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The Story Behind Alexis Pereira’s Viral Essay Twitter Joke

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The essay that started it all. Photo: Alexis Pereira/Twitter

Last week, I did something a lot of people do every day: I tweeted out a joke. The joke in this case was a photo of a fake college English class essay I typed up about Tom and Jerry, then marked with frustrated red-pen notes and a D grade before tweeting it as though I were the professor at his wit’s end. To be clear, I’m not a college professor — I actually work in IT and am a comedian who performs in New York, presumably for other people who work in IT. But that didn’t stop thousands of people from seeing my tweet and assuming it was real.

Since last Monday, the tweet has been posted to a handful of big Instagram accounts, shared on Twitter by LOLGOP and BuzzFeed, covered by sites like U.K. Daily Mail and Barstool Sports, and currently has nearly a million likes, with responses ranging from “I haven’t laughed so hard in a long time” to “You should be arrested.” So how did it all happen, and what’s it like to see a dumb joke you made spiral into an out-of-control viral Twitter moment? To help explain it all, I documented the whole 72 hours of what it was like to go viral.

Monday, February 10, 12:15 p.m.: It’s the 80th anniversary of Tom and Jerry. I’m in my office alone thinking about it during my lunch hour, and start laughing to myself about how funny it would be if somebody wrote about Tom in terms of class consciousness. I wondered what a professor would think about it. And so I freewrote an intro paragraph, making sure to set up a “professor” for some line edits.

Monday, February 10, 12:45 p.m.: After messing around with some funny line edits, I print out a second copy of my “paper” with what I want my final version to be. However, I realize that it’s too weird for a student to just hand in a paper about Tom and Jerry. What the hell was the assignment? So I think about famous Toms and add a line above, claiming the assignment was supposed to be about Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby.

Monday, February 10, 12:57 p.m.: With three minutes to go in my lunch hour, I post the tweet with the caption “Teaching my first English course this semester has been rewarding but I don’t know what to do with this student,” making sure to crop it correctly for Twitter, hoping to get a few likes from my friends.

Monday, February 10, 1:30 p.m.: It gets a few retweets and about a hundred likes. A friend of mine who works at a comedy show sends me a screenshot of the writers’ room Slack, and they’re discussing all the funny details I put into it.

Monday, February 10, 2:58 p.m.: A comedian I’ve met a few times responds earnestly that the student is bored, and that I should work harder to reach him. This comment will go on to get 20,000 likes. It dawns on me that people think this is real.

Monday, February 10, 5:16 p.m.: Binyamin Appelbaum, the New York Times editor who asked Pete Buttigieg about bread prices, quote-tweets my post and asks what it takes to get an F. I’ve hit 20,000 likes. I have to turn my notifications off.

Monday, February 10, 5:39 p.m.: A major account claims what I did was deeply unethical. Considering that I didn’t realize people would believe this was real, I hadn’t realized that this would upset people. After he and several other big accounts realize it’s a spoof, a new debate emerges about whether or not jokes about professors are okay. A college professor who thought it was funny debates a Marxist-Leninist writer in my replies about whether satire is permissible. She says fiction is a sign the artist empathizes and understands a subject beyond simple observation, and he says all lies are used to mollify the proletariat. Even though I’m kind of a leftist myself, I silently agree with her. I’ve hit 50,000 likes.

Monday, February 10, 11:15 p.m.: Several Instagram accounts such as @kalesalad, @complex, and @lettuce.scream have posted screenshots my tweet. However, they have also tagged me, leading to nearly a thousand DMs and comments on all my pictures asking me for the rest of the paper.

Photo: Complex/Instagram

Tuesday, February 11, 10:15 a.m.: My boss is on vacation, and my boss’s boss visits me in my office and asks me if I teach English. I tell him no, and he explains that he had to ask because people are calling him asking him to fire me. I apologize for the disturbance.

Tuesday, February 11, 12:07 p.m.: The New York Daily News asks me for a comment. I tell them it’s fake, and the reporter thanks me for saving him the trouble because had I said it was real, he was going to have to contact NYC area schools looking for my student.

Tuesday, February 11, 2:54 p.m.: I am so exhausted by how many people think it’s real and keep messaging me on every platform that I comment under it that it was fake. The U.K. Daily Mail writes a story about it, with a huge picture of me captioned “Jokester.” I hit 500,000 likes.

Tuesday, February 11, 8:00 p.m.: I have an improv show at UCB. Before he asks for a suggestion, Tom Johnson asks the audience to give me a round of applause for going viral. Only about a third of the packed UCB audience understands what he’s talking about. I hit 700,000 likes.

