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How a flailing purple bird became a cautionary tale for the pitfalls of viral fame

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Flail on, little bird

Syd Weiler

In February 2017, a GIF of a flailing purple dove from a Facebook sticker set called “Trash Doves” was seemingly everywhere, popping up in never-ending chains of comment threads. But after achieving viral fame, the sticker set led to a litany of issues as it journeyed across the web: its creator, Syd Weiler, was doxxed; she dealt with repeated instances of plagiarism and copyright infringement; and at one point, 4chan users coordinated a harassment campaign to pretend the dove was a hate symbol, leading to its removal from Apple’s App Store.

These events, documented by Weiler in a blog post last week, are a harrowing reminder of the pitfalls of extreme virality, especially for independent artists. “The improbable explosion of my work online changed my life and the course of my illustration career entirely,Weiler writes.

The challenges of going viral started in smaller ways. The doves first went viral in Thailand after appearing in a Thai Facebook page for memes and began quickly spreading across Asia, which meant that Weiler couldn’t read most of the articles, interviews, and memes being made about her stickers. The Messenger sticker set was also credited to Weiler’s name, opening up her personal Facebook page to thousands of strangers who could now see her photos and comment on her posts. Weiler locked down her personal account privacy settings, and began redirecting people to an official fan page. (If you haven’t taken a look at your Facebook privacy settings, here’s a guide.)

To thank Thai users for the success of the stickers, Weiler drew a little Trash Dove holding the Thai flag with its foot — which turned out to be an offensive cultural faux pas, as feet are considered to be dirty in Thai culture. The image resulted in people sending her angry messages cursing her and asking her why she hated Thailand. She apologized, and redrew the image with the flag in its beak, which commenters accepted (“It’s OK, we know you didn’t mean to do it”).

As the bird’s popularity began spreading to the rest of the world, it made its way to 4chan, where users started a misinformation campaign to turn the bird into a symbol of white supremacy and neo-Nazi subliminal messaging. Weiler’s two iMessage sticker packs (Trash Doves and the Trash Doves Holiday pack), her primary source of income, were briefly taken down from the App Store after trolls flagged the stickers for hate symbolism.

4chan users targeted Weiler as well, flooding her inboxes with images of the dove photoshopped in with Nazi imagery. During one of her Twitch streams, a user posted her address in the chat, prompting her to call the cops in the event she was being swatted. Police informed her there was nothing they could do, unless there were direct threats being made.

The virality of the doves opened them up to a flood of bootleg merchandise, games, and apps that tried to profit from Weiler’s creation. Compiled into a Google Doc, Weiler and her fellow illustrator friends documented over 80 pages’ worth of links to unauthorized merchandise. For every site that stole her work, she had to compile an individual copyright takedown notice, many of them dedicated to counterfeit clothing items like shirts and hoodies on Amazon.

Weiler’s story highlights the risks indie artists have to take when creating anything for the internet, and the unexpected consequences of when a creation spirals beyond their control. It’s every artist’s worst nightmare: fighting to maintaining control over copyright in the face of knockoffs and bootlegs, and dealing with the worst-case possibility that their artwork could be co-opted into a hate symbol.

Since the birds went viral, Weiler says she’s worked to come to terms with their journey through the internet cycle, and recontextualize what the Trash Doves have meant to her. She writes, “for every awful thing I was sent, the meme cosmos handed me two wonderful things to replace it. I have folders of fanart, cosplay, memes, and screenshots of kind messages.”

Weiler’s takeaway from all this is an especially important lesson for independent artists. “I want to encourage everyone to take a hard look at their relationship with the internet — especially in the context of how they allow it to validate, define, and fundamentally shape the course of their work,” Weiler told The Verge.

Originally, Weiler had made a summer-themed iMessage sticker pack toward the end of the Trash Doves’ viral boom in 2017, but decided not to release them during the madness that followed. Two years later, she’s now ready to release them with the very 2019 name of “Trash Doves Summer.”

“I want everyone who is making work and putting it on the internet for absorption by others — regardless of whether or not they are dependent on that monetarily, but also especially if they are — to question the healthiness of that perspective, and to take steps to make that relationship sustainable for themselves and their creative self and soul,” she says. “Even though what happened to me is extreme, I didn’t have that in place, and I almost lost my work because of it.”

To move on from the wild journey of the past few years, Weiler is releasing another new iMessage sticker set. Called “Love, Trash Doves,” the birds remind people to be kind to each other, and encourage empathy and compassion.

“I just want everyone making their work to take care of themselves first, the people they care about second, because that is a feedback loop — a much healthier one than internet notifications and follows ever will be,” she says.