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Don’t Fuck With My Online Branding

Photo of Mykki Blanco, who was the recent “victim” of an “art” project. (photo by Terry Richardson)

On August 14th I received an email notification that I had a new follower on Twitter, Mykki Blanco, a fierce and cutting-edge underground rapper who I recently got the pleasure of watching perform live. Mykki Blanco represents an exciting new wave of rap; she is a new style that allows for more interesting performative aspects, queerness and more experimentation than mainstream rappers, all the while remaining raw and a pleasure to listen to. Needless to say, I was excited to have him follow me, and I wondered why I hadn’t followed him already, I swore I had …

I looked at his account, under 100 followers? I knew Mykki Blanco was kind of underground, but not that underground. I looked at the listed website and I instantly knew it was a joke — a pretty funny one at that. The website was a simply designed page advertising an upcoming tour sponsored by Chick-fil-A. I don’t know Mykki Blanco’s sexual orientation, nor do I really care, but she is certainly queer, often performing in drag; so the advertised tour with the passionately anti-queer and homophobic (idiotic) Chick-fil-A was obviously a hoax. I loved it. This was a type of web-based culture jamming I had rarely seen — it was much more subtle than Adbusters‘s work. I knew it was fake, but I didn’t know to what extent, or who was responsible; in some ways I still don’t really know.

I enjoyed the website and the questions the entire experience brought up: How do we represent ourselves online? How do we control and play with our online identity — politically, professionally, socially and otherwise. That night I was followed again by another Mykki Blanco Twitter account, and this one had over 5,000 followers, so it looked like the real McCoy. Of course, now we can buy followers so who really knows?

Mykki Blanco tweeting about the fake site that popped up online.

Either way, this Mykki Blanco was unsurprisingly tweeting that the website I had seen earlier and the associated account was a fake. Some of Mykki Blanco’s fans were expressing how excited and then let down they felt after getting a fake follow from Mykki Blanco when the real account had failed to follow them. Subsequently, Mykki Blanco began following hundred of fans, and there was an outpouring of Tweets in reply, thankful for a real follow from the real Mykki. It was wonderful interaction to watch over Twitter.

Mykki Blanco’s reinvigorated Twitter account.

I was one of these fans. I got the fake follow, saw the fake website and then got a follow from the real musician. I didn’t fully understand what was happening; none of my questions had been answered, but I enjoyed it.

The website and Twitter account were like a web 2.0 cousin of the Yes Men, whose work — “Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them” — I have always enjoyed. By making fake corporate websites and agreeing to public presentations to an unwitting audience, the Yes Men have managed to bring a wide audience face to face with corporate branding and responsibility in a most literal way. In late 2004, one of the Yes Men made it onto BBC News, pretending to be a Dow Chemical representative and issuing a long-delayed apology for Dow Chemical’s responsibility for the Bhobal disaster, the worst industrial disaster in history (below).

What followed was Dow Chemical had to publicly call the apology a hoax, thereby drawing more attention to the company’s continued inaction and denial of its heinous negligence. The power was that through a lie, the Yes Men reveal a much darker truth: that everyone is lying, and some lies are much, much worse. Whereas the Yes Men’s political motivations are clear to the art audience, I was confused about this fake website: Was Mykki Blanco protesting Chik-fil-A by hijacking their logo? Was it a publicity stunt? Was someone hijacking both Mykki Blanco and Chick-fil-A’s brand to make something more complicated?

The next day the mood on Mykki Blanco’s Facebook had shifted. It seemed that Mykki Blanco’s fake account had also contacted Pitchfork about the tour, and the real Mykki Blanco was pissed off; subsequently her fans were, too. Whereas Mykki Blanco had enjoyed the website and had used the entire experience as a moment to reaffirm her fans, this professional invasion crossed a line in Mykki Blanco’s eyes, and he was threatening legal action.

Screen capture of Mykki Blanco calling out Manuel Palou on Facebook.

To my surprise, the next post was a screen capture of a message from the artist behind Mykki Blanco’s fake website; it was Manuel Palou (going by Manny Puhloo on Facebook — we are all a little constructed online), apologizing for any problems that arose from the project.