Thursday, February 13, 9:45 a.m.: CNN asks me to come on, and I tell them it was made up. They tell me that in the future they’re considering having comedians on to read funny news stories, and that they’ll put me down as a possible guest. Even though I believe they were just being nice, this is my first and last comedy job offer from the tweet.

Thursday, February 13, 10 a.m.: My boss arrives from his vacation not knowing anything about my viral tweet. He opens his computer to find 200 emails and calls me into his office. I tell him about my tweet and how it went viral in the past 72 hours. He suggests I not do that again.

Thursday, February 13, 11 a.m.: Twitter has moved on to whether or not it’s okay to recline your seat back on a crowded plane.

So, has my life changed? Not really. I have a few articles about my prank and a few thousand more followers on Twitter. But I’m back at my desk on my lunch break from IT. I’d describe going viral like performing your one-hit song for millions of people: While it’s a pretty awesome four minutes, be ready to watch them all file for the exits when you’re done. So I beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the Looney Tunes cinematic universe.

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digdoug
11 hours ago
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I thought it was real, but I never thought to demand the guy be fired.
Louisville, KY
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Fun Facts

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Vegetarianism is such an old concept that up until 1850, vegetarians were called Pythagorean because the cult of Pythagoras was entirely vegetarian.
https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/evolution-vegetarianism/

Rio averages 24 shootouts per day. Large hours-long gun battles often don’t even make the headlines.
https://theintercept.com/2019/12/16/brazil-bullets-guns-ammunition-analysis/

A Quarter of the World’s Pigs Died Last Year in China
https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/01/links-1-4-2020.html

Indian housewives hold 11% of the world’s gold. This is more than the reserves of USA, IMF, Switzerland, and Germany put together.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01n8278

The World’s 500 Richest People Increased Their Wealth by $1.2 Trillion in 2019
https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/12/worlds-500-richest-upped-wealth-by-usd1-2-trillion-in-2019.html

CEOs make more in first week of January than average salary
https://theconversation.com/ceos-make-more-in-first-week-of-january-than-average-salary-pay-ratios-are-the-solution-128950

Meth use is up sixfold, and fentanyl use has quadrupled in U.S. in last 6 years.
https://www.upi.com/Health_News/2020/01/03/Meth-use-up-sixfold-fentanyl-use-quadrupled-in-US-in-last-6-years/1971578072114/

More and more Americans are drinking themselves to death. A new study finds there were around 72,000 alcohol-related deaths among people over the age of 16 in 2017—more than double the number of similar deaths recorded two decades earlier.
https://gizmodo.com/alcohol-is-killing-more-americans-than-ever-1840862638

The number of Americans drinking themselves to death has more than doubled over the last two decades
https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-number-of-americans-drinking-themselves-to-death-has-more-than-doubled-2020-01-08?mod=mw_latestnews

The US suicide rate has risen 40% over 17 years, with blue-collar workers at highest risk.
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/01/23/us-suicide-rates-rise-40percent-over-17-years-with-blue-collar-workers-at-highest-risk-cdc-finds.html

The healthcare industry’s bureaucratic administrative costs set Americans back $812 billion in 2017, or just under $2,500 per person.

34 percent of all U.S. costs related to ‘doctor visits, hospitals, long-term care and health insurance’ essentially came from paperwork.
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/akwgvz/us-healthcare-industry-creating-an-endless-shitstorm-of-money-grubbing-bureaucracy-and-paperwork-study-finds

An estimated eight million people in the U.S. have started a crowdfunding campaign to help pay for their own or a member of their household’s healthcare costs.
https://www.commondreams.org/news/2020/02/19/barbaric-8-million-americans-have-been-forced-start-crowdfunding-campaigns-cover

The poorest 20% of Americans spend a third of their income on health care.
https://www.salon.com/test/2020/01/27/among-poorest-20-percent-of-americans-one-third-of-income-goes-to-health-care-study/

1990’s most obese state (Mississippi) had at the time a lower rate of obesity than what the least obese state (Colorado) had by 2010
https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/us-obesity-trends-map/

Exposure to toxic chemicals, especially flame retardants and pesticides, resulted in more than a million cases of intellectual disability in the United States between 2001 and 2016.
https://nyulangone.org/news/flame-retardants-pesticides-overtake-heavy-metals-biggest-contributors-iq-loss

The number of drug-associated deaths in 2016 was 2.2 times bigger than previously recorded, adding more than 60,000 deaths onto the currently accepted figure.
https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/3a8bd9/opioid-crisis-death-toll-twice-as-high

