I started watching Brother HQ on Snapchat around the time it launched mid-2016, when I saw it one day among the media outlets and other public accounts on the app’s “Discover” feature. The name was at the top of a rectangular frame, above a picture of a guy who looked like he was in the middle of demonstrating something. I couldn’t tell if the account belonged to one or more people, or whose sibling it was identifying as. Maybe this was the stage name of that guy in the frame, and based on his crispy appearance, maybe he was a Lil Dicky prototype. Mildly curious, I thumb-tapped to see.
It turned out Brother is a content channel, exclusive to Snapchat, meant for guys in the millennial age range. Its posts are done as Snapchat stories, the app’s vanishing slideshows, a feature that was private and user-exclusive at first, but has extended to include media and sponsored content. Esquire and Vice are probably Brother’s closest acquaintances on the social media app, but where they tend to reformat previously published articles with animations and other visuals, Brother’s daily stories are produced especially for the app. They’re designed to disappear, save for snippets they post on their auxiliary Facebook and Instagram accounts.
While they’re still there, the stories might give me a true-or-false feature on unbelievable sex facts, or a series of mini-interviews with strippers, or a first person guide on how I should prepare myself before a date. “Brother is here with everything worth knowing… and the occasional thing that isn’t,” its Facebook bio says. On its website, the channel describes itself as a “smart, fun older brother who doesn’t punch you.”
The product blurs the line between online content and sitcom television, following the precedent of BuzzFeed YouTube series such as the Try Guys, in which a cast of men did things they considered absurd, like trying BDSM or getting makeovers from high school girls (the Try Guys parted ways with Buzzfeed in the summer of last year to form their own production company). Brother has its own recurring cast of characters, made of the millennials who work there, who silently perform under superimposed captions—scratching their chins as a question floats above their heads (Should I lift some dumbbells or jerk off before a date?), and doing an Aha! face when the next slide reveals the answer (Jerk off!).
It’s a workplace comedy about making video listicles. The sidekick character—the mascot and mentor in all things bro-ological—is Dan Plonsker. They sell mugs with his blond-bearded face on it, and according to the item’s description, “Dan is BROTHER’s most popular employee, so he gets his very own merch!” He started out as an intern and production assistant, and three years later became an associate producer at Vertical Networks (the studio behind Brother), though in the manner he’s put on display, he comes off more like a star of the show. Alongside Plonsker, the protagonist is me. Except I don’t get my own dialogue or the ability to steer the action, other than by tapping through the stories. Whenever I choose to watch, the point is for me to enact the plot in my day-to-day life.
At first I found the advice moderately useful. Brother said it was better to hold beer in my left hand at a party, so my right hand wouldn’t be all moist when I went to shake someone else’s hand. Even if it wasn’t beer, when I was handling a cold beverage of some sort in public, I found myself complying. Hoping for more moderately useful information, I hit “subscribe” and began regularly watching.
The longer I watched, though, the more doubts I began to have about being the lead character. The suggestions about body presentation veered into more and more frivolous territory: At one point, my castmates inside my phone told me I should be spray-tanning myself if I’m having sex with the lights on. I think they said it would make my body look more appealing and my contours more prominent.
More recently, Plonsker demonstrated what’s the most attractive way to make eye contact with a person. Given a choice between either looking directly at someone with a straight face or slowly raising my head with an aw-shucks grin, the caption said I should go for the latter. The science behind why this option was the most attractive seemed murky and debatable, but it was one more entry for Brother to toss into its continuously regenerating guide to body presentation. It’s hard to imagine, as the expert advice about how to hyper-analyze your most minor quirks and behaviors accumulates, that the Brother cast has carefully gone through their scientific sources and put aside confirmation bias.
