LOVE, TRASH DOVES.
TRIGGER WARNINGS. Online threats/harassment & stalking, fascists/neo-nazis, parental illness/death, brief mention of suicidal ideation, and drinking alcohol/using marijuana to cope with stress are mentioned.
In early 2017, the flailing purple bird named ‘Trash Dove’ briefly and violently overtook the internet in a case of extreme social media meme virality.
Trash Doves are my creation, and this nearly ruined my life.
I was not open with my followers about what actually happened during the Doves virality boom. From the outside, to most, I think it looked fun. And some of it was. But it was also huge, terrible, wonderful, terrifying, sickening, and just altogether inexplicable —The improbable explosion of my work online changed my life and the course of my illustration career entirely.
I’ve had journalistic offers and suggestions to host this story in other ways — but I am simply no longer interested in documenting the phenomenon in the way that would require me to share every single awful screenshot of the threats I received, call out entities involved outside of narrative context, or revisit any battle over which my interest is expired.
I have used a few speaking opportunities to tell this story in person (thank you, LGAL Team Tern and the CSCA audience for sitting through my traumatized recount) but now — I simply wish to share the story from my perspective, as I remember it happening — to let it out, talk about it, and grow from there.
In September of 2016, I was living in my southern US college town and working as an Adobe Creative Resident. This meant traveling extensively, meeting interesting people in my field, and being paid to paint — the absolute dream. Because of their support, I was streaming my painting process daily on Twitch Creative and Adobe’s Twitch channel, exploring my style and sharing my workflow, and developing a dedicated community for my work. I was only 5-months post-undergrad — it felt like there was no where to go but up.
A month prior, Apple had updated iMessage to include a sticker store. A good friend and fellow illustrator with an equal lack of coding skills figured out that it was quite easy to develop sets, and suggested that I also make some to upload and sell.
I thought, fun! I sat down for a weekend, and based on some pigeons I’d doodled earlier in the summer while in Loring Park, Minneapolis, drew and animated nearly an entire set — and streamed the whole process as a novelty. It became a small marathon to finish — with my community and following hyped for a new fun thing.
I submitted them to the App Store, made a bizarre set of gifs to market the pack, and tossed it to the internet. They were immediately quite popular, got an App Store feature, and good pigeon fun was had all around — over the next two months, I released an update with new stickers and a followup pack for the holiday. Fans of the Doves began asking for them on other platforms — namely Facebook Messenger.
While at Adobe Max, a Facebook representative came by the Residency booth and excitedly kept one of the free vinyl Doves stickers we’d had printed. They said they would pass my info onto the Messenger team, who would likely want to put the Doves on the platform. I wasn’t optimistic — I had been trying to get the right contact for that for a while. Several weeks later, however, I did get an email — Facebook was interested in having the Doves on Messenger.
I can’t talk freely about my dealings with Facebook due to NDA.
A few weeks of signing and file processing later, the Doves were live on Facebook. Anyone registered on the platform could download the pack and use them in onsite comments or within the desktop/mobile direct messaging client. My work at the fingertips of billions of people — for free.
The US had a rough couple of months between the Doves iMessage and Facebook releases. Namely — the presidential election, aftermath and inauguration. I spent several weekends over these months streaming charity commission drawings, running online donation drives for Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, and generally being very outspoken against Trump.
I woke up on a Tuesday or Wednesday morning, about a week and a half after they’d been released, to a flurry of phone notifications. My then-partner had already gotten up and left the house — I laid in bed alone, scrolling in blurry disbelief through hundreds of unknown names names sending my private Facebook page messages in a language I couldn’t read, all followed by my stickers.
I got to message that shared a video — posted to a large Thai meme/content page — of my bird, composited over live footage to make it dance with people in an office. The video had thousands of views, shares and reacts.
Over the Floridian night, on the other side of the world, my bird had become a viral meme in Thailand — and was quickly spreading. A few kind souls among the message influx had reached out to me to explain, in English, what was happening on their social media — culturally (and this is my rough understanding,) ‘to be birded’ was the equivalent of ‘being put in the friendzone’ and my flailing purple bird had become a new symbol of this concept. Facebook users were posting the sticker consecutively in message threads — clicking ‘expand’ on a post with hundreds to thousands of replies would reveal that every comment was just a Trash Dove sticker.
