I used to spend too much time on Instagram. Happily, though, after the publication of that post, I (mostly) followed my own advice. I stopped following people I know and followed only people I don’t, accounts with handles like TheFatJewish and FuckJerry and me_irl_bot and SpicyDeepFriedMemesv3. (I’m glad I didn’t have to suffer through v1 and v2 memes; if that’s not technological progress, I don’t know what is.)
Me_irl_bot is probably the most innocuous of the bunch. As the name implies, it’s a bot that reposts content from r/me_irl, a subreddit for (usually cringey) memes that the posters believe are representative of themselves in real life, or IRL. (If none of that made any sense to you, be thankful.) But me_irl_bot doesn’t post all content from r/me_irl; it’s selective, and uses some combination of recency and popularity to make its decisions. A more lofty label for me_irl_bot might be me_irl aggregator, or curator: it serves up the best of me irl, saving the casual meme-watcher the trouble of sifting through all the bad ones. (Interestingly, there is a further level of curation in Instagram itself, which, infamously, doesn’t display all posts in chronological order, because ranking or curating the posts maximizes viewers’ time on the app and thus advertising revenue.)
Whenever I mention me_irl_bot to one of my work friends, he sniffs derisively. I should go straight to the source, he says, instead of relying on a bot that is simply stealing other people’s content. (The question of to what extent me irl memes are truly original content themselves is certainly interesting, but it is undoubtedly true that meme creators modify their source material at least a little bit, while me_irl_bot does not at all.) If me_irl_bot makes its creator any money — and, since it doesn’t do sponsored content, this is unlikely — it is certain that none of it is going to the humble memers of Reddit.
TheFatjewish and FuckJerry steal content too, mostly from Twitter instead of Reddit. Unlike me_irl_bot, though, they make heaps of money. Here’s an excerpt from a 2017 profile of FuckJerry:
[Its founder, Elliot] Tebele has indeed–against the odds, considering his polarizing sense of humor–spawned a profitable company, which now reportedly generates millions of dollars in annual sales through branded content. (A Forbes estimate says the brand was on track to generate $3 million in sales last year, though the company would not confirm the number.) Tebele and his team of 20–including co-founders Elie Ballas, Ben Kaplan, Mick Purzycki, and James Ohliger–also manage an advertising agency, Jerry Media, charging brands including General Mills, Subway, and Express for custom content and account takeovers. Tebele has even done one-off promotional work for celebrities like Justin Bieber.
The team is capitalizing on the rapid rise of social media marketing, particularly on Instagram, where users share an average of 95 million photos and videos per day. Meanwhile, nearly half (48.8 percent) of U.S. brands used Instagram as a marketing tool in 2016–and that number is expected to eclipse 70 percent this year, according to research firm eMarketer. Analysts say that meme makers, in particular, are increasingly attractive partners for more traditional brands. “That kind of humor is just so on target right now,” says Erika Stutzman, editorial director at the social media marketing agency Room 214. “There’s a fearless quality there, and it always has a really relatable feel.”
FuckJerry is, I suppose, “fearless” about stealing content, but there has been a minor backlash in recent days, because the people from whom he’s stealing don’t see the proceeds. Tim Heidecker released a track entitled, “Fuck FuckJerry”. Vic Berger skewered FuckJerry with one of his famous mashups. (Ironically, FuckJerry subsequently filed a copyright infringement request against Vic). Megh Wright started the hashtag #fuckfuckjerry on Twitter. Patton Oswalt and John Mulaney urged their followers to unfollow FuckJerry (and, I did). Surprisingly, it seems to be having an effect:
Since the boycott began, Jerry Media’s website has been taken down, they’ve deleted hundreds of posts, and their follower count has dropped. Comedy Central has also ceased advertising with them. On Saturday, Tebele posted a statement on Medium apologizing for the company’s actions. He claims that moving forward, the Jerry Media will ask creators’ permission before reposting memes. “Effective immediately, we will no longer post content when we cannot identify the creator, and will require the original creator’s advanced consent before publishing their content to our followers,” wrote Tebele. “It is clear that attribution is no longer sufficient, so permission will become the new policy.”
The economics of FuckJerry are increasingly representative of those of content creation as a whole. The fates of the people creating content and the people aggregating and curating that content are diverging. In her article about the (dismal) future of journalism, Jill Lepore writes about the history of The Huffington Post:
In 2005, a year the New York Times Company laid off five hundred employees and the Post began paying people to retire early, [Jonah] Peretti joined Andrew Breitbart, a Matt Drudge acolyte, and Ken Lerer, a former P.R. guy at AOL Time Warner, in helping Arianna Huffington, a millionaire and a former anti-feminist polemicist, launch the Huffington Post. Peretti was in charge of innovations that included a click-o-meter. Within a couple of years, the Huffington Post had more Web traffic than the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. Its business was banditry. Abramson writes that when the Times published a deeply reported exclusive story about WikiLeaks, which took months of investigative work and a great deal of money, the Huffington Post published its own version of the story, using the same headline—and beat out the Times story in Google rankings. “We were learning that the internet behaved like a clattering of jackdaws,” Rusbridger writes. “Nothing remained exclusive for more than two minutes.”