New hospital-based data show that homelessness is increasing, despite official estimates from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that state a substantial decrease in homelessness. HUD’s numbers, which are the primary driver of public policy, may be seriously flawed.
https://today.uic.edu/new-hospital-based-data-contradicts-hud-estimates-on-homelessness

The share of job vacancies requiring a bachelor’s degree increased by more than 60 percent between 2007 and 2019, with faster growth in professional occupations and high-wage cities.
https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2020/01/credentialism-run-amok.html

US drinking water is a “toxic soup” of “forever chemicals.”
https://boingboing.net/2020/01/22/us-drinking-water-is-a-toxic.html

Humanity Has Killed 83% of All Wild Mammals and Half of All Plants.
https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/humans-destroyed-83-of-wildlife-report/

In 2019, more Americans went to the library than to the movies.
https://lithub.com/in-2019-more-americans-went-to-the-library-than-to-the-movies-yes-really/

Roughly a quarter of U.S. adults (27%) say they haven’t read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form
http://tywkiwdbi.blogspot.com/2020/02/americans-who-havent-read-book-in-past.html

America sacrificed 3.7 million jobs as a result of US-China trade deficits since China joined the WTO in 2001, with 3/4 of the losses taking place in manufacturing positions.
https://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2020/01/us-loses-nearly-4-million-jobs-to-china-since-wto-entry.html

Wisconsin has lost 818 dairy farms, or 10% of its dairy farms. In the last decade, the state has lost 44% of the farms.
https://www.stltoday.com/opinion/columnists/darvin-bentlage-new-u-s–canada-mexico-trade-accord/article_4f4d98f6-a5eb-537b-9451-0d4a41e1406c.html

Thirty percent of student debtors are enrolled in Income-driven repayment plans
https://www.condemnedtodebt.org/2020/02/urban-institute-thirty-percent-of.html

US student debt is larger than the whole economy of Belgium
https://journalistcorner.news/2020/02/21/student-debt-in-the-us-is-1-5trn-what-are-the-democratic-candidates-plans/

Stay in school kids:

The definition of Irony (screencap from Vox):

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digdoug
1 day ago
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This dude's definition of "Fun" is suspect.
Louisville, KY
WorldMaker
1 day ago
Related to the first fun fact, I fell into a Wikipedia hole one night because of this weird conspiracy theory that either the historical Jesus or a lot of the things later attributed to Jesus was Neopythagorean in origin and this weird realization that I agree with a lot of Pythagorean beliefs (though for different reasons, but also I like the association of Pythagorean and mathematics) but cannot even use “New Pythagorean” as a term because that was used by contemporaries of Jesus whether or not you buy into one theory or the other that Jesus was a Neopythagorean, influenced by them, or simply mythologized as if he was one.
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Why Do Corporations Speak the Way They Do?

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Photo: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

This article was featured in One Great Story, New York’s reading recommendation newsletter. Sign up here to get it nightly.

I worked at various start-ups for eight years beginning in 2010, when I was in my early 20s. Then I quit and went freelance for a while. A year later, I returned to office life, this time at a different start-up. During my gap year, I had missed and yearned for a bunch of things, like health care and free knockoff Post-its and luxurious people-watching opportunities. (In 2016, I saw a co-worker pour herself a bowl of cornflakes, add milk, and microwave it for 90 seconds. I’ll think about this until the day I die.) One thing I did not miss about office life was the language. The language warped and mutated at a dizzying rate, so it was no surprise that a new term of art had emerged during the year I spent between jobs. The term was parallel path, and I first heard it in this sentence: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you parallel-path two versions?”

Translated, this means: “We’re waiting on specs for the San Francisco installation. Can you make two versions?” In other words, to “parallel-path” is to do two things at once. That’s all. I thought there was something gorgeously and inadvertently candid about the phrase’s assumption that a person would ever not be doing more than one thing at a time in an office — its denial that the whole point of having an office job is to multitask ineffectively instead of single-tasking effectively. Why invent a term for what people were already forced to do? It was, in its fakery and puffery and lack of a reason to exist, the perfect corporate neologism.

The expected response to the above question would be something like “Great, I’ll go ahead and parallel-path that and route it back to you.” An equally acceptable response would be “Yes” or a simple nod. But the point of these phrases is to fill space. No matter where I’ve worked, it has always been obvious that if everyone agreed to use language in the way that it is normally used, which is to communicate, the workday would be two hours shorter.

