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Man Bun Ken, viral knife polishing, and dark times at Tumblr: a week in internet culture

The floor is a tired Twitter joke structure, and other online lessons.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The internet mostly didn’t devolve into a political firestorm this week, which makes it a fairly good week as far as 2017 has gone.

Of course, if you were employed at Mattel, maker of Barbie, you might feel differently, since internet denizens expended a great deal of energy skewering your newly rolled-out lineup of modern, ethnically diverse Ken dolls. And if you were Jeff Bezos, well, the internet really didn’t hop on board with Amazon’s Whole Foods acquisition.

But in general, we turned to memes that mocked our childhoods and distracted us from more serious topics. Not that there wasn’t plenty of serious discussion being had, too — just ask Tumblr users who found themselves suddenly unable to access “sensitive” content across the site.

Here’s what you may have missed on the internet this week.

Man Bun Ken caused universal eye rolling

Caity Weaver’s viral piece for GQ on the rollout of Mattel’s new Ken doll in all his ambiguously multicultural glory explored what modern masculinity looks like in the reimagined plastic form of the original “nice guy.” The internet took Weaver’s query a lot further, turning the dolls — in particular, the doll popularly rebranded as “Man Bun Ken” — into fictional representations of Those Douchebags We All Know.

Man Bun Ken in particular came to immediately represent, at least in meme land, one of those fabled Bernie Bro, nice-guy, startup-owning pseudo-socialists — you know, the stealth misogynist who’s secretly into gentrification and privatizing health are.

Man Bun Ken wasn’t the only Ken used as fodder for social commentary — particularly racial commentary.

Welcome to the internet, new Kens. If you’re anything like your stereotypes, then you’re already one of us.

Ron Howard takes over the Star Wars Hans Solo spinoff; the internet erupts in Arrested Development jokes

The unexpected news that Ron Howard is taking over the Star Wars Han Solo spinoff film from newly departed directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller caused a lot of eyebrow raising in Hollywood, and a torrent of Arrested Development jokes from Twitter users.

For anyone not in on the joke, Howard was the narrator for Arrested Development, and his form of short, acerbic, often contradictory voiceovers became the basis for a standard brand of modern internet humor, which involves inserting “Ron Howard voice” before one’s own wry commentary.

In the wake of the Star Wars announcement, the joke value doubled.

And speaking of internet joke structures...

Twitter had a field day with this running thread between comedian Paul F. Tompkins and his followers, as they proceeded to outline some of Twitter’s most popular running joke formats, in classic thread format:

There was the “Life comes at you fast” format, which (for anyone not on Twitter) consists of taking two apparently contradictory Tweets from a user’s feed and screencapping them side by side with the caption, “Life comes at you fast.” Like so:

There were the requisite ASCI tweets, and the requisite clapping emoji plus “I’m not crying you’re crying” tweet, and innumerable meme-based tweets.

Read the entire thread for maximum profit. What can we say? They’re good jokes, Brent.

YouTube viewers went nuts over a guy polishing a rusted knife

That’s Yoshizuki Jun, the Japanese half of YouTube’s vlogging couple Rachel and Jun. Jun and Rachel have their own popular channel where they vlog jointly about Japanese culture and the ins and outs of a cross-cultural romance. On his own channel, Jun posts mainly about cooking and kitchenware. His last knife-sharpening video got 4.5 million views in six months; the one above got as many views in two days and trended across YouTube for most of the week.

The video’s viewers seemed to respond eagerly to the video’s narrative as a “revenge” story: After being ripped off by a guy who sold him a completely rusted knife for $3, Jun gets back his dollar value and more by carefully polishing and buffing the knife to incredible new glory — then proceeds to carve up a bunch of vegetables with his new tool to beautiful results.

This video combines several ingredients that tend to spell success on YouTube: the Zen beauty and soothing repetitive motions of Jun’s knife polishing, along with his clear competence and skill in the kitchen. It’s also a simple tale of karmic justice, which always does well on the internet. And, of course, there’s a cat.

The floor is an ever-shifting morass of social commentary

This meme has been gaining traction for a while but really seemed to gain peak attention over the past two weeks. You’re probably familiar with the age-old classic living room/student lounge game “the floor is lava,” where the object is to avoid touching the (hot, molten) floor at all costs, necessitating climbing hilariously over furniture and anything else within reach.

Lately on the internet, largely as a response to current sociopolitical turbulence, “the floor is lava” has been remixed into the “floor is...” meme, where the “floor” is anything you’re trying to avoid at all costs. In its purest version, it looks something like this.

As Miles Klee outlines at Mic, the original “floor is” image, as seen above, grew out of another popular meme about staying awake all night. Since the image crossed over to join the “floor is lava” concept, it’s has morphed rapidly both visually and narratively to be about avoiding [insert x here].