HuffPo’s business model relied heavily on stealing content. It also relied heavily on not paying its own contributors, or at least not paying them meaningfully. Another Jonah Peretti creation, Buzzfeed, depended (and still depends) on unpaid contributions, too. It recently underwent a large round of layoffs, and its director of quizzes, Matthew Perpetua, was part of the cuts. He published a blogpost explaining the economics of the decision:
You might be wondering – wait, why would they lay you off? You were doing the quizzes, and that brings in a lot of money! Well, that is true. But another thing that is true is that a LOT of the site’s overall traffic comes from quizzes and a VERY large portion of that traffic comes from a constant flow of amateur quizzes made by community users. In the recent past, the second highest traffic driver worldwide has been a community user in Michigan who is a teenager in college who, for some reason, makes dozens of quizzes every week. It’s kinda amazing how much revenue-generating traffic the site gets from unpaid community volunteers. So, in a ruthless capitalist way, it makes sense for the company to pivot to having community users create almost all of the quizzes going forward. I understand math. I get it.
(The teenager he’s referring to was distraught that she might have been responsible for the cuts, and has since vowed not to produce more content for Buzzfeed. Good for her.)
I’m reminded of a book I’m reading about Karl Marx’s political theory. The author discusses Marx’s account of capitalist exploitation:
It is based in the impersonal domination of the market, not the personal domination of the local monopolist. It is open-ended and flexible, indifferent to the particularity of what is produced or how it is produced, rather than conservative and tradition bound. It contains an immanent drive toward overwork that is alien to other forms of exploitation. Doing away with this exploitation cannot be a matter of providing cheap credit and cheap land, for it is neither interest nor rent that establishes the relationship of a wage laborer to capitalist. At the bottom of the pre-Marxian account of exploitation are the convictions (a) that individual persons exploit individual persons; (b) that they ought not to do so; and (c) that exploitation can be rooted out only by limiting each individual’s power to exploit others. Marx’s account of impersonal market domination rules out this individualized and moralized understanding of capitalist exploitation.
What strikes me, when reading about these accounts of exploitation, from FuckJerry to HuffPo to Buzzfeed, is exactly how interchangeable and impersonal the capitalists are. I know Vic Berger. I follow him on Twitter. I know what he looks like, what he sounds like. I’ve read profiles of him. I know that his weird side hobby on Twitter is, or at least used to be, to post photos of people standing beside the cardboard cutouts you’re supposed to stick your head in to get pictured. I’ve watched his videos of Jim and Lori Bakker’s weird goopy survival food more times than I care to admit, and I’ve laughed each and every time. I don’t know or care about FuckJerry. I bet no one does. In fact, FuckJerry isn’t even a person. The lanky and unfunny white dudes behind FuckJerry could be anyone, and that’s the point. The problem, as Marx writes, is not in Elliot Tebele exploiting Vic Berger; it’s in the “impersonal domination of the market”, in the fact that platform and reach are more valuable than humor and creativity. As I briefly watched the Super Bowl yesterday, I had the same thought. No one tunes into the game to see Robert Kraft. But he and his fellow owners (thirty or so people) receive more money than all of the players in the league (thousands of people) combined.
The solution to impersonal exploitation cannot be just to target persons. I admire the FuckJerry boycott, and I’m glad Megh Wright started it. But the social media machine can sustain outrage for only so long, and I have no doubt that FuckJerry will wait for the anger to dissipate and continue to make money in largely the same way as before. Moreover, the scope of our problems extends far beyond FuckJerry itself. FuckJerrys are ubiquitous. Each of these individualized efforts — from #fuckfuckjerry to Buzzfeed’s teenage quizmaster’s — is heartwarming, yet they seem woefully inadequate compared to the scale of the problem, like doing Meatless Mondays to prevent the impending climate catastrophe.
Ben Mathis-Lilley wrote, in Slate, after the latest and most brutal round of layoffs in journalism:
You might imagine that the root of this problem is that in an era in which one’s options for passing time include texting, social media, and on-demand TV/movie/YouTube streaming, people aren’t as interested in reading journalism (or journalism-adjacent lifestyle-humor content) as they used to be. But that does not seem to be correct. Instead, there’s a greater appetite for news than there used to be: Many news outlets, in fact, have recently achieved record readership numbers, with monthly online audiences in the tens of millions. (Donald Trump’s campaign and presidency have probably helped.) The problem is not audience. Instead, the problem seems to be that it’s gotten harder and harder for news outlets to make money off of the readers they have because such a huge share of advertising spending is sucked up by Facebook and Google, with what’s left increasingly going to Amazon.
In his video lambasting FuckJerry, Vic Berger described its business model as follows: “Curation by FuckJerry: Steal ideas, re-post alongside ads, profit.” What does it say about our economy when its two most powerful actors have reaped a combined revenue of hundreds of billions, enough to fund more content than we’d ever need, by doing the exact same thing?