Future Tense

How a Star Wars Crab Became a Federal Agency’s Twitter Avatar

U.S. Digital Service A red, white, and blue crab bearing two crossing lightsabers
The U.S. Digital Service’s unofficial crab logo, with a May the Fourth treatment
U.S. Digital Service

Federal agencies doing weird things on Twitter isn’t exactly new, even if the tweets often end up deleted. Still, it isn’t every day that one changes its avatar to a crab. But that’s exactly what the U.S. Digital Service has done, a fact that was recently brought to my attention thanks to a tweet from Leigh Giangreco:

As a tech nerd (and passable Star Wars fan), I had to get some answer to Twitter’s burning questions: Why was the new logo a crab? Why was it a crab holding lightsabers? These are the things tech journalists need to know on a relatively slow news week. Fortunately, the USDS was happy to answer my press inquiry. I spoke on the phone with Ellen Butters, a designer at USDS, and Matt Cutts, acting administrator. (Disclosure: Vivian Graubard, a co-founder of the USDS, now works at New America, where I’m an employee; New America is a partner with Slate and Arizona State University in Future Tense.)

The crab, they explained, is named Mollie, after Mollie Ruskin, the designer of USDS’s official logo. Why a crab? There were two explanations. Within the agency, people often use “crab claws”—a silent, one-handed clap that looks a lot like a crab pinching its claws—to show support during meetings without interfering with the video call. People have also taken to using the crab emoji on Slack and in communications, says Butters. The red, white, and blue crab was first designed by Butters in February and already appears on internal swag.

The light saber-version—Mollie’s introduction to the world—went up on May 4 as a joke for Star Wars Day. (The holiday is . .. pretty self-explanatory.) Cutts says that the agency has a long history of Star Wars stanning. Its team at the Pentagon is notorious for decking out the walls with memorabilia and has conference rooms named after characters like Yoda.

Butters and Cutts hope that showing off the agency’s creative side on social media might help them reach new recruits and demonstrate to the public that it’s a fun, experimental agency. And while that might sound a bit cheesy, they really do sound like a fun group! They also have not one but two bocce ball teams and like to go on group outings. I don’t even like sports, and I was already ready to send in my résumé. Go ahead and order my bocce ball-team T-shirt sporting Mollie, coach!

The U.S. Digital Service was founded by President Obama in 2014 to bring more technology and design talent into the government in the wake of the disastrous HealthCare.gov rollout. It might be best known for fixing HealthCare.gov, but its teams work with a number of agencies, including the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs.

“When I worked at Google, you didn’t have to worry about if people had heard of you before,” says Cutts. “A lot of people still have not heard about the USDS, so that might lead to a quick calling card like, ‘you might have heard of Health Care.gov’ or ‘here’s this cool logo.’ ”

And while it did take 13 days for me to notice the new logo, it seems like its new social media campaign is off to a good start! I was the second reporter to call them about the logo. And if Star Wars isn’t your thing, don’t worry—Cutts and Butters assure me there’s interest in a broad range of franchises at the agency. Butters actually used to be the digital design director at Marvel, a pedigree that I’m guessing no one at the Department of Agriculture shares.

Of course, as with any good social media story, there was a small controversy: The original Jedi Mollie actually had the wrong hilt for Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber, something that fans were quick to point out to the agency.

The original Star Wars Mollie with the wrong hilt for Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber.
The original Star Wars Mollie with the wrong hilt for Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber.
U.S. Digital Service

Butters says she knew it was wrong but just hadn’t gotten around to fixing it. As of Friday morning, it was corrected:

Frankly, there’s something refreshing about a government agency owning up to its mistake online. And look at those brand-tagging skills! While it’s unlikely that Mollie will ever become the official logo for the agency, Butters says we can look forward to new mashups in of June. The agency has designs planned for other upcoming events, like Comic Con and the Fourth of July.