First, what exactly is a ‘Milkshake Duck’? The phrase is not even two years old. But it has exploded into public consciousness in such a big way that the Oxford dictionary considered adding it earlier this year (although it still hasn’t done so).
It originated as an inside joke on Twitter in June 2016 when user @pixelatedboat tweeted, “The whole internet loves Milkshake Duck, a lovely duck that drinks milkshakes! *5 seconds later* We regret to inform you the duck is racist!”
A milkshake duck is a person that we admire for one reason, usually something good or positive they have done. Later we find out other unrelated reprehensible things about them. We like them first, perhaps intensely. Afterwards, we reject them with scorn and contempt.
The social media giveth and the social media taketh away
Most of the recent discussion has been about milkshake ducks created by social media. There are many examples. Last year, an undecided voter Ken Bone asked a sincere question in a Presidential debate and won everyone’s hearts. A few days later, people found out he had posted a string of offensive comments on Reddit in the past. Popular YouTube star PewDiePie sprouted anti-Semitic ideas and faced sharp backlash after years of promoting mainstream brands in his video game review videos and gathering over 50 million subscribers. Then there was Robbie Tripp, who endeared himself by embracing his wife’s body image on Instagram, then was found to have written racist and transphobic tweets. Experts have argued that milkshake ducks prove the maxim that everything we love on the internet will let us down sooner or later. But why just the internet?
We encounter milkshake ducks in real life, not just the internet
Milkshake ducks need not be strangers. Nor do they have to be based only on social media. This phenomenon happens to all of us at one time or another with people we know. When I was in my late twenties, I had a good friend. We hung out for a number of years, often with our spouses. Then, in one explosive incident, we saw my friend lose his temper. The target was his wife. For what seemed a trivial reason (I cannot recall now what it was), he went ballistic, verbally abusing and berating her in front of us. Later we found out this was a pattern of behavior rather than an isolated incident. After this episode, our relationship deteriorated rapidly. I have not been in touch with the guy in ages. He became a milkshake duck.
Compared to even just a decade ago, we have more ways today to generate and share personal information that others, friends and strangers alike, can find. We leave an ever-growing and indelible trail of electronic communications, not just on social media platforms, but elsewhere on the internet as well, not to mention one-to-one messaging formats like texts and emails. We produce this information in all kinds of contexts when we are trying to be funny or impress someone, in a state of anger or frustration, or exhaustion, or after having a few too many drinks and not thinking straight. All our messages and posts remain online, but the contexts in which they were produced disappear.
As the context-free base of personal information grows, the opportunities for each one of us to become milkshake ducks also increase. How should we react when we learn something bad about someone we know?
Three nuances to consider when judging potential milkshake ducks
First, not all transgressions are equal. On social media, in particular, people’s infractions tend to be amplified and judged harshly. So much so, that it can ruin careers and lives. In the anonymity afforded by the internet, there is little interest in giving people the benefit of the doubt. Instead, we often fill in the blanks in ways that make the person seem even worse. For example, we give little credit for poorly executed attempts at humor or sarcasm.
It is one thing if the individual has a consistent history of the transgressive behavior. It is a different matter entirely if the transgression, even if it is a serious one, is a one-off occurrence, fueled by a unique context. Psychologists, more than anyone else, know just how context-driven behaviors can be, and how easy it is to attribute someone’s action to their volition or personality rather than to the context. What this means is milkshake ducks deserve more consideration (and investigation) before they are shoved off their pedestals and turned into pariahs.
Source: Fallen Angel by Gaston Roulstone Unsplash Licensed Under CC BY 2.0
Second, what else we know about the falling angel should be a significant consideration. If all we see is based on a tentatively asked question on television during a presidential debate, or a couple of Instagram or Facebook posts extolling their spouse’s body image, it does not take much to reverse our opinion. After all, we have almost nothing invested in our relationship with the person. However, if we know someone in real life, and have witnessed their kindnesses, good cheer, and ethical behaviors over the course of numerous interactions, we are likely to (and should) give them far more latitude when they transgress.
Third, it depends on who the potential offender is. The criteria we will use for someone on the internet that we do not know will be different than for someone that we know in real life, or who is close to us. Research has shown that we tend to be more forgiving of those who are close to us, and such responses even occur automatically, without much thinking. Internet strangers are more likely to become our milkshake ducks than our family and close friends. And this is as it should be.