Social Media

Are These Effin' Birds From Canada Fucking With American Democracy?

Aaron Reynolds, the creator of "Swear Trek" and "Effin' Birds," talks about living and dying by Instagram's algorithms.

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Even if you've never heard of Aaron Reynolds, you've probably seen—and possibly shared—one of his hilarious contributions to internet culture.

Reynolds is the Canadian author and humorist behind the immensely popular "Swear Trek" and "Effin' Birds" social media accounts. The former inserts vulgarities into the subtitles of clips from the classic Star Trek TV series, while the latter involves classy artistic renderings of birds overlayed with foul language—pun definitely intended.

He's just trying to make people laugh on the internet—and, well, sell things too—but in the weeks before the presidential election, Reynolds noticed that his usually very popular Instagram posts under the "Effin' Birds" account weren't reaching as many viewers as usual. He hasn't been able to get a straight answer from the social media giant, but Reynolds suspects his content may have been flagged for running afoul of an algorithm meant to weed out foreign election interference. (Reason has had its own troubles with Instagram's location services, which seem to think this publication is based in the United Kingdom even after we've proved we are not.)

Last week, Reynolds sat down with Reason for a conversation about his vulgarity-spouting birds, the power of social media companies, and how greater government regulation of the internet is no laughing matter. This transcript has been lightly edited for content and style.

Reason: Aaron, thank you for joining us. What is Effin' Birds?

Reynolds: Well, thank you for having me. Effin' Birds is hard to describe. I think even my publisher is frustrated with my inability to describe what it is when we're talking about it. But, it is, at its heart, beautiful woodcuts of birds paired with however I'm feeling about things at the time—generally profane.

So, it is my outlet so that I don't have to yell at people or, you know, punch the wall. I can make a bird very angry and put it on the internet and then feel great about it.

Reason: And even better if you can make some money off it. You've got a book out: Effin' Birds: A Field Guide to Identification. And it's probably the perfect gift for the birdwatchers in your life, but also anyone who loves profanity, which I think would cover just about everybody.

Reynolds: Yeah. I think that the people who like it the least are the people who are hardcore birders because there are a lot of jokes that are deliberately misidentified birds. In fact, there's an amazing Goodreads review that is so angry because I identified a peacock as a Hipster Pelican.

Reason: I'm glad you mentioned that because I wanted to get that out there before we got into the more serious things. But really, what you're all about is not taking things on the internet too seriously—I think I saw on your Twitter feed just this morning or yesterday that you're asking people to deliberately up-vote negative reviews on Amazon?

Reynolds: I sell more books when I spotlight one of those reviews than when I ask people to buy the book. Those reviews are gold. I love them. I don't take anything seriously and I find it hilarious when people try to take what I do very seriously.

I think my favorite example was when Instagram presented me with this button that said I could reach up to 50,000 people who'd never heard of Effin' Birds by hitting this promote button and giving them $10. And I was like "that sounds great because this is a picture of a duck with the word 'buttsauce' underneath it, and I absolutely want to show that to 50,000 strangers."

Now, the important question is what 50,000 strangers do I want to show that to? With the help of Twitter, we tried to determine which city in the United States had the least good sense of humor. And it turns out everybody agrees that it's Jacksonville, Florida. I'm sorry, Jacksonville, that's just what the internet told me. I've never been to your city, and I don't know anything about it other than the internet seems to think that you're humorless. I targeted men over age 65, who like politics and The New York Times, who live in Jacksonville, Florida, and I put the ad live. It had like a 100 percent complaint rate and was pulled within like 100 impressions. That's exactly what I wanted in an ad campaign. I mean, it cost me almost nothing for one of the most hilarious things I've ever done.

Reason: I love that. No one should take the internet too seriously. But to be clear, this is a business for you. People laugh at the bird saying funny things or Captain Kirk swearing at a Klingon, but this is a business for you.

