The group behind 👁👄👁 says that wasn’t the intention. “We were just fooling around online,” says Reggie James, the founder of the startup Eternal, who put the symbols in his bio after he saw friends Athena Kan and Tina Zheng, both young women in tech, do the same. Others on Twitter began to join in. David Bui, another friend, took 45 minutes to make a website that showed the emoji bouncing around ad infinitum.
“I kept seeing 👁👄👁 early Thursday, and I was like ‘cool, we’re shitposting,’” says Regynald Augustin, an engineer at Twitter. “I posted it a couple places, and then I saw the first product mock-up. I DMed Tina, and I was like, ‘I thought we were shitposting, what is this?’ And she was like, ‘We are, join our group chat, change your name to have 👁👄👁.’”
It was just young people having fun on the internet. Then James—who is black and who has been critical about systemic bias in venture capital—thought it would be funny to raise a fake round for 👁👄👁. He tweeted about the startup receiving a $4 million investment on a $40 million pre-money valuation, a pointed joke about the kind of FOMO that drives tech valuations. “In terms of what happened,” he says, “the next 36 hours were just shot.”
Overnight, James says, more than 30,000 people entered their email address into Bui’s website, which made no promise of early access to the app but resembled many of the other invite-only betas. Then the hype started to build on Twitter. “Once we saw that, it was like, ‘We should do something. And it should be the most important thing going on in the world right now,’” says James. “We played with the boundaries of the internet as we know how to use it.”
By this point, there were about 60 people in the 👁👄👁 group chat. Most of them were already internet acquaintances, and they quickly started adding to the joke. Many alluded to the group in their Twitter bios, writing that they were “working on something new 👁👄👁.” Others gave themselves fake titles, from the ordinary—head of content, social media manager—to the more colorful—head of vibes, chief gay. Someone started a rumor that if you sent in a receipt for a donation to a racial justice organization, you’d get bumped up on the list for private beta access. They started keeping track of how much money they’d raised this way.
Josh Constine, a venture capitalist and the former editor of TechCrunch, wrote about the nascent app in his newsletter, speculating that 👁👄👁 was a platform that lets people “share your voice and imagery to a map and Stories-like bar that you can serendipitously tap through.” Other investors, like Andrew Chen of Andreessen Horowitz, tweeted about it too. (Chen has since deleted his tweet.)
James says several investors made serious inquiries about pursuing 👁👄👁, though he declined to name names. “Listen, there are no boundaries when something looks this viral,” he says. “There were multiple conversations about the round and if I was helping raise it.”
In about 36 hours, the group hit $50,000 in donations. Then, on Friday night, they made their big reveal. “We’re excited that we could use our newfound platform to drive action towards a few causes that are doing important work toward racial justice,” the group wrote on Twitter. Two anonymous individuals agreed to match donations, bringing the total raised to $200,000. It also announced a line of merchandise; James says the group has made over $10,000 in merchandising sales, the profits of which will also go to charity.