Because the sticker set was credited to my name on the official Messenger sticker page, the small Facebook page I had for posting my art — previously at around 200 page ‘likes’ (mostly family and friends) — was nearing the 10k mark.
It was fairly easy to find my personal profile as well — I was not a regular platform user, my privacy settings were mostly at default — thousands of people all over the world were now ‘following’ me there too. They were able to see personal posts and comments, photo tags of me from friends with lax permissions, ‘likes’ and family/relationship connections. Strangers had begun to litter my own comment fields with my dancing bird (and based on the perceived gender demographic of users commenting on my personal photos, I began to very personally contextualize how it had been weirdly sexualized.) I locked the account privacy settings down and pointed everyone who did not belong back to my professional pages.
I made a public fan page for the Doves as well, alongside my own public profile, and worked with Facebook to verify it in response to dozens of unofficial fan pages that had cropped up. Pages sharing user-made memes and videos about the dancing bird that were posing as official outlet for the character, and not always representing the bird in the best light with some of the more mean-spirited memes.
I had previously made this drawing of the pigeon holding a flag for the US election (woof…) To make a quick social media post acknowledging the phenomenon, I swapped out the Thai flag for the US dots and stripes, and posted a ‘Thank You, Thailand!’ message on Facebook. However, though I meant entirely well, I got myself into a bit of a pickle.
I had no idea that in Thai culture, the flag was considered sacred. I also had no clue that feet were considered very lowly and unclean, and to have the bird hold the Thai flag with its foot (it doesn’t have any hands) was very offensive to many traditionally-minded Thai nationals. People began posting angry messages that Google could only half-translate — many cursing me and asking why I hated Thailand — I contacted a Thai friend from college, who explained to me the situation, and suggested I make a new post to smooth things over — I created a new thank-you note, with the flag in the beak instead, and shared that with a small apology.
I really don’t know if this worked. Thailand, I am still sorry. I’d like to visit your beautiful country one day —
please don’t hate me.
The bird spam quickly lost its specific social meaning, but from there — and apparently for the pure novelty of it — a wave of my dancing birds washed over comment threads everywhere. Over the next two or three days, I began receiving messages reporting sightings across Taiwan, The Philippines, Japan and South Korea — people were confused, annoyed, but mostly amused — and were trying to understand the big, inexplicable joke.
Interview requests from Asian channels and blogs popped up, and responding to them meant talking to their daytime reporters in the middle of the night, my local time. In return for this, I saw my face, my dog (?) and my bird art on Thai PBS, among other news broadcasts and outlets — just two or three days after it had all begun. Many of the interviewers asked me if I had planned for this to happen — I told them that I certainly didn’t. Many asked about the foot thing, and I continued my apology tour to the best of my fumbling diplomatic ability.
Thai PBS (I still have no idea what this says)
Because I couldn’t read most of the articles, comments or spin-off memes being generated, I truly don’t believe I ever had or will have insight into much of the vortex Asian internet created at the time — or the experience as a whole from this perspective. I am still at an everyday loss to explain any of that aspect of it to myself, and it still feels extremely surreal.
The first weekend into this strange cycle, I was up late streaming games with friends. I think I had around 60 viewers hanging around (I was playing an early, now-unrecognizable version of Astroneer, just to de-stress and keep myself up for another night of the Asian/European news cycle) and the chat vibe was chill and fun. My follower notification pinged, and I looked at the chat to thank the newcomer by name —only to see that the username listed was, simply, my house number and street address. Someone was letting me know that they knew where I was — a quiet, idle threat often used by harassers to scare a streamer into thinking they may be in danger. Panic sparked, but I stayed calm — I let my moderator know what was happening, blocked the account and flushed my notifications, and told my chat that I was going to the restroom.
