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Why everything is a Milkshake Duck

“Shrimp guy” Jensen Karp, outed as an alleged abuser, is the latest viral phenomenon to get Milkshake Ducked. But he won’t be the last.

A paper cup with its lid and straw knocked off spilled on a tile floor. Getty Images/Image Source
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.

To those who follow such things, this week’s most prominent internet backlash probably looks wearily familiar: A mild-mannered commoner unexpectedly gains attention and briefly captures the heart of the nation — or, at a minimum, the bored attention of Twitter and the nation’s meme-makers — only for a horrifying revelation about them to surface before 15 minutes of internet fame have even elapsed.

This week’s villain reveal went to Jensen Karp, a Los Angeles comedian who went viral on Tuesday for a nightmare-fuel tweet revealing what appeared to be shrimp tails in a box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. Not long after the jokes about “shrimp guy” begun to flood social media, however, writer Melissa Stetten indirectly called out Karp as an alleged abuser, further adding that other women had contacted her to contribute their own private allegations of Karp’s abuse — which others who knew Karp quickly supported.

This troubling development transformed the “shrimp guy” discourse into a discussion about the rapid turnaround time of Karp’s fall from grace — and led to the inevitable description of Karp as a “Milkshake Duck.”

So what exactly is a Milkshake Duck?

What isn’t a Milkshake Duck might be the better question.

The concept of a Milkshake Duck may feel ancient, but the term is just a few years old

The Milkshake Duck was born in 2016, via this particularly observant tweet from popular Twitter user Ben Ward, a.k.a. @pixelatedboat.

“The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes!” Ward wrote, characterizing the typical response to seemingly harmless viral memes that invite social media users to identify with a fun, accidentally famous person (or duck) who’s gotten their attention.

Alas, the internet steals joy as quickly as it provides: “*5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist,” Ward added.

Ward was spoofing social media’s tendency to immediately comb through the backstories of the newly famous, digging up all their dirty secrets, and the whiplash-inducing speed with which the trajectory from “here’s this nice thing!” to “your (new) fave is problematic” happens.

The Milkshake Duck tweet hung out for a while, steadily accruing hearts, until exactly one year after it was posted, when the developer of a buzzy new game was revealed to have been a Gamergate supporter. The gaming community began to refer to the developer as a “Milkshake Duck,” and a meme was born.

What are notable examples of Milkshake Ducks?

The epitome of a Milkshake Duck is probably Ken Bone, the frumpy white guy who charmed America during a 2016 presidential debate but then turned out to have a seriously sketchy Reddit comment history.

Or perhaps you were a fan of the Tripps, a.k.a Curvy Wife Guy and his wife Sarah, the super-romantic couple who went viral in the summer of 2017 for their proudly body-positive comments — until a closer look at their social media dug up a number of racist and transphobic remarks.

And who could forget the adorable-turned-hellish saga of “Plane Bae” in 2018? What began as a fun live-tweet of a couple’s in-flight meet-cute by a Twitter user named Rosey Blair quickly devolved into a nightmare, as the unwitting female half of the couple — who didn’t know they were being put on blast to all of Twitter — found herself doxxed, stalked, and harassed by onlookers who found out her identity and hunted down her private information.

Ultimately, Rosey Blair, who started out seeming like an innocent and entertaining matchmaker, quickly started to seem like a fame-hungry attention-seeker and wound up having to apologize.

There have been so many other accounts of prominent Milkshake Ducks that over the years some media outlets have compiled best-of lists, because why not turn surprise toxicity into a competition? Is that Milkshake Ducking the entire concept of Milkshake Ducks? Perhaps!

So is Milkshake Duck just another term for a problematic fave?

Sort of. The saying “your fave is problematic” is a Tumblr-born phrase that captures our loss of faith in our heroes over time, as we grow and evolve and they don’t always say or do the right things, and sometimes turn into creatures we don’t recognize. Think about the way Joss Whedon has evolved from a geek cult hero to persona non grata as we learn more about his alleged history as an abusive director, or the many public figures accused of sexual harassment in the wake of the Me Too movement.