If you’re Twitter the company, as we detailed in last week’s internet culture roundup, you’re trying to avoid, well, the edit button that everyone apparently wants but you:

If you’re celebrating Pride month, the floor might be heteronormativity.

This meme generally works well when used literally or sardonically — with results varying depending on context:

Whatever your floor is, there’s probably a perfect accompanying image waiting for you:

It’s the game anyone can play.

Meanwhile, some are memeing from the future

While some portions of the internet are updating parlor games and looking to childhood toys for inspiration, other parts are streets ahead. The trend of claiming to be living in 3017 is simple enough, and the Black-Eyed Peas claimed to be “so 3008” nearly a decade ago, but whatever, it’s been catching on.

Tumblr’s post-Verizon cultural changes are worrying ones

In last week’s roundup we wondered what changes the new Verizon acquisition of Yahoo might bring to Tumblr, the internet’s perpetually undervalued cultural factory. Apparently the changes have been immediate and striking. Within the past week, in addition to numerous layoffs, Tumblr has made a series of noticeable changes that have sent ripples of unease throughout the community.

Foremost among them to outside observers is the issue of net neutrality. Tumblr as a corporation has historically been an avid proponent of equal internet access and has previously urged its users to support net neutrality legislation. However, Verizon, its new owner, has steadfastly opposed the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality legislation. The result, as The Verge recently reported, is that Tumblr appears to have gone silent on the issue entirely, and that it will not be participating, as it has in the past, in an upcoming day of action on the issue.

Tumblr users who have blogged about the news are overwhelmingly cynical about Verizon and supportive of net neutrality. But there are other changes on the horizon for Tumblr — including what The Verge reports is new Tumblr chief Simon Khalaf’s wish to use Tumblr as a “weapon” to convert users to Yahoo and beat out competitors:

Two former Tumblr employees said they were alarmed when Khalaf chose Black Lives Matter as an example of a community that the company should focus on converting into Yahoo media consumers. One told The Verge, “Simon explicitly said that Black Lives Matter was an opportunity to [make] a ton of money.”

This statement is fundamentally contradictory to Tumblr’s deeply progressive, diverse, and largely anti-capitalist community, let alone to the Black Lives Matter movement. In essence, the very people Khalaf wants to reach through these alleged means of commodification are the people most likely to be extremely alienated by them. Instead of driving more users to Yahoo, such a focus could drive users away from Tumblr.

Another change that immediately alarmed users: the sudden appearance of “safe mode,” a new default, mandatory filter for all users under 18 that blocks content deemed NSFW. In essence, users who are categorized by Tumblr as under 18, based on their stated age when they signed up for the site, can now no longer access large portions of the site.

The filter crucially excludes large swaths of content that isn’t technically work-safe but features queer and LBGTQ-related content and other “sensitive” content. Tumblr is a major platform for queer teens and other members of the queer community exploring and expressing their sexuality and identities, and — as we saw when YouTube temporarily implemented and then rescinded similar filtering — few members of the LGBTQ community like to see their identities reduced to a NSFW tag.

The results of this new safe mode have outraged Tumblr users and sometimes been contradictory.

It certainly wouldn’t be the first time a company has left large internet communities in the lurch — just ask the exiles of LiveJournal, most of whom relocated to Tumblr after a steady site devolution following LJ’s buyout by a Russian company in 2007. The decade-long process finally seemed to hit rock bottom earlier this year when LiveJournal unveiled strict terms of service mandating its users obey Russian laws regarding adult content, which also censored queer content.

Perhaps the takeaway here is twofold: Our internet communities are only as free as the platforms that host them, and producing queer content seems to be an increasingly complicated aim in an increasingly corporatized internet. With Verizon now at the reins, one of the most queer-friendly online spaces has entered a fraught new era.

Update, June 29: Tumblr detailed its response to the backlash in a staff post dated June 23, noting that it had already changed the automated behavior that was causing all posts with queer or LGBTQ-related content to be marked sensitive. The change, which automatically flagged all posts made on self-marked "Explicit" blogs as sensitive, was not intended to deliberately target queer users, and to prevent that from happening, all posts on blogs labeled explicit will now be classified individually. This pattern of auto-filtering and retraction, specifically in order to avoid demonizing queer content, is something YouTube just recently went through, and in fact, so did Tumblr — in 2013, when Tumblr did the exact same thing to queer content in an earlier version of Safe Mode, which it also had to fix.

The staff post did not address the controversial issue of permanently filtering ‘sensitive’ content away from younger Tumblr users by default—at least until they turn 18 according to the age stated in their accounts. Given that Tumblr worked on Safe Mode for over a year, this is a feature it likely won’t be changing any time soon. Still, Tumblr users lambasted the change; they also heavily criticized Safe Mode for being incomplete and doing nothing to curb the presence of porn bots or white supremacist and Nazi blogs on the site.

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