Reynolds: I think that's funny too. Effin' Birds was my attempt to take what Swear Trek was and make it something that could be a living. I can't make a living off of Swear Trek—there's too much in there that belongs to CBS and Paramount, and that they would object to, you know, me making money off it. Thank you, friends at CBS, for not cease-and-desisting me off of the internet.

But Effin' Birds was designed as a solution to those problems. So, you know, the vulgarity that was inappropriate or incongruous with the image, plus my expressions of frustration about my life. And the basic business model is I make jokes, and some of the jokes go over really well. I put those jokes onto mugs, and t-shirts, and prints—and people buy them. It seems like a really silly and reductive business model, but it works. I have three people working for me at this point. It's a tiny little empire. I was working a full-time job when I started this, and at one point they asked me to choose between the birds and working at this place where I'd worked for 11 years—and I chose the birds.

Reason: Tough decision at all, or…

Reynolds: [Laughs] It was 48 hours and I was gone.

Reason: So you've started this new business, and it's clearly been pretty successful, but then you had this experience with Instagram back during the election—or just prior to the election, you'll have to tell us exactly when this started. And in case people missed this at the beginning, it is important to note that you're a Canadian. Effin' Birds is a Canadian product being imported into the United States on social media, basically.

Reynolds: Yeah, about 80 percent of the audience for Effin' Birds is in the United States. I don't have a big Canadian audience, and part of that is because we're physically a very large country but there's not a lot of us up here.

What started happening during the election was that I'd get these notifications from Instagram that said I needed to turn on location services because they were concerned about accounts that had a large reach, and they wanted people to know where those accounts were located. I thought, OK, they're looking for reelection misinformation and stuff like that. And it's all images, so they probably can't tell a meme with election disinformation from a picture of a bird with the word "buttsauce."

I had my location services on. I went out of my way to make sure they knew my location. I registered my business address with them. I registered a credit card to the account that had a Canadian billing address. I manually made some posts—normally I use a tool called Buffer to preschedule posts—but I did some posts manually and turned on the little switch that said I'm here in Toronto.

But then I noticed this huge drop in engagement. And I found out that what had happened was that I am no longer welcome on the "Explore" page on Instagram. And one of the things about Instagram versus Twitter is that on Twitter it is easy to grow an organic audience because when an audience likes you, there's a retweet button. On Instagram, it's a lot harder because there is no share button—instead, you rely on having posts that get a lot of engagement, and then it ends up on a section of the app where people can see what is popular today.

Reason: Right. It's a curated thing, where they are serving up content based on what people have already seen and liked, and you want your content to be part of that curated collection.

Reynolds: Exactly. At the same time, it's not like I'm owed their spotlight on their platform—that's their platform. But I think the hard part of it is that feeling like I had my content pulled because I'm a foreigner kind of sucks.

Reason: Are you assuming that's the reason or did you talk to Instagram or Facebook—Facebook owns Instagram, for the people who don't know that—about this? Was it just an algorithm somewhere that triggered this?

Reynolds: It is very hard to get anyone there to get back to you. But yeah, it is algorithmic. It's simply that I am not in the country. I can make the Canadian "Explore" pages, but not the American one.

I mean, it's not an insurmountable problem. I grew to where I am now without being on the "Explore" page because you only get to the "Explore" page once you're popular, and so now I have to go back to that. I just have to roll back all of my growth strategies about six months and start again.

More than anything else, I think it's really funny. I think it's funny that I'm lumped in with threats to democracy and I post pictures of birds and swear words.

Reason: Yeah, you and your foul-mouthed fowl, you are trying to bring down American elections. How dare you! As if a bird saying "Fuck this shit" isn't exactly how most Americans feel about the election anyway.

Reynolds: I think that's why Effin' Birds was getting so much traction prior to the election campaign because everybody's so emotionally spent. Right now, I'm drinking out of a mug that says "someone should shove bees up your ass." That's like my favorite one because it's so unnecessarily aggressive. And that one just killed when it showed up in a post.