The Milkshake Duck is more about instant virality in the age of social media, as well as the growing polarization of publicly professed ideologies. The viral component means anyone can become a public figure overnight — but it also means an increased likelihood of discovering that a new favorite has a checkered past. The phrase implies a sort of grim recognition: Everyone has said and done stupid shit on the internet, and thus anyone could become a Milkshake Duck at any moment.

The Milkshake Duck, then, is probably more accurately akin to “this is why we can’t have nice things.”

The Jensen Karp scenario crosses over from “overnight internet sensation that turned out to be bad” into “problematic public figure accused of abuse.” As a comedian, he’s fairly well-known in the Los Angeles comedy community, and the rapidity with which Stetten outed him seemed to be about self-care, self-protection, and alerting the public before it began glorifying an alleged abuser. What’s typical of the Milkshake Duck trajectory in Karp’s case is that the broader public remained in the dark about the duck du jour’s dark history.

How does Milkshake Duck intersect with the concept of cancel culture?

In retrospect, it seems clear that the whole concept is part of the rise of a larger conversation around so-called cancel culture. The idea of someone getting Milkshake Ducked (you can also use the term as a verb) seems to speak to our increasingly polarized culture, where moments of unity are vanishingly rare. The concept seems perfectly attuned to an era that has been defined for many by the idea that nothing is safe, and that every seemingly innocent, joyous phenomenon has a dark underbelly yet to be revealed.

This has led many people to talk about Milkshake Ducks as inevitable and to prepare themselves for the future Milkshake Ducking before it occurs. Witness this accidentally prophetic hymn to the now-disgraced Bon Appétit Test Kitchen, which the press has officially labeled a Milkshake Duck:

It can be difficult to square the fact that this very bleak idea is encapsulated in a concept as Dadaist and ridiculous as a Milkshake Duck, which makes the whole meme a peak example of millennial humor. Part of the ironic fun of Milkshake Duck is that it kind of sounds like a worrywart parent who’s showing up to ruin all your fun. It’s all a game until someone loses an eye — or punches a car window.

Indeed, there’s something about the phrase that still feels very 2016, perhaps because it was born of a moment before the 2016 election — before, well, shit got real. In the intervening years, most of the conversation around toxic public figures has been tied to larger and darker discussions about very serious topics like racism, fascism, and/or sexual harassment. In essence, the tongue-in-cheek idea of the Milkshake Duck harks back to a moment of whimsical innocence and levity that has since been, ahem, Milkshake Ducked.

That’s probably why the term has fallen by the wayside somewhat, in favor of discussions concerning the broader concept of cancel culture. It also tends to lie dormant until a new major viral example comes along — so if it hasn’t been on your radar, you’re not alone.

Still, even though the term has largely been eclipsed, it’s proven to have staying power. Every year or so, there seems to be a new example that boosts the term another notch in the cultural register. In 2018, Milkshake Duck even became Macquarie Dictionary’s word of the year.

At this point, even if you aren’t familiar with the specific term of Milkshake Duck, you probably do know all about the trajectory of short-lived internet fame followed by a plummet into infamy that it represents. The whole point of the Milkshake Duck is that it’s a well-known, fully established, and apparently inevitable part of the process of going viral.

Ultimately, the typical Milkshake Duck sequence probably says as much about the culture that airs a private individual’s sins to the world as it does about the specific Milkshake Duck who gets outed and/or “canceled” for being toxic — often, as in this case, for extremely good reasons.

But that’s also, perhaps, why Milkshake Duck is such an appealing concept: It’s a perfectly ridiculous way of framing something that’s actually often quite serious beneath the absurdity — a truth about human nature that is as dark as it is hilarious.

After all, none of us is perfect — we’re all just Milkshake Ducks waiting to happen. Perhaps the final, boss-level Milkshake Duck is just the internet itself.