I paused my game, muted the stream and called my Twitch partnerships manager— she was in line for pizza after work, a detail I realize is strange to remember. I was told to shut my stream down and call the local police in the event that I was being swatted. I signed off, citing tiredness while not letting my viewers know what had happened and called the non-emergency line. By now, it was well past midnight — the deputy working late-night desk duty boredly listened to me tell my story (birds and all,) took my name down, but told me that they couldn’t do anything unless a direct threat was made to my safety, that he didn’t know what else to tell me.
While scrolling through my backed-up Facebook message inbox to make sure no other threats using my address had been sent (there were, actually, I got to call the cops back — they still didn’t care,) I noticed several others from an anonymous individual — obviously a fake name, recently created account, no profile photos. The message basically read, ‘I keep an eye on some scary parts of the Internet and wanted to let you know that these people are talking about you,’ and linked to 4Chan /pol. At the time, I had very little idea about that particular forum — I did not frequent the site as a teenager — but I feel it needs no explanation past this today, aside from, it’s a festering campground for the alt-right/fascists/neo-nazis.
Remember what I was doing right before the virality boom? Raising money for Planned Parenthood, being generally very outspoken against the American election results? That I was a ‘purple-haired, feminist Hillary-supporter’ was the consensus /pol had arrived at, and they thought I should be punished for my sudden burst of visibility and artwork success.
I scrolled through threads of people talking about me, sharing photos of me that were found online (both personal and professional images of my likeness.) Many were asking what my bird was, making fun of it/blaming its movement on various disabilities while admiring the Asian Facebook users for creating a nuisance of a meme — and because of its popularity and their newfound personal dislike of me, early discussions of how to co-opt the imagery for their own subliminal messaging. Even scarier still, at the time, were a few individuals mentioning attempts to find my address, trawling the internet for personal information like government ID and banking logins, and tracking down the names and addresses of my immediate family.
I showed them to my partner, who was now becoming equally as concerned after the address threats. I messaged both Adobe and Facebook contacts about the doxxing and the forum discussion — then poured myself an even larger glass of wine, got as drunk as I could to try to go to sleep, and laid fitful until morning — the Monday after everything had started.
Fanart of me with my birds, sent to me early on — I was never able to find the original
post and source, but I loved this one a lot.
Messages from new places started coming in as more countries woke up. People in Great Britain from Brazil to South Africa were sending the birds greetings and welcoming them to their countries as the global user base of Facebook began to join the bird dance party in comment boxes everywhere.
I made a drawing of the Dove standing on the world and posted on the official page, asking people to comment where they were visiting from — the geographical variety of reply staggered me. I could not have found half the places on a map, and yet people all over the world were sharing my bird.
It became quickly apparent that theft was a growing issue. The torrent of bootleg merch reports from good internet Samaritans began — from direct messaging and email, to people from high school texting me photos of a knockoffs t-shirts at gaming conventions, and users posting their own sale listings directly to the official Trash Doves pages, thus tattling on themselves. Western print-on-demand sites (notorious for looking the other way when it came to user image upload licensing) became infested with stolen Trash Doves merchandise. Shirts, stickers, patches, buttons, mugs, pillows, and cheap socks with an 200x200 pixel image downloaded from google search slapped onto them became widely available for purchase.
Companies and personalities piggybacked onto the meme phenomenon, most not considering licensing or legalities — just using the hype to run ads or use the bird for other marketing purposes.
do i really need to caption this one
Knockoff apps appeared on the App Store, Google and other marketplaces. Games, fake stickers, a vibrator app (I still lol at this) and my personal favorite abomination (below) were published under unbelievable turnaround — some just hours after the meme took off in some time zones.
s h a k e i t
Up until this point, instances of art theft were simple reposts without credit and a few false ownership claims. Five years of private art school, and not once had IP law been thoroughly explained to me. I had no idea what to do. However, despite the circumstances, I was so fortunate; —
A new friend reached out — after battling through years of her own work theft by fast-fashion corporations and overseas knockoffs, she educated me — I found an ally in solidarity — seeing the work you made with love stolen and reproduced at this scale is not an easy thing. I quickly learned how to file DMCA take down demands.
