The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a meme about a lovely milkshake-drinking duck whose goodwill is almost instantly squandered when it's revealed the duck is racist. The premise of the meme is that everything you love on the internet will one day let you down.
To be clear, there is no actual duck drinking milkshakes; it's a joke in a tweet. Like anything else heavily steeped in internet culture, the joke, first posted by Twitter user @pixelatedboat last year, is inherently absurd on its face, but it's also a particularly effective commentary on the reactionary nature of internet discourse. Consider it an addendum to Warhol's maxim about fame in the future; he just never predicted the second act when each of our skeletons are dragged out of the closet, owing to a lengthy internet paper trail of poor behavior.
"I can't remember, exactly, but my best guess now is it was probably the Chewbacca Mom," @pixelatedboat, a comics artist from Australia, who asked not to use his real name, explained of the inspiration behind it. Chewbacca Mom, a woman who went viral for laughing in a mask — it was a much more innocent time last year— later came under heavy criticism for a misguided attempt at fomenting racial harmony. She got Milkshake Ducked.
"It was a thing that had happened a few times that seemed to be a trend," he went on. "I was trying to come up with a joke that would sum it up because I hadn't seen that joke done before, so I was trying to come up with the most absurd version of that that I could."
At first the joke didn't take off.
"I think it got a few hundred likes or something," he says. "I thought it was a pretty good joke. Usually I tweet something and I instantly hate it, but I thought, eh, I did that one pretty well. It didn't do as well as it should have. But it took a while to catch on."
Each time another fleeting internet celebrity bubbled to the surface, and was found to have a problematic history, the phenomenon was rejoined. Undecided American voter Ken Bone going from lovable sweater-wearing meme to Reddit creep, for example.
In a particularly meta version of the joke, Chicken Nuggets kid was Milkshake Ducked when it became apparent he had tweeted at a terrible men's rights account, and had called YouTube gamer celebrity PewdiePie "daddy," something that wouldn't have been possible if PewdiePie hadn't himself just been Milkshake Ducked for a series of racist and anti-semitic jokes.
When Gary from Chicago become a micro-celebrity after an appearance on this year's Academy Awards, our tendency to Milkshake Duck itself came under scrutiny. Although they didn't use the term, Vox unpacked the pattern in a piece about our desire to see people like Gary from Chicago brought low. At the time the A.V. Club posted, then apologised for, a piece in which a writer explained Gary, like Chewbacca Mom, had let his country down for having been arrested in the past.
I asked @pixelatedBoat whether or not he thought there was something troubling about our collective tendency to do this sort of thing over and over.
"It seems so inevitable that it's not even worth making a value judgment on," he says. "It's an unavoidable product of internet culture. It's probably going to happen to be people where there will be a backlash and they deserve it and with some there will be a backlash and they don't deserve it. It probably says something horrible about society, but… I don't know. I wasn't trying to say, 'This is a really terrible thing that's happening it shouldn't be like this.' It was more an observation that this thing is happening now and it will probably keep happening forever."
While its popularity has ebbed and flowed over the past 12 months, the joke saw a resurgence last week because of a flare up in the world of internet video game discourse. Like anything else GamerGate-adjacent, the latest chapter in the Milkshake Duck saga is almost too stupid to even bother trying to understand, but in short, Tim Soret, a video game developer, recently got the treatment after a trailer for his game The Last Night was previewed. Soret, it was pointed out online, had tweeted some inflammatory things, including how his game was about "progressivism spiralled out of control" and that he was "against feminism." After these statements were pointed out, Soret tweeted: "I completely stand for equality & inclusiveness."
Picking up on the reemergence of the joke after the games controversy, the Oxford Dictionaries attempted to unpack it, referencing the Soret affair. Someone popular in internet video-game circles, who frequently shares messages touting the alt right, woefully misread both the dictionary blog post, and the concept of Milkshake Duck in general.
"They seem to have interpreted this as being a direct attack on them somehow?" @pixelatedboat says. "Some gaming journalist used the term in reference to a guy who was connected to GamerGate so now they think the whole concept is an attack on them."
On the Know Your Meme entry for Milkshake Duck, almost all of the 185 comments are outraged gamers.
"I don't think they're really good at abstract thought at all," he says. "It never had anything to do with video games."
So is @pixelatedboat, like Dr. Frankenstein, in danger of succumbing to his own creation?
"I'm going to try to avoid it as much as I can," he says. "But sooner or later… I don't know how long you can be on Twitter with any level of visibility and not eventually screw up and do something you regret, prompting some huge backlash."
In the meantime he's just excited that something he created caught the attention of the dictionary.
"That's the weirdest part of the whole thing. I was proud! I told my wife, she was pretty stoked about it. Now I'm kind of invested in this thing really catching on, people saying the term, because it needs to stick around long enough that they have no choice but to put it in the dictionary. It's completely ridiculous, and—I don't know—I'm kind of happy about that. If I'm going to have a legacy it's something absurd and ephemeral. I kind of like that."