Reason: You make a good point about how comical it is that you'd be lumped in with Russian disinformation or whatever. But one of the reasons why I wanted to sit down with you is because, just to pull back for a minute, I think your situation gets at a side of this ongoing debate that we're having here in the U.S., and it's a side that doesn't always get much attention. We have these hearings every so often where Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey get dragged in front of Congress, and then they very quickly devolve into nonsense. It ends up with senators complaining that somebody posted something mean or unfair about them and they couldn't get it removed. And I wish I was making that up.

Reynolds: Same thing in Canada. We had a bunch of tech titans speak in front of Parliament and there were questions about how to work their iPhones—like, there's an Apple store literally two blocks from Parliament. Go there for the answer to that question.

Reason: Yes! Exactly. And even without any direct regulation, yet, from Congress or Parliament, there is obviously political pressure on these companies—particularly after 2016—to prevent certain kinds of content. And they are casting a net that, in your case, has injured a business—or at least changed your rate of growth and maybe affected how many books or coffee mugs you can sell. But from your perspective, what can you do?

Reynolds: Nothing, really. I wait for the algorithm to change again because that's what happens. The algorithm makes a change to eliminate something undesirable and then all the undesirable people start doing something else, you know?

Whenever you see those guides about how to become popular on Instagram or on any social media, they are, at best, good for two or three months. Because whatever they're advising you to do, the algorithms are going to change. So, if you put all your eggs in the basket of that algorithm, you're screwed.

You have to not focus on the algorithm, even though the algorithm can be life and death for you. You have to work as if it's not there. You pray that it will fall in your favor one day, but you know that one day it will fall the other way.

ReasonIf there was greater government regulation of social media and the algorithms these platforms use, I wonder what that would mean for your business?

Reynolds: I think if there's government involvement we'll have the same kind of problems, it'll just be government-mandated versions of those problems.

Reason: In the sense that a government algorithm still won't be able to tell the difference between a bird saying "fuck" and a Russian meme?

Reynolds: Yeah. And I think another tricky thing about it is the reason the algorithm can't tell them apart, even when humans are helping, is that the humans are paid nothing for that job. There are people who have to do a lot of work for very little money. They may not love what they do, or love the company, or feel connected to the mission of the company, or something like that. But, you know, one of the easiest ways to fix that is with money—if you pay people well, they'll do a good job. And when pay people very little, they're there to click the button 80 times until they get their paycheck.

Reason: I'm sure the government bureaucrats we're going to put in charge of regulating the internet will all love their jobs and do good work.

Reynolds: In my more serious work, I once had a really good conversation with Canada's auditor general about a disaster inside Canada's payroll system for public employees. And it all came from people who were trying to not rock the boat, and who were trying to say "yes" to whatever people above them asked for.

And it was a cultural problem. And I think that we see that in a lot of companies; we don't just see that in the government. We see that everywhere. The boss is powerful. We want to say "yes" to the boss, and sometimes you've got to say "no."

Reason: But then that becomes a question about who even knows how that algorithm works. Because, for example, when Congress hauls Mark Zuckerberg in for a hearing, he doesn't know how that algorithm works. He didn't write that algorithm. There are layers between him and whoever is in charge of that. And if there's more government regulation, ultimately, they're going to have to defer to that oversight—that doesn't seem like it would make it any more likely that they would care about complaints from somebody like you who is trying to make a living off this.

Reynolds: Right, yeah. Part of the reason that I have a book is [that a book] is another platform to grow into. And it's funny that I'm doing it backward—I'm doing new media and then retreating to legacy media. I'm just finding another platform. And that platform is bookstores, and bookstores have been great. There's this sort of magic of learning that if you get in good with like an indie book chain, they'll sell a ton of your books because they love you.

Reason: One more time, the book is Effin' Birds: A Field Guide To Identification. Find it on Amazon and in all those indie bookstores.

I want to get you out of here on something a little bit funny because we've had a serious conversation here for the most part. I have to know where the idea for Swear Trek came from. It is brilliant in its simplicity. Was it like a drunken joke that came to life or was this a carefully calibrated strategy?