In theory, a person could have fun with the system by introducing random terms and insisting on their validity (“We’re gonna have to banana-boat the marketing budget”). But in fact the only beauty, if you could call it that, of terms like parallel path is their arrival from nowhere and their seemingly immediate adoption by all. If workplaces are full of communal irritation and communal pride, they are less often considered to be places of communal mysticism. Yet when I started that job and began picking up on the new vocabulary, I felt like a Mayan circa 1600 BCE surrounded by other Mayans in the face of an unstoppable weather event that we didn’t understand and had no choice but to survive, yielding our lives and verbal expressions to a higher authority.

Anyhow, I left the parallel-path job after six months — unrelated to the standard operating language, although I used a wad of it in my resignation.

Photo: Sam Edwards/Getty Images

In January, a very good memoir called Uncanny Valley was published. The author, Anna Wiener, moved to San Francisco from Brooklyn around 2014 to work at a mobile-analytics start-up, and one of the book’s many pleasures is how neatly it bottles the scent of moneyed Bay Area in the mid-2010s: kombucha, office dog, freshly unwrapped USB cable. Wiener talks about the lofty ambitions of her company, its cushy amenities, the casual misogyny that surrounds her like a cloud of gnats. The book hit me in two places. One of them was a tender, heart-adjacent place that remembered growing up in San Francisco, with its fog-ladled neighborhoods and football fields of fleece. The other was closer to my liver, where bile is manufactured. This was the part of me that remembered working at places much like the one Wiener describes — jobs that provided money to pay rent in a major urban area while I freelanced for magazines and websites that did not. Writing, it turns out, is an economically awkward skill. Despite the fact that it can’t yet be outsourced or performed cheaply by robots, it isn’t worth much. In the case of Anna Wiener (and maybe only Anna Wiener), this is a good thing, because it forced her to embed in a landscape that cried out for narration and commentary.

The status pyramid at most start-ups is roughly this: The C-suite sits at the pinnacle, followed by senior data and tech people, followed by non-senior data and tech people, followed by everyone else except customer service, and then, at the very bottom, customer service. Which, by the way, has been rechristened “customer support” or “customer experience” at most companies — as though the word service might remind the college graduates recruited for these roles that they will in fact spend their days pacifying irritable consumers over phone, chat, text, and email. Wiener worked in customer support.

Being the lowliest worm at a company offers observational advantages in that it renders a person invisible. Wiener describes watching her peers attend silent-meditation retreats, take LSD, discuss Stoicism, and practice Reiki at parties. She tries ecstatic dance, gulps nootropics, and accepts a “cautious, fully-clothed back massage” from her company’s in-house masseuse. She encounters a man who self-identifies as a Japanese raccoon dog. She’s a participant and an ethnologist; she’s impressed and revulsed.

Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”

I know that man, except he didn’t ride a scooter and was actually a woman named Megan at yet another of my former jobs. What did Megan do? Mostly she set meetings, or “syncs,” as she called them. They were the worst kind of meeting — the kind where attendees circle the concept of work without wading into the substance of it. Megan’s syncs were filled with discussions of cadences and connectivity and upleveling as well as the necessity to refine and iterate moving forward. The primary unit of meaning was the abstract metaphor. I don’t think anyone knew what anyone was saying, but I also think we were all convinced that we were the only ones who didn’t know while everyone else was on the same page. (A common reference, this elusive page.)

In Megan’s syncs, I found myself becoming almost psychedelically disembodied, floating above the conference room and gazing at the dozen or so people within as we slumped, bit and chewed extremities, furtively manipulated phones, cracked knuckles, examined split ends, scratched elbows, jiggled feet, palpated stomach rolls, disemboweled pens, and gnawed on shirt collars. The sheer volume of apathy formed an energy of its own, like a mudslide. At the half-hour mark of each hour-long meeting, our bodies began to list perceptibly toward the door. It was like the whole room had to pee. When I tried to translate Megan’s monologues in real time, I could feel my brain aching in a physical manner, the way it does when I attempt to understand blockchain technology or do my taxes.

I like Anna Wiener’s term for this kind of talk: garbage language. It’s more descriptive than corporatespeak or buzzwords or jargon. Corporatespeak is dated; buzzword is autological, since it is arguably an example of what it describes; and jargon conflates stupid usages with specialist languages that are actually purposeful, like those of law or science or medicine. Wiener’s garbage language works because garbage is what we produce mindlessly in the course of our days and because it smells horrible and looks ugly and we don’t think about it except when we’re saying that it’s bad, as I am right now.

