So, About That ‘Tiny Hands’ Trump Chrome Extension…
Yesterday, I installed the Drumpfinator. This is the famous Chrome extension, launched by John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, that replaces the word “Trump” with “Drumpf”—his ancestral name—everywhere it appears in your browser. I wanted to understand the appeal of these extensions, and why they have emerged as a cultural force over the course of the last few weeks. You can install extensions that replace Trump’s name with “your drunk uncle at Thanksgiving,” or that add actual Trump quotes every time his name appears, or that remove any mention of him whatsoever.
This goes beyond Trump: such target text-swap extensions first started about five years ago as a means of scrubbing away celebrities’ names from your news feed. By now, you can also change “millennials” to “snake people,” or scrub any reference to Hillary Clinton or Kim Kardashian, or substitute a list of words, suggested by xkcd’s Randall Munroe, to better reflect the true nature of the news. (“Witnesses” becomes “these dudes I know”; “allegedly” transmogrifies into “kinda probably.”) You can also install an extension that lets you replace whatever words you like. (Swap “Jason Tanz” with “the world’s greatest living writer,” just for instance.)
These extensions puzzled me, because they’re essentially jokes that you play on yourself. There’s something clubby about them, a way of declaring your anti-Trumpness, for instance. But who are you declaring it to? Nobody knows that you’ve installed a Chrome extension. You don’t share them on Facebook or Twitter. Sure, there’s something inherently fun and culture-jammy about seeing ridiculous phrases dutifully reprinted in the staid fonts of the Wall Street Journal or New York Times, but after a while, the joke grows old, right?
This train of thought was interrupted this morning, when a member of our art team worked on a story of mine while an anti-Trump extension was installed on their browser. The result, unbeknownst to us, was that every instance of Trump’s name got replaced with the sobriquet “someone with tiny hands,” a reference to the candidate’s famed defensiveness about his finger-length. Our production team thought the phrase was a meta-gag, and let it through. The story—or, to be fair, the correction we ran on it—delighted the Internet. Someone’s personal joke had just become very public.
I hopped on the phone with Dan Sinker, the Internet prankster who wrote the extension in question. (Among other things, Sinker also wrote the @MayorEmanuel parody Twitter feed, and tried to arrange the group purchase of an abandoned town in Connecticut.) He was tickled, to say the least. “I’d never written a Chrome extension before, but was able to cobble it together” in about fifty minutes, he says. “Clearly it got picked up and installed by just enough people that you got fucked by it.”
For Sinker, Chrome extensions are powerful because they’re so subtle that people who install them often forget about them entirely—until they’re momentarily surprised to see them pop up in odd contexts, like during the reporting of election results. “If you think of a browser as a window, that’s how we see the world—and suddenly the world is totally changed,” Sinker says. “It’s like if when I looked at the sky, it was purple. It’s that same effect.”
At times, this can be downright disorienting. When Sinker’s hometown Chicago Tribune published an article about today’s snafu, he forwarded it to his wife, who wrote back: “Oh my god, they fucked up! They said ‘Someone with tiny hands’ as well!” They hadn’t, as it turned out; she just had the extension turned on.
But it’s also a way of exerting control over a seemingly chaotic world. Who hasn’t wished that they weren’t inundated with information they find distracting or trivial? Who hasn’t wished that the hated media would drop the phony objectivity and just call things as they really are? Who can’t understand the urge to see the world through Drumpf-colored glasses? Plenty of people, it turns out. Predictably, our error wasn’t viewed so kindly by Trump fans, who felt it revealed an unfair institutional bias against their candidate. I can understand that (though I could have done without their insinuations about my “microphallus”).
That’s the pernicious thing about these Chrome extensions: They create a fantasyland where your own beliefs and biases are reflected back at you. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that people at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum inhabit different worlds—they get their news from different sources, band together in different like-minded social circles, even process information in different ways. Text-replacement extensions double down on that idea, filtering out or editing anything you might disagree with—not to make a public argument or convince anyone, but merely to comfort or amuse yourself.
And that’s fine, as far as it goes. But political, social, or cultural protest it ain’t. It’s no surprise that since John Oliver launched the Drumpfinator, Trump has won twelve state primaries or caucuses.
That’s because Chrome extensions aren’t even preaching to the choir. They’re preaching to the preacher.