Reynolds: It sort of came up by accident. I was really late to getting a cell phone and getting into texting even though I worked in technology for a long time. And people would use these emojis all the time, and I hated those and wanted something I could use instead. At the time, I was watching a lot of '60s Star Trek, and every once in a while, I would pause the show and there would be a truly ridiculous expression on the screen. And I would screenshot it and I would add it to this folder. And I would use those as emoji.

I had all sorts of really hilarious ones. And I started thinking: I can add the F-word to every single one of these screenshots, and it's funny every time. And so the first two weeks of Swear Trek, the Twitter account, are just these screenshots from Star Trek—and every one of them is captioned with the F-word.

I think that joke ran its course in two weeks. But I started to get some traction and I was like, "Well, how do I keep this going?" I did not expect I would be doing it like five years later. I've made like 2,000 of them—some absurd number of them.

NEXT: For the First Time Ever, the House Votes To Repeal the Federal Ban on Marijuana

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  1. He’s just trying to make people laugh on the internet—and, well, sell things too—but in the weeks before the presidential election, Reynolds noticed that his usually very popular Instagram posts under the “Effin Birds” account weren’t reaching as many viewers as usual.

    This conspiracy theory again? Whatever, alt-right Hitler.

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    2. Fucking hell, he probably works for fucking Dominion or gets paid for Soros or some shit. He’s fucking Foreign and we all know fucking Foreigners don’t even vote for Trump.

      Fucking SwearTrek: Canadian Shatner, British Stewart, all fucking Foreigners who wont’ fucking vote for fucking Trump. It’s conspiracy all the way down.

      And now he’s got the Effin Birds interfering in Trump rightful coronation. Makes me want to spew Buttsauce.

      1. “Makes me want to spew Buttsauce.”

        What do you think you just did? It sure as shit ain’t hollandaise.

        1. As rich and as pungent as that swamp that never got drained.

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  2. Good to see people hard at work with internet banality. I suppose if it were actually funny maybe I’d care. Inserting foul language is pretty old hat I think the last time that made me laugh was the original South Park Christmas card but that was what 25 years ago?

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  3. Swear words are excellent comedy for about 5 minutes in 8th grade, then hopefully you move on to better material. But apparently some don’t.

    1. I’m guessing you live in or around….Jacksonville?

      1. No, but now I know I have something in common with retired old men who read the New York Times. Huh.

      2. People in Jacksonville are far more sophisticated than the brandybucks of the world.

    2. The only respectable ‘Effin’ puns are those from Fabrique National Herstal. All the others are just immitating.

      1. Don’t own one of those, but I do admire them.

  4. “…who like politics and The New York Times,”

    Well, we know what THAT means.

  5. But, it is, at its heart, beautiful woodcuts of birds paired with however I’m feeling about things at the time—generally profane.

    The only way I can find this amusing at all is by laughing at the idea of a person spending 5 minutes in Photoshop putting their trite thoughts in a faux-vintage font under some digitized versions of beautiful artwork and then thousands of people thinking it’s amazingly clever.

    I don’t get it. Also, woodcut printmaking is a wonderful and highly skilled artform with a long history…at the very least, it deserves something more clever than swear words. I don’t think trivializing something is the same thing as satire.

    1. Yeah, pretty sure you live there.

      1. get off my lawn!

        1. Now that was funny.

          And I’m taking a shit on your lawn. Along with 500 or so Canada Geese.

          1. And wipe myself with the editorial page of the NYT.

          2. Oh those.

            Canada geese. The most annoying animal on the planet.

    2. I don’t so much care about the derision of wood carving as much as the fact that, at this point, it would seem that the appropriate response to an Effin’ Birds article would be a link to a beholdthefieldwhereIgrowmyfucks.gif.

      1. Lay thine eyes upon it and thou shall see that it is barren.

  6. I think this is like a lot of “quirky” things, the first time you see it it’s kinda funny, seeing it 5 or 6 times it’s a little less funny, and after a dozen times or so it’s just not funny at all.

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  8. Did White Knight write the headline?

  9. Is that the annoying walrus guy?

    1. John, or maybe it was Paul.

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