- A mysterious combination of three emoji – ???????????? – recently captured the attention of the tech industry on Twitter.
- The hype the project created, and the secrecy surrounding a purported app called It Is What It Is, was successful in getting thousands of interested users to clamor for invites and Silicon Valley elite donating to racial justice funds.
- In a statement posted late Friday night, the team behind the project revealed that what started as a meme shared among friends became something bigger than the group ever expected.
- With “It Is What It Is,” the team demonstrated how Silicon Valley is attracted in droves to secrecy and exclusivity, as was shone with invite-only app, like pay-for-email service Hey and audio-chat platform Clubhouse.
- According to team member Regynald Augustin, ???????????? has raised more than $US200,000 for charities supporting Black trans people and the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
For more than 24 hours, tech workers in Silicon Valley and high-profile venture capitalists were animated over what appeared to be a secretive app and a series of a cryptic tweets. Whatever it was appeared to be the next big thing: Investors and partners at venture firms like Draper and Gelt VC were talking about exclusive invites, techies at companies like Facebook were posting screenshots to Twitter, and prominent entrepreneurs were pleading with their followers for access and more info about the emoji combination ????????????. The only response: “It is what it is.”
On Friday night, the group behind the hype released a statement. It was what it was, a meme. There was no app.
It started as a joke and critique of Silicon Valley’s obsession with exclusive, invite-only apps like Hey and Clubhouse, and how the mostly white tech industry can ignore “real needs faced by marginalised people,” the statement said.
The group, mostly young people of colour in tech, said it used that exclusivity and secrecy to manufacture the kind of hype it knew would capture Silicon Valley. Then it “redirected it towards a critical social need” and raised more than $US200,000 for racial justice charities by Saturday morning, one of the members told Business Insider in an interview.
But only a few days before the almost-quarter-of-a-million dollars donated and nearly 50,000 email signups, the project was just a group chat among friends, a website made “during lunch,” and a TikTok meme added to Twitter profiles.
More than a half-dozen people involved with the project told Business Insider that they didn’t expect it to gather the steam it did. “We made memes and spread hype because we were bored and it was just something to do on, ya kno, a quarantined Thursday,”Tina Zheng, a software engineer in the Bay Area, said in a message.
“Once we had a bunch of hype, we realised we couldn’t *not* do anything with it,” she said. “That’s where we decided to redirect the attention to a more worthy cause.”
— regynald (@negroprogrammer) June 27, 2020
On Wednesday, Athena Kan, who leads the employment and training startup Ladder, texted Zheng with the idea to add the eye-mouth-eye emoji meme to their Twitter profiles. The two said they then contacted some friends to add it to their profiles as well, and formed a group chat on Twitter about the meme. In a matter of hours on Thursday, Zheng had bought a domain and another member of the group, David Bui, had created a website.
On Thursday night, the tech industry was introduced via Twitter, en masse, to this emoji combination: ????????????. Word spread about a mysterious project called “It Is What It Is,” as Silicon Valley clamored to figure out what the hype was all about and how the elite could secure their own access to the invite-only platform.
“What started out as a meme in our small group chat grew bigger than we ever imagined. So we thought about how to make use of the hype cycle we’d stumbled upon,” the team wrote in the statement. “But honestly, we didn’t have to think too hard: in this moment, there’s pretty much no greater issue to amplify than the systemic racism and anti-Blackness much of the world is only beginning to wake up to.”
In the day and a half after ???????????? first started appearing across Twitter, the team has raised more than $US200,000 for charities supporting the Black community and trans people of colour, according to Regynald Augustin, an engineer at Twitter who helped launch the project. The group’s website currently encourages visitors to donate to the Loveland Foundation, The Innocence Project, and The Okra Project.
Augustin and Reggie James, the founder of nascent social app Eternal, told Business Insider that a diverse group of around 60 20-somethings in tech were behind “It Is What It Is.” After members started adding “????????????” to their Twitter names and bios, it didn’t take long for it to catch on. It took on a life of its own, as many struggled figure out whether this purported app was real, or merely an elaborate satire of tech marketing. The website didn’t help explain any further: The only clickable thing on it was a box directing you to “give us ur info,” where you could enter your email to, presumably, get on the app’s waitlist.
Augustin told Business Insider that 30,000 to 50,000 people added their emails to the waitlist. The team successfully captured the tech industry’s attention ahead of a teased announcement for Friday night at 7pm PT, shortly after which they released tbe statement.
— it is what it is (@itiseyemoutheye) June 27, 2020
Both the name and the emoji (????????????) associated with it are, expectedly, based in meme culture, as Josh Constine first pointed out. The emoji can be traced back to this YouTube video from last year, and is now freely used across social platforms for “expressing surprise, shock, anger, or disgust,” according to Urban Dictionary. The name – It Is What It Is – goes beyond a commonly used idiom. The audio from this video of a group of teens echoing these words has, since then, become a popular soundtrack for short videos on the viral app TikTok.
The majority of tweets shared about the app became forms of trolling, purporting the inside-joke feeling of meme culture. But on Twitter, it only made Silicon Valley elite more intrigued, as hundreds messaged team members trying score invites and making donations to move up on the waitlist.
“People thought there was a new private beta with only these young tech kids. They wanted in because no one can not be in the know,” James said.
The people behind It Is What It Is seem to be onto something. The dramatic pull of exclusivity and secrecy in Silicon Valley was demonstrated earlier this year, after an invite-only audio-chat app called Clubhouse launched in beta. Although the app has just 5,000 users, it’s already valued at $US100 million.
“It’s a time where everyone wants to be on one of these private social apps,” Augustin said. “They want to be on this up-and-coming thing,”