The Ballad Of Jeremy Renner’s App And The Glory Of Failed Social Engineering

It’s hard to beat the story from this past week about Jeremy Renner having to shut down his official app because Stefan Heck decided to write “porno” on it. You can appreciate it on a shallow level — “Jeremy Renner,” “official Jeremy Renner app,” and “porno,” are all funny on their own and even better together — but also on a slightly deeper level, as a failed attempt at a social engineering project gone gloriously right. It says a lot about this weird cultural moment, as they say.

The natural response to the Jeremy Renner app story, other than laughter, is probably first to wonder “wait, Jeremy Renner has an app?” Followed quickly by pondering the questions of why Jeremy Renner has an app, and what a Jeremy Renner app could possibly do.

Wired delved into this very question recently, discovering that the app comes from a company called EscapeX, a business that aims to create “self-contained social networks for the stars.”

EscapeX counts Amber Rose, Paris Hilton, and actor Chris D’Elia among its clients, providing what CEO Sephi Shapira describes as a “toolbox,” a variety of app functions and features that an influencer can choose from as they strike out on their own.

“If you’re on Instagram or on Facebook, you have an account on these platforms, but you don’t own the content,” says Shapira. “Once you post, the content belongs to Instagram or Facebook, and they can also shut down your account for any reason, and they can decide how much access you have to your audience.”

Essentially, they’re attempting to create a private social media network for celebs where that celeb can only be praised. And perhaps even charge people for the opportunity.

The Renner app, for instance, gave fans the option to purchase “stars,” which vaulted users to the top of some sort of leaderboard of Rennheads. (In his statement announcing the shuttering of his app, Renner declared a refund for anyone who had purchased a star in the last 90 days.)

Now, you might wonder, why would the world need such a thing? I mean, clearly it doesn’t, but why would some app grifter be able to convince a celeb that the world needs such a thing?

It all goes back to the early days of social media. It’s a little hard to remember now how crazy those first few years of Twitter were, but it really felt like something new. You could ask a question to a celebrity, or praise their movie, or call them a fuckwad, and they might actually respond to you. Or even wilder, you could do a post so good that someone you knew from the TV might retweet it. Actually, the thrill of that one still hasn’t quite worn off.

The story that best illustrates those optimistic early years is the one where someone tweeted that they were in the same restaurant as Shaq, Shaq saw it in his feed, and then invited them over and bought them lunch. It’s crazy to think back to those days not too long ago when the internet, and social media, seemed to promise this new world of greater connection, and that that greater connection might be a good thing. Now it seems to promise simultaneously the potential to be doxxed and an abiding loneliness.

That radical new freedom and ability to connect was initially liberating, but soon after allowed us to discover just how many people couldn’t be trusted with that freedom. For every wide-eyed fan happy just to share a lunch it seemed there were two others who considered it their civic duty to call you a fuckwad if you were in a bad movie. It’s easy to think of politeness as instinctual, a kind of common sense, but all it takes is a new technology to really drive home how much etiquette is a learned behavior.

The phenomenon also goes the other way. Famous people now often seek out criticism of themselves and then treat it like vandalism when they find it, like someone tracked mud on their nice carpet. Recent example: Lana Del Rey seeking out an NPR critic over a mixed-positive review of Del Rey’s new album. She apparently didn’t like the review and tweeted at the reviewer “…don’t call yourself a fan like you did in the article and don’t count your editor one either… my gift is the warmth I live my life with and the self reflection I share generously.”

I’m still thinking about the “my gift is the warmth I live my life with” part, almost a week later. She is a star! Your job, critic, is merely to bask in the glow!

Or the ultimate example, when New York Times editorialist Bret Stephens, searching his own name, discovered that a college professor had called him “bedbug” in a tweet almost no one had seen at that point. Stephens then made it the most famous tweet in the world for a few days when he got caught emailing the school’s provost and trying to get the author of the bedbug tweet fired. Stephens was roundly mocked, but, bravely eschewing introspection, he doubled down with a fresh editorial. This one was about how mean people on Twitter are just like Nazis, complete with a giant top image of Joseph Goebbels and a since-deleted link showing that he’d searched “Jews as bedbugs” in Google Books in an attempt to cherry-pick quotes to support his thesis (his thesis being “isn’t people being mean to me the real Holocaust?”).

This is the dumb world in which the phenomenon of private, curated social media just for celebrities makes sense. If you fly in a private jet, why shouldn’t you have a private Instagram where no one can call you a bedbug? In ExcapeX, no one can be forced to hear themselves be called a fuckwad (unless someone uses the word porno).

Celebrities are an extreme example, but the boom-and-bust pattern of online communities also exposes the casual elitism that lives in all of us. Social media platforms are revolutionary and egalitarian and a tool for democracy — that is, until your weird, cat-obsessed aunt and Fox News-watching step-uncle get a hold of them and gradually they start to suck. To say nothing of capitalism, the evilest cat aunt of all, turning your dog video website into an extremism engine.

This phenomenon, where the internet gives us a great freedom that we quickly realize we can’t be trusted with, seems to recreate itself over and over across different platforms and systems. A new technology democratizes something, like being able to call someone a fuckwad, and then the resulting anarchy makes us yearn for the less chaotic, less democratic systems of old, where certain holds are barred.

Jeremy Renner’s app is the funny example, of a celebrity trying to privatize something that makes no sense as a private good, like praising a celebrity. “It’s your lucky day: Now you can PAY for the right to tell me that Hurt Locker is good!”

It actually reminded me of a few years back when Steven Seagal’s branded clickfarm led me down a rabbit hole to the eventual discovery of the phenomenon of celebrity-branded clickfarms, where celebrities could license discount internet slurry and create their own parallel content universe, which would… expand their fanbase, I guess? Sometimes the ends are not clear. Months after I posted about it they even cannibalized one of my very own posts.

But more often these days it seems it seems like the new world just accidentally or deliberately recreates the old one. The heady old days of Google Reader and blogs and writers on fly-by-night networks of sites with stupid names like “FilmDrunk” eventually got trimmed and consolidated and conglomerated and homogenized until new media looked… pretty much like old media, where a handful of big brands mostly run everything.

First, we had TV networks, and a handful of channels. Then we had cable, and hundreds of channels. Then we cut our cords, then networks started charging us for all that streaming, and started more streaming channels, and now we’re kind of back to everyone having like five channels again. The other day, Plex went public with a plan to “become a one-stop destination in the streaming wars.”

Imagine, one, like… box, where you could have all your, like, channels… together.

The tech industry excels at disrupting the world by selling us things we already have. Infamously, a few years back, there was the tech startup that tried to re-invent the concept of a city bus. This phenomenon even seems to infect the language of tech itself. So many times in tech I’ve heard someone use a fancy new word like “calendarize,” that made me want to scream, “We already have that word, it’s called ‘schedule!'”

We haven’t figured out how to fix or repurpose or reuse, only to build new, to make shiny things for the cool kids to enjoy for a few months before the cat aunts and stink uncles move in. It’s wasteful and kind of exhausting once you recognize the pattern. And yet… every once in awhile, there’s a glitch or a hiccup in the system that reminds us that we’re not dead yet.

The Jeremy Renner app’s failure was one of those brief moments, where human ingenuity briefly defeated human predictability. It took something pointless and turned it into art.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.