To those who follow such things, this week’s internet backlash looks oddly familiar. Keaton Jones, a boy from Knoxville, Tennessee, went viral earlier this week when he tearfully protested the unkindness of school bullies in a video his mom shared online. As celebrities lined up to commiserate with him, offering him perks like a trip to the next Avengers premiere, skeptics dug a little deeper into the situation and realized Keaton’s family was kinda racist.
Keaton’s swift viral rise and subsequent fall is one we’ve seen before in the age of social media, and in the past year or so in particular. We’ve seen it so often, in fact, that there’s a name for it, one as confusing as the phenomenon itself: Milkshake Duck.
What is a Milkshake Duck?
What isn’t a Milkshake Duck might be the better question.
The concept of a Milkshake Duck was born in summer of 2016, via this particularly observant tweet from popular Twitter user Ben Ward, a.k.a. @pixelatedboat:
The “Milkshake Duck” tweet hung out for a while, steadily accruing hearts, but then got a big boost exactly a year after its invention, 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.
Then there’s Gary from Chicago, who was an Oscar-night darling in early 2017, until the media skewered him the next day for having a criminal record.
Or perhaps you were a fan of the Tripps, the super-romantic couple who went viral this summer for their proudly body-positive comments — until a closer look at their social media dug up a number of racist and transphobic remarks.
So a Milkshake Duck is just 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.
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’s 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 2017’s version of “this is why we can’t have nice things.” The idea has become so prominent over the last six months or so that it’s now possible to talk about preemptive Milkshake Ducking (yes, you can use it as a verb now):
The increased prominence of the “Milkshake Duck” over the past year seems to speak to our increasingly polarized culture, where moments of unity are vanishingly rare. The phrase seems perfectly attuned to a year that has been defined for many by the idea that nothing is safe, that all of your “faves” could be revealed at any moment to have a dark side that fills you with crushing disappointment.
That this very bleak idea is encapsulated in a concept as Dada-ist and ridiculous as a “Milkshake Duck” makes the whole meme a peak example of millennial humor — and thus we shouldn’t overlook the more tongue-in-cheek uses of the phrase as well. After all, part of the ironic fun of “Milkshake Duck” is that it kind of sounds like your worrywart parent who’s showing up to ruin all your fun. It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye — or a dying bear turns vicious:
The backlash over the Keaton Jones bully video seems to have boosted the phrase up one more notch in the cultural register. But if it hasn’t been on your radar, you’re not alone — in fact, some are deliberately trying to avoid the inevitable:
Don’t expect to be able to escape the Milkshake Duck, however — the whole point of the Milkshake Duck is that it’s coming for us all. We’re only halfway through December: There’s still plenty of time left in the year to unearth 2017’s biggest Milkshake Duck yet.