Palou is one half of the artist duo Art404, whose work I have been a fan of for some time, often dealing with internet culture and contemporary branding. It was no shock to find part of Art404 behind the fake site. To my dismay, Mykki Blanco and his fans or friends (who can even tell on Facebook) were attacking Palou’s actions.

Was anyone this upset when someone created a fake Twitter account for Jenny Holzer or On Kawara? We always see fan music videos on YouTube, unauthorized fan websites of various celebrities — remix culture has become the norm. Most of us know and don’t care that most political figures and celebrities have an entire team creating their social media presence, not them alone. Out of Barack Obama’s 17.8 million Twitter followers, 29.9% are probably fake, and likewise with 21.9% of Mitt Romney’s 814,700 followers, a study released earlier this month found. As I reported earlier, much of web activity is entirely robotic. I have come to expect that much of what I see online is created or changed by a variety of authors, often unlisted or erroneously listed.

Many of us have come to terms with famous people having their identities twisted and misused by impostors, and even the “real” accounts artificially created. We all know corporations lie and create stories to better their image and gain attention. Although we know that Barack Obama has used social media exceptionally well, does anyone actually believe it is Obama writing the tweets? Even so, we still believe that Obama and other famous social media users are in some way behind the accounts. In other words, we have the expectation that Obama is actually represented within his social media, and getting an online response (whether through a mention or direct message) from Obama or whatever celebrity is still an exciting experience for us, even if we know the celebrity probably never saw it.

We often take our social media sites too seriously. Some of my friends are desperate to control their image, untagging themselves from most of the photographs uploaded of them, being very selective about “friending” someone and only posting well-edited and thoughtful content. But why care so much?

Maybe this is a blasé and naive attitude on my part. The importance of our online selves is growing rapidly, yet we are still in a time when we don’t fully have the filters and tools to to see through it all and understand people’s true value online. The distinction between IRL and online is a more fluid one, both affecting and working with the other. Still, we only understand relevance through over-simplified metrics like the number of comments, shares, followers (which can be bought) and “likes” (which a company like OKFocus can change for you). If one can buy Twitter followers, fake “likes” and manipulate the system to potentially increase your Klout score, their next job application could go a little more smoothly, their next art submission could be taken a little more seriously. Conversely, if you are an emerging artist and someone usurps your online identity, that could have real effects on your career. These metrics, whether we like it or not, have real effects.

An ominous looking Anonymous declaration.

I am reminded of Anonymous, the seemingly ubiquitous pro-internet freedom and freedom of expression hacker group. Although notorious for flooding their enemies with gay porn and other rather immature attacks, the group has gotten more politically oriented as of late. They have recently been attacking companies involved in censoring WikiLeaks, child pornography sites and even government officials involved with cases they deem unfair. Anonymous’s attacks have caused real fear in government officials, as the Wall Street Journal reports:

One US prosecutor whose name was publicly linked to the WikiLeaks probe faced so many personal intrusions that colleagues grew concerned about possible bodily harm, according to multiple law-enforcement officials. The prosecutor’s home address was spread online, and the person’s email account was subscribed to a pornography site, officials said. The prosecutor was also bombarded with harassing phone calls, they said.

In the name of political change, Anonymous has adopted an agressive policy on their targets, and the tactics used are growing increasingly common. Recently there have been many hackers, sometimes associated with Anonymous (who ever really knows?), releasing fake tweets, Facebook posts and even fake articles. The LA Times reported on a variety of these pranks, ranging from a childish hack of the New York Yankees Facebook, to more more political actions:

Then there was an an op-ed purportedly written by New York Times writer Bill Keller, seemingly writing in support of the whistle-blower website WikiLeaks. It was published last weekend on a page made to look like the New York Times’ website.

“THERE IS A FAKE OP-ED GOING AROUND UNDER MY NAME, ABOUT WIKILEAKS,” tweeted Keller, who has been critical of the organization. “EMPHASIS ON ‘FAKE.’ AS IN, NOT MINE.”

