. โ€œWe’re excited that we could use our newfound platform to drive action towards a few causes that are doing important work toward racial justice,โ€ the group wrote on Twitter. Two anonymous individuals agreed to match donations, bringing the total raised to $200,000. It also announced a line of merchandise; James says the group has made over $10,000 in merchandising sales, the profits of which will also go to charity.

social experiment by Livio Acerbo #greengroundit #wired https://www.wired.com/story/eye-mouth-eye