But unlike garbage, which we contain in wastebaskets and landfills, the hideous nature of these words — their facility to warp and impede communication — is also their purpose. Garbage language permeates the ways we think of our jobs and shapes our identities as workers. It is obvious that the point is concealment; it is less obvious what so many of us are trying to hide.

Another thing this language has in common with garbage is that we can’t stop generating it. Garbage language isn’t unique to start-ups; it’s endemic to business itself, and the form it takes tends to reflect the operating economic metaphors of its day. A 1911 book by Frederick Winslow Taylor called The Principles of Scientific Management borrows its language from manufacturing; men, like machines, are useful for their output and productive capacity. The conglomeration of companies in the 1950s and ’60s required organizations to address alienated employees who felt faceless amid a sea of identical gray-suited toilers, and managers were encouraged to create a climate conducive to human growth and to focus on the self-actualization needs of their employees. In the 1980s, garbage language smelled strongly of Wall Street: leverage, stakeholder, value-add. The rise of big tech brought us computing and gaming metaphors: bandwidth, hack, the concept of double-clicking on something, the concept of talking off-line, the concept of leveling up.

One of the most influential business books of the 1990s was Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen is responsible for the popularity of the word disruptive. (The term has since been diluted and tortured, but his initial definition was narrow: Disruption happens when a small company, such as a start-up, targets a limited segment of an incumbent’s audience and then uses that foothold to attract a bigger segment, by which point it’s too late for the incumbent to catch up.) The metaphors in that book had a militaristic strain: Firms won or lost battles. Business units were killed. A disk drive was revolutionary. The market was a radar screen. The missilelike attack of the desktop computer wounded minicomputer-makers. Over the next decade and a half, the language fully migrated from combative to New Agey: “I am now a true believer in bringing our whole selves to work,” wrote Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In, urging readers to seek their truth and find personal fulfillment. In Delivering Happiness, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh described making conscious choices and evolving organically. In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries pitched his method as a movement to unlock a vast storehouse of human potential. You can always track the assimilation of garbage language by its shedding of scare quotes; in 1911, “initiative” and “incentive” were still cloaked in speculative punctuation.

At my own workplaces, the New Age–speak mingled recklessly with aviation metaphors (holding pattern, the concept of discussing something at the 30,000-foot level), verbs and adjectives shoved into nounhood (ask, win, fail, refresh, regroup, creative, sync, touchbase), nouns shoved into verbhood (whiteboard, bucket), and a heap of nonwords that, through force of repetition, became wordlike (complexify, co-execute, replatform, shareability, directionality). There were acronyms like RACI, which I learned about in this way:

CO-WORKER: Going forward, we’ll be using a RACI for all projects.

MOLLY: What’s a RACI?

CO-WORKER: RACI stands for “Responsible, Accountable, Consulted, and Informed.” The RACI will be distributed around so that we’re all aligned and on the same page.

ME: But what is this thing, like, physically? Is it a chart?

CO-WORKER: It’s hard to explain.

I never found out what a RACI was because we never ended up using one, but according to its Wikipedia page, it’s a “matrix” with over a dozen popular variations, including RATSI. I can imagine a world in which all these competing references might combine into a jaggedly interesting verbal landscape, but instead they only negated each other, the way 20 songs would if you played them at the same time.

And yet it should be possible to gaze into this alphabet soup and divine patterns. Our attraction to certain words surely reflects an inner yearning. Computer metaphors appeal to us because they imply futurism and hyperefficiency, while the language of self-empowerment hides a deeper anxiety about our relationship to work — a sense that what we’re doing may actually be trivial, that the reward of “free” snacks for cultural fealty is not an exchange that benefits us, that none of this was worth going into student debt for, and that we could be fired instantly for complaining on Slack about it. When we adopt words that connect us to a larger project — that simultaneously fold us into an institutional organism and insist on that institution’s worthiness — it is easier to pretend that our jobs are more interesting than they seem. Empowerment language is a self-marketing asset as much as anything else: a way of selling our jobs back to ourselves.

In August, WeWork — recently rebranded as the We Companysubmitted its prospectus to the Securities and Exchange Commission. The document is just under 200,000 words long, or nearly the length of Moby-Dick, and it reads like something a person wrote in the middle of an Adderall overdose with a gun to his head. Here’s how the company describes itself on page one:

We are a community company committed to maximum global impact. Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness. We have built a worldwide platform that supports growth, shared experiences and true success.

