A strange thing happened on the way to write this article: I got into an argument with an internet troll about Star Trek.
As a rule, I don’t engage with arguments on social media platforms since they are usually an act of futility, but I was truly mystified by this person’s viewpoint.
Before I admit what we were discussing, however, I need to ask you to brace yourself. It’s pretty damn nerdy. Like, nerdy for nerds nerdy.
Ok. You ready? Take a deep breath. Here it goes: we were arguing about the political affiliations of the different factions on Deep Space Nine.
I know, I know, I know. Next time we meet, I will submit to your atomic wedgie willingly.
But you see, I’ve always viewed Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets as progressive, liberal institutions. They’re on a mission of peace and discovery—where science has usurped superstition in the mainstream—while the show itself explores themes of gender, race, tolerance, and other social issues.
This person made a lot of great points and wrote them rather eloquently, but they viewed the uber-religious Bajorans and the warmongering Cardassians as the liberals. And they viewed Starfleet and the United Federation of Planets as the conservatives. My mind was blown. Had we watched the same show? How could two intelligent people view the same program with such different interpretations? Did they know nothing of Gene Rodenberry’s social and political standings? What reality was this person living in?
It’s no secret that we live in troubling times (that’s probably a vast understatement) and the political divide in America has never seemed wider in my lifetime. But I think Star Trek has important messages for those that are willing to look at them honestly, without viewing them through a preconceived filter.
And this is why I wanted to chat with Joe Sondow, the author behind @RikerGoogling and @PicardTips on Twitter who is the exact opposite of that internet troll. While these accounts may seem like exercises in frivolity on the surface, they’re actually courageous acts of political satire that use the lens of Star Trek to convey their message.
@RikerGoogling uses humor to hold up a mirror to our modern-day struggles by showing us Riker’s Google search history from the 24th century. Comical Tweets may seem insignificant at first glance, but when you look more closely, this powerful humor can reshape the way people view the world.
Take a look at this recent Tweet:
when did dukat demand sisko’s birth certificate— Riker Googling (@RikerGoogling) July 22, 2020
And this one:
breonna taylor— Riker Googling (@RikerGoogling) June 22, 2020
But the account also does straightforward comedy too:
do borg poop— Riker Googling (@RikerGoogling) May 26, 2020
@PicardTips shares management tips from The Next Generation that could be applied in the real world. I mean, who wouldn’t want their manager to be more like Picard?
Thanks again for agreeing to answer a few questions! I’m a huge fan of both @RikerGoogling and @PicardTips, so this is a tremendous honor for me. In one of your recent tweets, you said that you started @PicardTips while doing a re-watch of The Next Generation and undergoing physical therapy. What about that experience inspired you to start the account?
TNG is comfort food for me and a lot of people. It was one of the most popular TV shows in the 90s for a reason, and its cultural importance has stood the test of time, partly because it’s one of the only utopian visions of the future we get to see, and specifically because Picard’s ship seems like one of the only workplaces most of us have ever seen where it looks genuinely enjoyable to work there year after year. Despite the weekly threat of annihilation from space calamity, you get to work for Jean-Luc Picard, the platonic ideal of the good manager.
Physical therapy takes time every day. It’s boring. There’s a lot of counting and remembering what the next exercise is. It made me late for work a lot, but my injured ankles desperately needed it. I put TNG on Netflix because it felt warm and safe to watch in the morning and didn’t require my full attention because I’d already seen it.
Watching TNG as a working adult who had had both dreadfully abusive managers and brilliantly supportive managers, my mind started identifying the specific choices Picard was making that created an atmosphere of trust and success on the Enterprise, choices that good managers make in offices today. I started posting those thoughts occasionally on my personal Facebook feed as Picard Management Tips. Someone at work loved them and suggested I make a Twitter account for them, so I did, and it worked.
After that I continued watching TNG and identifying what behavior Picard was doing in each of his scenes that could be phrased in terms that were general enough to apply to either the 21st century or the 24th. I also started observing managers at the company I worked for (Netflix) to identify their choices that I judged as good or bad manager practices, and then using those to inspire more advice from my version of Picard. It usually lined up pretty well; if I saw a Netflix manager do something that seemed like a good idea, I would have Picard recommend that behavior, and conversely if I saw a manager do something cruel or foolish I would have Picard recommend not doing that thing.
And what was the inspiration behind @RikerGoogling?
After @PicardTips I made @RikerTips and put a few Riker-related jokes on it, but he isn’t really someone with a lot of great advice to give, so @RikerTips wasn’t as easy to continue writing material for. But one day I was working from home, and I forgot I was still connected to my work VPN when I took a break and looked up some embarrassing stuff on the internet, stuff you wouldn’t want your workplace IT department to know you were looking at. When I realized my mistake, I disconnected from the VPN and decided this was the sort of thing William Riker would have done, and would have advice about, so I tweeted from @RikerTips:
Riker propriety tip: Disconnect from your work VPN before you search the internet for something weird.— Riker Tips (@RikerTips) February 13, 2014
I reread the Tweet and thought, “What was Riker googling?” And it dawned on me that this question was a setup with an infinite number of punchlines. This was the perfect marriage between the character of Commander Riker and the medium of Twitter. So I made a @RikerGoogling account and started tweeting things I imagined Riker would google, such as “vulcan pornstars under 90.”
For the most part, @PicardTips seems to focus on Star Trek-inspired advice that could actually be applied to real-world scenarios, while @RikerGoogling is more about off-color humor and responding to current events. Was the difference between the two accounts intentional from the beginning or is it something that developed over time?
