Memes are a staple of the internet. I’ve grown up on memes. Even though the last episode of MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” aired over ten years ago, its host Xzibit was forever immortalized by the “Yo Dawg” meme that circulated forums, making fun of the extravagant and often unnecessary upgrades installed on cars that appeared on the show. With social media making it easier than ever to share these bite size cultural references en masse, it seems the lifespan of memes have shortened. Platforms that make the use of hashtags core to their engagement have amplified the speed at which these images are generated and shared. Through algorithms that promote trending topics and make it easy to categorize content, memes hit mainstream awareness at an astronomical rate. Think about it, in less than 30 days Fiji Water girl became an overnight viral sensation, landed a soap opera guest appearance, and even filed a lawsuit against the same company that brought her to the spotlight.
Despite sounding frivolous, the lawsuit does have some merit. The model briefly became a cultural phenomenon and the company behind her decided to use cutout cardboard images in retail spaces to promote the Fiji water brand, allegedly without permission to use her likeness in their advertising. It’ll be some time before we see how this plays out in court but it made me think a lot about the idea of “theft” and “crediting” in this ambiguous cyber space.
well, well, well, if it isn’t the consequences of my own actions@geraldinreverse
For example look at Jerry Media, the marketing agency born from meme account @FuckJerry. What once started as an account that compiled viral content around the web now works with corporate clients to create custom content aimed as advertisements for the meme-consumer. They’ve been in the news lately for their involvement in the Fyre Festival promotion but Elliot Tebele, the face behind the aggregator account, has been the source of ire for quite some time for the users who have seen their content gain new viral life on the account. There was prevalent anger online when the Shorty Awards, which highlight “the best content creators and producers on social media”, recognized the account last year:
It brings up an interesting and important series of questions. Can you claim ownership over a joke? What about one posted publicly on a global platform? Plagiarism and content theft are a serious offense in academia and industries with more established guidelines even in the entertainment space. For example, sampling songs without permission results in hefty fines and lawsuits but we can’t seem to extend or apply this to content shared on social media. Is it because we don’t want to take seriously the ownership of the philosophical “it be like dat sometimes but recently it be like that all the time”? Or is it because it’s becoming harder and harder to interpret ownership and copyright law as it relates to tweets and memes especially as it is produced, shared, and forgotten in such a quick cycle on a daily basis? Most likely the latter. We spent a brief moment in class discussing how slow moving legislation can be to catch up to rising problems in emerging digital markets and this is prime example of one the ambiguity of how to even apply the law. There are informal etiquette guidelines on reposting content like: tag, credit, and link the original source or ask the owner for permission to repost content. But these are recommendations, is someone breaking the law if they screenshot a tweet they found funny and repost it as long as it includes the original source’s name?
I will admit, when I originally read about the complaints lodged against Elliot’s meme/parody accounts I scoffed. “Oh people on the internet are mad they missed out on internet points.” But what I forgot in the moment, and now go back to often, are that internet “points” are no longer just that. Corporations and marketing departments have monetized all kinds of internet points: followers, likes, comments, you name it. Influencer accounts are paid hundreds or thousands per post to endorse products or feature another brand. Just going back to Jerry Media for a second, their parody accounts were so successful in growing its user base by mining jokes crowd-sourced via social channels that they now make a living and are building a media empire from it. When @FuckJerry “credits” a funny image or tweet by including the original username from the source in the cropped screengrab, it isn’t to highlight or credit the source but it seems like a way to skirt the need to link directly to the user. This keeps your typical instagram user on their feed so that they only can reap the benefits of engagement metrics they’ll gain from what was technically “earned” using someone else’s content. No one is going to open a new tab, search for @geraldinreverse, find their featured tweet, just to “do the right thing” and engage with the original source. That’s too much work and in that span of time I could have read at least four more memes.
meme crediting in the right direction
Out of the many Superbowl ads I sat through last night, one T-mobile ad stood out among the rest. The TV spot highlighted a conversation between “Mike” and his Lyft driver.
Frankly it only caught my attention because I recognized the text conversation as one I saw posted on a different meme Instagram account within the last year. I instinctively went to Twitter to confirm my suspicion and saw I wasn’t the only one that made that connection. As it happens often instances of stolen content, users immediately began sending the offending post to the original content creator. But this time there was a different reaction. Rather than the usual cycle of mass criticism of the evil corporate entity followed by said entity’s hastily put together PR apology we saw a rather unexpected response. T-mobile had actually licensed the content from the original user:
So maybe, not all hope is lost when it comes to establishing best practices and guidelines around distribution of viral content. What remains to be seen is what will be the breaking point for repeat offenders like Jerry Media and their peers’ aggregate accounts. Will they continue to act as if viral content are part of the Wild Wild West of the internet with no rules to adhere to or will law finally catch up to them and make an example of them in court cases that will define content ownership, copyright, and fair use laws when it comes to social media generated content?