You can probably imagine the rest. In the words of a lecturer at Harvard Business School, the prospectus “reads like a Marianne Williamson self-help book,” which might be insulting to Marianne Williamson. As with any public-facing statement issued by a company, the prospectus maps the distance between what the company is and how it sees itself. What is beautiful — almost spiritual in its grandeur! — about WeWork is not the vastness of the distance but how easy it is to measure. WeWork’s real-estate arbitrage can be summarized in plain English, yet the prospectus is so baroquely worded that it requires a kind of medieval exegesis — a willingness to pore over the text, assess its truth claims, elaborate on its explanations, and unmask its hidden values. In its fidelity to incoherence, WeWork’s majestic PDF revealed a now-obvious truth about the organization, which is that its ratio of ingenuity to bullshit — a ratio present in every organization and, indeed, every human — was tipped too far in the wrong direction.

The collision of corporate self-actualization with business realities was at the center of a story about the luggage company Away that came out in December. (Disclosure: I worked with both of the Away founders in the early 2010s, before the company existed, at a different company. They seemed nice.) A piece in The Verge by Zoe Schiffer reported on Away’s work environment, which looked like a mixture of punishing hours, dangled career opportunities, and an “until morale improves, the beatings will continue” theory of management cloaked in wretchedly obtuse language. A 9 a.m. message from the company’s CEO, Steph Korey, to customer-experience employees went like this:

I know this group is hungry for career development opportunities, and in an effort to support you in developing your skills, I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability … To hold you accountable — which is a very important business skill that is translatable to many different work settings — no new [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you … I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career development opportunity and that you’re all excited to operate consistently with our core values to solve this problem and pave the way for the [customer experience] team being best-in-class when it comes to being Customer Obsessed. Thank you!

You could run down Korey’s leaked messages — this and others — with a checklist. Did she revert to the passive voice in a way that seemed to divest herself of responsibility? Yes. Did she Capitalize words Arbitrarily? Yes. Did she type phrases like “utilize your empowerment”? She did.

The internet went nuts. Here, finally, was proof of a maddening experience that many people had undergone: the weaponization of language by a person in power that bewildered, embarrassed, and penalized the people beneath her. Did Korey really believe that withholding paid time off from lower-level employees counted as a career opportunity? Was her mind a ticker tape of sentences like this, or had she run it through an internal executive-translation plug-in?

There’s an early Edith Wharton story where a character observes the constraints of speaking a foreign tongue: “Don’t you know how, in talking a foreign language, even fluently, one says half the time, not what one wants to, but what one can?” To put it another way: Do CEOs act like jerks because they are jerks, or because the language of management will create a jerk of anyone eventually? If garbage language is a form of self-marketing, then a CEO must find it especially tempting to conceal the unpleasant parts of his or her job — the necessary whip-cracking — in a pile of verbal fluff. Korey wouldn’t have sounded any nicer if she’d said exactly what she likely meant (“I am disappointed in your work, and there will be consequences, fair or not”), but I doubt she would have gotten in trouble for saying it. Meanness doesn’t inflame people as much as hypocrisy does.

As the leaked Slacks make clear, Korey, as well as her employees, were working under the new conditions of surveillance-state capitalism (or, from the company’s perspective, a culture of “inclusion and transparency”). One reason for the uptick in garbage language is exactly this sense of nonstop supervision. Employers can read emails and track keystrokes and monitor locations and clock the amount of time their employees spend noodling on Twitter. In an environment of constant auditing, it’s safer to use words that signify nothing and can be stretched to mean anything, just in case you’re caught and required to defend yourself.

And so Korey’s problem was less her strategy than her execution. Away was founded by two women who saw, in a climate where Glossier was thriving and a book called #GIRLBOSS was a best-seller, that the language of empowerment could be a terrific brand asset for, of all things, a suitcase manufacturer. It made sense that Korey spoke to her employees in terms of opportunity and growth. Her mistake was in trying to extract their gratitude for it. I hope everyone in this group appreciates the thoughtfulness I’ve put into creating this career-development opportunity.

Language had gotten other people in trouble at Away, too. About a year earlier, a handful of employees started a private Slack channel to talk candidly about being marginalized at the company — using, presumably, indefensible non–garbage language. The channel was reported, and six people were fired. For Korey’s misdeeds, she resigned as CEO, suffered a few weeks of embarrassment, then changed her mind and reclaimed her old job. Nobody observing the two outcomes could mistake the lesson here.

In 2011, I was dropping printouts on a co-worker’s desk when I spotted something colorful near his laptop. It was a small foil packet with a fetching plaid design.

My co-worker’s assistant was sitting nearby. “Caroline,” I said, “do you know what this is?”