The current events part of @RikerGoogling wasn’t really there at the beginning. That grew out of Riker googling things I was googling, but with a Star Trek spin sometimes. It’s just easier to write things a person would search for than it is to write advice about a given topic, so I lean more into @RikerGoogling as a dumping ground for possibly funny jokes than I do with @PicardTips, which I take more seriously because helping people become better managers is really important to me.
My whole life I’ve always had a special frustration with authority figures who misuse their power or refuse to do the work to become better leaders. All that said, I have occasionally added some @PicardTips that are about governmental politics rather than office work. When the fascists in the GOP do their evil crap, that would have pissed off Picard.
Like the best Star Trek episodes, your tweets often carry clever social commentary without being too overt. Is it hard for you to strike that balance? Do you draft multiple versions of the same tweet before posting it?
No, I don’t really try to avoid being overt intentionally. It’s more that I like to subtweet and let the joke live in the unsaid space between what I wrote and what pops into the mind of the reader.
Jokes are important for social justice because the pleasure they give encourages people to share and consume them without tiring out the reader with an unending deluge of misery that lacks a moment of comic relief where you get to exhale. Also, people follow these character accounts for their comforting familiarity. That only works if the characters stay true to their original characterization, which is that they are idealistic fancy future space men with cool gadgets.
Do you have a personal favorite @RikerGoogling or @PicardTips Tweet?
I love entertaining people, so my favorites are the ones that the most people enjoyed. I liked when Riker googled:
how to use civility to stop the borg— Riker Googling (@RikerGoogling) June 26, 2018
And when Picard pointed out:
Picard ethics tip: The fact that a conflict has many sides does not imply that every side has merit.— Picard Tips (@PicardTips) August 15, 2017
Have you ever posted a Tweet that you thought would generate a big response and knock it out of the park, but it didn’t perform well? If so, what was the Tweet?
Oh yes, many times, but I deleted and forgot about them.
I have a terrible memory, and I try to go back and delete Tweets that not many people retweeted, so the historical feed is a better read than if I kept all the weak ideas intact. Twitter is an excellent place to test out jokes for that reason. I used to keep track, so I can show you some unfunny google searches if you really want, but by their nature they’re just not as interesting as the ones that made the cut:
“fix stuck zipper”
“wikihow clean phaser”
“brain modification keeping new year’s resolutions”
Do you have any advice for someone that’s launching their own satire account?
I get this question enough that I wrote a blog post to answer it in full.
The short version is that it isn’t as simple as having an idea. You might need a lot of good ideas, most of which won’t work, and possibly a lot of time and perseverance and patience without any reward. But most importantly, you also need either luck or a friend with a large following whose audience is certain to love the thing you’re making. Most novelty accounts are totally ignored, and there’s no shortcut around that fact. Even most of mine didn’t really go anywhere. I have dozens that just didn’t work, and I wrote daily in obscurity for years before the followings grew much.
When I’m hanging out with friends, we go through @RikerGoogling and read some of our favorite Tweets to each other. Have you ever thought about publishing them as a collection? I think it could really sell!
People ask me this once in a while, especially about @PicardTips, and there’s truth to it. I don’t know. The content only works in the context of these particular popular characters in the Star Trek franchise, so it would need to go through the owners of that intellectual property. I’m wary of approaching them with my body of work to ask to monetize it that way, when those owners haven’t come to me to show any interest or even approval of what I’m doing. They already published a book about business management from Picard’s point of view, and they also published a novelty book of the TNG Season Eight Twitter account’s imaginary episode summaries, but I don’t know how well those books did. I haven’t been convinced yet that the effort and risk are worthwhile. Maybe I’m just lazy.
I have a feeling that I already know the answer to this one but who is your favorite Starfleet Captain and why?
I’ve heard good reasons why people pick Janeway or Sisko, and as I get older, I’m starting to lean toward them, but for most of my life it’s been Picard. He just makes everyone feel taken care of. He knows what he’s doing and how to get out of the way and when and how to say “no” without traumatizing his staff members. All three of them (Janeway, Sisko, Picard) are really pretty good at that, honestly, and I worry that choosing Picard is driven by my own insufficiently challenged sexism and racism. Star Trek is difficult to nail down because it’s full of contradictions. If Picard’s Enterprise is the ideal office environment, what’s the in-universe explanation for why more than half of the leadership positions are filled by cis straight white people, mostly men? Of course, there’s the out-of-universe explanation, but how ideal can Picard be if that’s the supposed utopia he operates in?
Are you a fan of the new Picard series on CBS All Access? Has the show changed how you approach @PicardTips?
I am! I’m a fan of most Star Trek shows that aren’t The Original Series, which has great historical importance but is just unwatchable now. (Readers, please send hate mail so I know who to block.) And I’m just recently giving Enterprise more of a chance now that Netflix lets me skip the theme song. Star Trek: Picard is enjoyable. I’m grateful for any continuation of the Star Trek universe that proceeds in time after Voyager’s return instead of giving us Yet Another Kirk Prequel. The direction the writers took in STP doesn’t let Picard shine like TNG did, so I haven’t found much in it to inspire my own work, outside of hosting the #StarTrekHour Twitter conversations about the new shows.
One last question for you: if it were possible to meet Jean-Luc Picard in real life, what would be the first thing you’d say to him?
“It’s an honor to meet you, sir. I’m a big fan of your work. Thank you for setting such a good example. We’re all better off for having you around.”
This interview has been edited for clarity.