Although maybe impossible to measure, some believe that the Yes Men’s Dow Chemical performance caused the company a loss in the stock market, which seemed like poetic justice to me. Anonymous’s effects are equally hard to measure, but their role in the Occupy Wall Street movement and helping Wikileaks is undeniable. Yet I am a fan of the Yes Men and Anonymous solely because their politics corresponds with mine; I hope that they have a negative effect on the corporations they attack.

But these types of culture jamming can go both ways. Targeting giant corporations and holding them accountable seems like a worthy cause to me, but attacking individuals seems much less noble and less productive. As more of us are judged and graded by our online presence, the likelihood for negative side effects from this type of activism or art increases. Imagine a Yes Men group that performs the same stunts but with the opposite politics, and isn’t the Anonymous methodology similar to Chinese censors, but with opposite politics? It seems the art world can handle almost anything if it is in keeping with liberal ideas.

Artist Jakob Boeskov, in a similar vein as the Yes Men’s work, created a hoax weapon manufacturing company and created a fake presentation for a Chinese police show in Beijing. The weapon, which was coined the ID Sniper Rifle, promised to capably shoot GPS microchips into unwitting individuals — namely, Chinese dissidents — allowing the government to easily track their every move. The gun garnered lots of attention (both positive and negative) at the show and in international press before the hoax was uncovered. Allegedly, Boeskov’s work made him a target of pro-Chinese hackers, who attacked his website. If true, Boeskov’s culture jamming came full circle and ran the gambit of political motivations.

Governments censoring political activists online doesn’t incite an interesting conversation about online identity, but rather a more disturbing conversation about human rights. Cyberbullying, which can involve imitating others online, is now experienced by 43% of teens, a 2007 study showed. (I bet the number has only increased since then.) Cyberbullying has led to enough suicides to cause legislative change. I do not want to conflate Palou’s satirical work with agressive cyberbullying or political attacks by Anonymous, but artists cannot hide behind “artistic exploration” online or off without considering the real effects of what they are doing. We now know that doing something online can quickly translate into an effect offline.

Palou reluctantly spoke with me a little over email about the incident. He had wanted to stay anonymous so as to not interfere with the project’s own life, but Mykki Blanco had ruined the anonymity already. When asked about his inspirations for the project, Palou said, “I was mostly inspired by OKFocus‘ fake Kanye site, [WHODAT.BiZ] their project was more well received because Kanye is already a billionaire and Mykki is still up and coming so it’s more malicious.”

Interestingly, Palou chose to use Mykki Blanco because there was a good domain name available for the piece, and Mykki Blanco’s name was, surprisingly, unregistered, making it legal to use if not-for-profit. Palou then chose to combine Mykki Blanco with Chik-fil-A after following the corporate brand’s recent controversy in the news closely. It was a combination of political satire as well as revealing simple steps in branding that Mykki Blanco had overlooked.

A post from Art404’s blog hijacking mega brands of the art world and corporate world alike. Under the image it reads, “SHOUT OUT TO EVERYONE THAT CAME TO OUR SHOW TONIGHT!!!!!”.

“I just want more people to be paying attention to it [branding] (at least if you’re trying to represent yourself or something you create as a brand) and now that everyone can make a Facebook page for something and be a brand, it’s gonna get tricky, and shit like what I did happens all the time but way more insidiously ya know? I just wanted to call attention to that,” he said. Palou’s work puts us face-to-face with how we control our image online, and how easily we can lose that control.

Although I am confident that in the end the project resulted in free press for Mykki Blanco, who wisely used it as a chance to rally behind his fans, and food for thought (at least for this article), Mykki Blanco could not be reached for comment to confirm. Although on Facebook Mykki Blanco threatened legal action, none has been taken to Palou’s knowledge. I find the entire experience incredibly interesting and complicated.

Mykki Blanco’s identity is already so loose and constructed: it shifts between Michael David Quattlebaum Jr. and Mykki Blanco — between a man and a woman, but we assume one person is in control the entire time. Maybe that is naive; maybe not.

As remix culture grows and artists and hackers continue to manipulate online and brand identity, distinctions are becoming more confused. Anyone who relies on their web presence must consider these instances very seriously; they are only growing in frequency.

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