"Learn to Code": The Meme Attacking Media


Last week, more than 1,000 jobs were eliminated at publishers including BuzzFeed and Verizon-owned Yahoo/AOL. Beginning Friday, Twitter was flooded with messages from freshly laid-off journalists, as well as condolences from their former colleagues. Media Twitter was simultaneously mourning the vicious cutbacks and condemning the VC publisher culture that necessitated them.

Many people retweeted requests for work, lauded the talents of the unfairly fired, or criticized BuzzFeed for its poor handling of the situation. But there was one frequently tweeted phrase that stood out from the sympathy: “Learn to code.”

What sounds like innocuous career advice is, in many cases, part of targeted harassment. The phrase “learn to code” was added to Know Your Meme four days ago, where it’s described as “an expression used to mock journalists who were laid off from their jobs, encouraging them to learn software development as an alternate career path.” Part of the Know Your Meme entry explains that those posting the phrase “believe those news organizations have been shitting on blue-collar workers for years.” Additionally, writer Talia Lavin posted screenshots from 4chan that suggest the “learn to code” tweets were a targeted attack by the notorious online message board. “Learn to code” is more than internet schadenfreude. It’s also the most recent rallying cry of an anti-media faction.

There was word Twitter was taking down “learn to code” tweets because they fall under the umbrella of abusive content, but a Twitter spokesperson clarified its position in an email: “It’s more nuanced than what was initially reported. Twitter is responding to a targeted harassment campaign against specific individuals—a policy that’s long been against the Twitter Rules.” Twitter also directed me to its policy on targeted harassment, which prohibits “behavior that encourages others to harass or target specific individuals or groups with abusive behavior.” I also asked Twitter whether it was able to identify coordinated efforts directed at the mass of recently laid-off writers, or whether it could tell where those efforts were coming from, but the company did not respond as of publishing.

“Learn to code” has reached its saturation point now, but the steam has been building for years—in fact, many journalists once criticized the idea that “learning to code” is a viable solution to societal ills. In 2013, intense backlash followed programmer Patrick McConlogue’s mission to teach a homeless man named Leo Grand to code instead of giving him cash. “What will the man choose? Money, or the opportunity to be some startup guy’s insane vanity project,” then–Valleywag reporter Sam Biddle wrote at the time. (Grand was swiftly labeled “the homeless coder,” and, as of 2015, he was still homeless.) The entire incident served to epitomize tech workers’ detachment from reality and a potential insensitivity for human struggle. “Learn to code” was thus turned into a joke by some in the media, poking fun at the idea that it is the only avenue to success.

In 2014, BuzzFeed’s Katie Notopoulos created a quiz called “Should You Learn to Code?” ridiculing Silicon Valley’s unfailing belief that code is the answer (Notopoulos herself received plenty of “learn to code” tweets this weekend). Tech PR executive Ed Zitron tweeted a joke in 2015 about the stupidity of screaming “learn to code” at someone. (In his case, a dog.) Now the phrase is being weaponized by the anti-media hordes, not so much to defend code as the end-all be-all—an ethos derided by plenty of journalists—but to shout it back at them with some sort of false and absurd victory as their jobs are taken away. “I think it’s a dumb and despicable thing to say to someone and that I hope that came across in that joke,” Zitron told me via DM when I asked about the 2015 tweet. “I also have never used it as an insult,” he says. “[I] didn’t even know it was a thing to do until the 4chan stuff happened. [It’s a] ridiculous idea that you tell someone to learn to code and they somehow will became prosperous. Like it’s some sort of solution. It’s so dumb.”

It’s not only the timing of the obnoxious unsolicited advice that takes it to a place of abuse—it’s also the targeting. “It’s just straight up spamming them,” he says, in a way meant to be “cruel and hurtful.” Through this lens, tweeting “learn to code” can be viewed as similar to the alt-right use of parentheses to label Jewish people, or how racists turned Pepe the Frog into a hate symbol—a way to covertly harass someone in a manner that is difficult for Twitter to detect. Before writing off “learn to code” as a harmless joke, it might be important to remember that it’s being hurled at a profession the president of the United States has at best belittled and at worst supported violence against. “Learn to code” is not a viral phrase that’s being spammed to out-of-work journalists; it’s a targeted attack disguised as a meme.