A few days after that eye-contact bit was a quiz on sex myths and facts, a topic that comes up yet again (I imagine my Brother friends, off screen, glancing at the editorial calendar and groaning). I learned that drinking coffee makes cum taste bad and penis size is related to ring-finger size, things I vaguely remembered them having told me a few months before. The story ended on a teasing note: “Myth or fact? Your sex life… MYTH.” At least they were upfront about one of the goals of men’s lifestyle publications—to make the reader/viewer feel insecure. The stories are as recurring as the anxieties. The ephemera machine doesn’t seem to care whether its seasoned viewers notice. The content closely resembles a sitcom, but it’s not designed to retain an audience the way a sitcom does.
I began to see the underlying purpose of Dan Plonsker, how his boosterism—as a production assistant/backstage cog now placed front and center—plays out as a glorified concession of “backstage” entertainment industry labor.
The more habituated I became to the redundancy of the stories, the more annoyingly visible their rhetorical tactics became. I began to see the underlying purpose of Dan Plonsker, how his boosterism—as a production assistant/backstage cog now placed front and center—plays out as a glorified concession of “backstage” entertainment industry labor. By watching him, I’m supposed to be convinced of how dope it is to be a millenial working at a media corporation in Venice Beach.
Brother might pride itself on being innovative for tailoring the men’s lifestyle experience specifically to the social media-savvy viewer. What really sets it apart from others in its field is how, in rendering the viewer as their protagonist, it presents the channel as a digitized family member. Maybe they wanted to refer to the word “Bro” without being too curt, so they rendered the colloquialism in longhand. It seems more significant than that to me, though. By calling themselves Brother (I honestly can’t tell whether or not they’re aware of the Orwell nod), they’re literalizing corporate personhood—the notion in legal doctrine that a corporation can be treated as if it were an individual human. If this is actually my sibling, then it’s in the manifestation of Dan Plonsker, or rather the performative concept of “Dan Plonsker” which is linked to the concept of Brother as a “metaphysical human.” That’s a term used by Yale Law School professor John Witt to distinguish the legal loopholes granted towards corporations; as he once told NPR, corporations can be recognized as “persons for some purposes, and they’re not persons for others.” For instance, they can be tried for a crime, but they can’t marry.
In this case, Snapchat and Vertical Networks are the overarching corporations, and Brother in its very name is branded as a human: the metaphysical child of its metaphysical parents, and the metaphysical sibling of fellow Snapchat-exclusive channels conceived by Vertical. It’s the production company’s most popular offspring with Snapchat, and they’ve exploited their kid to help institutionalize the category of “mobile-first” media on the app. (Thanks to Vertical’s success, one of their other channels, Phone Swap—where two young adults look at the other person’s phone and then decide if they want to get drinks together—is a program on Fox.)
This kind of intimate deception seems fundamental to gendered media. In an essay for the New Republic last year, Josephine Livingstone used a reviled personal essay from Refinery29 to explore the systemic issues of “women’s media.” The anonymous writer’s account of a blowout weekend in the Hamptons, Livingstone wrote, masked something deeper: “Refinery29 combines lifestyle content (fashion, skincare, diaries, work advice) with inspirational feminist sentiment and an embrace of queer identities,” she wrote. “It also eases up the boundaries of journalism so that the lucrative world of marketing and PR and branding can seep in at the edges.”
Brother is more old-fashioned and heteronormative, but its archetype of a wise older brother (with the innocuous implicit menace of “who doesn’t punch you”) still appears to be intimate while being invasive and encouraging dissatisfaction. Refinery29 says I can alleviate this dissatisfaction by purchasing the products they advertise, and Brother says I can do this by staying on Snapchat and bonding with other Vertical children—marketing their siblings on behalf of their parents. Would this invasive agenda be too unchill for the channel and its characters? They’re the ones telling me I have an older brother who lives in my smartphone.
Not all the product is intangible. There still is that Plonsker mug. Even when I was regularly viewing Brother, though, I had no desire to buy it. It felt like a cringey attempt to make subscribers get in on a company inside joke. From a greater distance, out here in the world, the prospect of drinking out of the dude’s noggin feels like idolatry.