“Yeah,” she said. “Jim belongs to some kind of runners’ club that sends him a box of competitive running gear every month.”

The front of the plaid packet said UPTAPPED: ALL NATURAL ENERGY. The marketing copy said, “For too long athletic nutrition has been sweetened with cheap synthetic sugars. The simplicity of endurance sports deserves a simple ingredient — 100% pure, unadulterated, organic Vermont maple syrup, the all-natural, low glycemic-index sports fuel.”

It was a packet of maple syrup. Nothing more. Whenever I hear a word like operationalize or touchpoint, I think of that packet — of some anonymous individual, probably with a Stanford degree and a net worth many multiples of my own, funneling maple syrup into tubelets and calling it low-glycemic-index sports fuel. It’s not a crime to try to convince people that their favorite pancake accessory is a viable biohack, but the words have a scammy flavor. And that’s the closest I can come to a definition of garbage language that accounts for its eternal mutability: words with a scammy flavor. As with any scam, the effectiveness lies in the delivery. Thousands of companies have tricked us into believing that a mattress or lip-gloss order is an ideological position.

In 2016, Jessica Helfand, an author and a founder of the website Design Observer, was invited to teach at Yale School of Management. The idea was that Helfand could instruct grad students in the art of creative thinking, which they could then use to start companies and make money. She immediately developed a contact allergy to the way her students spoke. “It started the first week I was there. After the lecture, a student said, ‘Well, my takeaway is …,’ and I thought, ‘Takeaway’ is what you do with food in London. Maybe instead of a takeaway, you could sit with the ideas for a while and just … think.” Helfand compiled a list of commonly bandied-about words and divided them into categories like Hyphenated Mash-ups (omni-channel, level-setting, business-critical), Compound Phrases (email blast, integrated deck, pain point, deep dive) and Conceptual Hybrids (“shooting” someone an email, “looping” someone in). All of these were phrases with “aspirational authority,” she told me. “If you’re in a meeting and you’re a 20-something and you want to sound in the know, you’re going to use those words.” It drove Helfand nuts. This wasn’t a teaching position; it was a deprogramming job. She left before the contract was up.

The problem with these words isn’t only their floating capacity to enrage but their contaminating quality. Once you hear a word, it’s “in” you. It has penetrated your ears and entered your brain, from which it can’t be selectively removed. Sometimes a phrase will pop into my head that I haven’t heard in years — holistic road map — and I will feel as if someone just told me that in July 2016, I ate a bowl of soup that contained a booger. I’m overcome with aversion; I’m too late to do anything.

This hints at the futility of writing about irritating words. Usage peeves are always arbitrary and often depend as much on who is saying something as on what is being said. When Megan spoke about “business-critical asks” and “high-level integrated decks,” I heard “I am using meaningless words and forcing you to act like you understand them.” When an intern said the same thing, I heard someone heroically struggling to communicate in the local dialect. I hate certain words partly because of the people who use them; I can’t help but equate linguistic misdemeanors with crimes of the soul. Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense makes swift, excoriating work of language as a whole, but it exactly predicts the extravagant inanity of garbage language:

A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms — in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

He proposed (I’d argue) that we just give up on functional speech altogether — drop the charade that our personal realities share a common language. Choosing to speak poetically (by which he meant intentionally calling things what they are not) was his ironic solution. Language is always a matter of intention. No two people could have less in common than when they are saying the same thing, one sincerely and one with snark. And so with every exchange, you have to acknowledge a reality where words like optionality and deliverable could be just as solid as blimp and pretzel. What happens if you ask a Megan or a Steph Korey or an Adam Neumann what they mean? I imagine a box with a series of false bottoms; you just keep falling deeper and deeper into gibberish. The meaningful threat of garbage language — the reason it is not just annoying but malevolent — is that it confirms delusion as an asset in the workplace.

*This article appears in the February 17, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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digdoug
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sharing this around the office on Monday.
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By Mavri in "Kickstarting Tech Unionization" on MeFi

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I'm a lawyer so my chance of workplace injury is also trivial. I love my union so much. It ensures that women and people of color, and especially women of color are compensated fairly and equally. (I have heard this is a problem in tech.) It makes sure we can have a work/life balance. (I have heard this is a problem in tech.) It gives people a structured mechanism for addressing workplace problems. (I have heard this is a problem in tech.) It also helps us harness our collective power to avoid chasing performance metrics that will grind us into dust. (I have heard this is a problem in tech.)
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Devil's Dictionary of Programming — programming is terrible

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With apologies to Ambrose Bierce

simple — It solves my use case.

opinionated — I don’t believe that your use case exists.