Two other good friends — the fellow illustrator who taught me sticker-making, as well as my Twitch community moderator — took it upon themselves to build a Google Doc and began organizing the cases of theft. They compiled more than 80 pages of links to stolen merchandise — separated by site, with copyright take down instructions/links per case. Had they not done this, I could not have gotten the product theft under control.
it was very bad
I spent uncountable ‘downtime’ hours personally filing copyright take down notices. Multiple sittings were dedicated to only Amazon, copy-pasting links to shirts, hoodies, baby onesies — hundreds submitted per batch.
Knockoff Trash Dove plushies in an Asian UFO machine. Honestly, can anyone find me one of these?
Though it was thoroughly heartbreaking to see so many people trying to profit by stealing from me, this was not the primary copyright infringement I was truly concerned about. I think I could have handled just feeder fish trying to make a quick dollar compared to what was looming.
To see something you made out of love stolen, twisted into something unspeakably cruel, and used to terrify both you and others is an experience so helpless and terrible, I cannot begin to explain it.
The next few days-to-weeks after reading the 4Chan forum for the first time, honestly, are a blur in my memory. The timeline is mostly lost to me — Day in and night out, I was trying to find support and put out fires — I fretted over now-probable legal costs, and barely left my desk chair.
The 4Chan users previously mentioned began writing, creating and publishing official-looking wiki articles and ‘explanation’ images citing my Dove as a secret white supremacy message. I sat, sick to my stomach, watching a misinformation campaign take root. In response to massive threads or news interviews on Facebook and Twitter, they would reply with these things — ‘warning’ users posting the bird — planting seeds of conspiracy that many Facebook users absorbed and then re-shared ‘in warning’ with little question or verification. My innocent, goofy bird’s origins and purpose became ‘fake news’ months before the term was ever coined — a pawn in a machine built to do this, again and again, ruthlessly and as efficiently as possible.
I was a personal target —
— I was directly sent images of Trash Dove sitting on Hitler’s shoulder, dressed in Nazi regalia, committing genocidal murder and other atrocities I’d rather not mention . My email, DM inboxes and other personal account notifications were flooded with such imagery. I was constantly monitoring the verified Trash Doves pages, deleting comments containing these same images and reporting the accounts back to Facebook as quickly as possible.
They plastered their hateful propaganda everywhere they could, with visibility in political spaces top-priority. Their main goal, I learned, was to have the bird banned from pages like Occupy Democrats, as well as a hate symbolism acknowledgement from national civil rights groups.
(I heard that the official White House page began deleting the bird from their comment fields — whether or not this was in response to 4Chan or the general overwhelming virality of the thing, I’m not sure — but I personally hope Trash Dove annoyed the fuck out of Trump online in the weeks immediately following his inauguration.)
I spent fifteen hours on the phone, vetting recommended IP lawyers from around the country — trying to find anyone with experience working against IP being co-opted.
My primary email was spam-bombed, and the thousands of garbage emails made it virtually unusable — I was forced to abandon it completely for a few days.
I crawled through lists of places personal info was publicly available, like Spokeo and other contact pages, trying to remove mine as quickly as possible — worried that the worse the harassment got, the more people would be looking for my personal information to use against me.
I called my Adobe residency manager — who had been so thoughtfully helping me navigate the monsoon — Not realizing I was having an anxiety attack, sobbing and heartbroken, for the first time I vocalized my thoughts of pulling the birds from Facebook. She was so patient with me, and talked me both through and down from the panic.
The birds were being sent billions of times, we already knew — there was no way that more than a tiny percentage of that usage was for such reasons. More non-hateful fan creations and tributes were circulating than I could keep track of, counteracting the smears.
A group of fans who noticed the campaign took it upon themselves to round up and report posts and pages that were especially offensive — drowning community moderators with demands to take down co-opted imagery. (In the midst of the stress, I sobbed in gratitude.)
My small team of support strategized — the harassers wanted my acknowledgement. I wouldn’t give it to them. I’d never recognize their campaign from any of my verified accounts — Doing so, at the time, would give them credence.
During the days, I made new drawings, interacted with fans, conducted interviews, did novelty streams. At night, I continued filing copyright take downs on all stolen/edited imagery I could late into the night and early mornings.
I maintained the Doves’ weird, cute character persona as the ‘likes’ on their official Facebook page, as well as my public figure page, each passed 50k.