elegant — The only use case is making me feel smart.

lightweight — I don’t understand the use-cases the alternatives solve.

configurable — It’s your job to make it usable.

minimal — You’re going to have to write more code than I did to make it useful.

util — A collection of wrappers around the standard library, battle worn, and copy-pasted from last weeks project into next weeks.

dsl — A domain specific language, where code is written in one language and errors are given in another.

framework — A product with the business logic removed, but all of the assumptions left in.

documented —There are podcasts, screencasts and answers on stack overflow.

startup — A business without a business plan.

hackday — A competition where the entry fee is sleep deprivation and the prize is vendor lock in.

entrepreneur — One who sets out to provide a return on investment.

serial entrepreneur — One who has yet to provide a return on investment.

disrupt — To overcome any legal, social, or moral barrier to profit.

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digdoug
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"disrupt — To overcome any legal, social, or moral barrier to profit."
Louisville, KY
notadoctor
2 days ago
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Oakland, CA
jepler
3 days ago
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Earth, Sol system, Western spiral arm
denubis
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Sydney, Australia
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Continental Currency coin worth $100,000 found at French flea market

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A 50 cent flea market find has been certified as a rare 1776 pewter Continental Currency dollar valued at $97,500. The buyer spotted it in a junk box full of assorted coins at a market in Northern France in June 2018. He was curious about this unusual American piece and agreed to shell out half a euro (56 American cents). He Googled it, took it to a local coin dealer who didn’t know what it was and recommend he ship it to the US for expert assessment. The Paris office of the Professional Coin Grading Service was easier to get to and well-versed in the ways of this very rare, never-circulated issue.

This coin was proposed by the Continental Congress for nationwide issuance. Pattern pieces — trial strikes of a new design for a coin — were struck in pewter, brass and silver. Mysteriously, even though most of the extant coins are pewter, there is no known documentation surviving of the pewter issues being authorized by Continental Congress. This particular die variety, known as Newman 2-C,  has only ever been found in pewter. If silver or brass versions were struck, they have yet to be revealed.

1776 Continental Dollars feature an obverse of three rings. The center ring design is a sundial, with the rays of the sun and text below the dial, “MIND YOUR BUSINESS.” The next ring features “FUGIO” and the sun. The last ring contains the text, “CONTINENTAL CURRENCY.” The reverse features a design of interlocking chain links around the border of the face, featuring the names of the 13 colonial states. The reverse design contains two rings, the center of two rings reads “WE ARE ONE” and the ring around the center ring reads “AMERICAN CONGRESS.” The coins have several varieties in the spelling, ornamental designs, or in metal compositions. While produced in a variety of metals, the coin was most often struck in pewter.

The intent of the Continental Dollar was originally believed to be pattern or circulation issue coinage for the continental United States to circulate alongside the banknotes that Congress had authorized and issued. However, in recent years others have argued that the coins were actually medals, made as satire by England – struck in pewter to mock the worthless value of the currency of the United States. While the origin of these pieces is still under debate, the 1776 Continental Dollars are important early coinage celebrating the birth of the brand-new nation of the United States. This iconic coin has been heavily counterfeited and many restrikes have been produced privately. Even these private restrikes have gained popularity due to the scarcity of original examples and are now being actively collected.

Both obverse and reverse were designed by Benjamin Franklin. The inscriptions and iconography on the obverse were meant to be read as a rebus. Fugio, meaning “I flee” in Latin, connects to the sun which casts shadow on the sundial.  “Mind your business” didn’t mean what it means now. It’s literal, as in “see to your business interests.” All together, the obverse advises that time is fleeting, so mind your business. The reverse is an appeal for unity among states rendered as a linked chain.

Unable to secure anything like the amount of silver necessary for coinage issue, the Continental Currency coin never was circulated. They went with paper money instead, and it was an unmitigated disaster of devaluation and counterfeiting. Time, while fleeting, heals all wounds, however, and one of four known silver issues of the pattern piece sold at auction for $1,410,000 six years ago.

The first official circulation coin of the newly independent United States would be this coin’s fraternal twin. The Fugio or Franklin cent was struck in copper and minted in 1787. The “Fugio,” sun, sundial and “Mind your business” were on the obverse, the loops representing the 13 states (not labeled) interlinked around “We are one” on the reverse. It was only issued that one year. After the ratification of the Constitution in 1788, the triple motto was replaced with the one on the Great Seal of the United States, E pluribus unum.

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digdoug
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I want a coin that says "MIND YOUR BUSINESS" instead of business cards
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