stop, collaborate and credit [your memes]

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


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:

Source: PopBuzz

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?


  1. So many interesting points made here! I agree that it can become extremely hard to give credit to original “meme” creators, especially because the nature of memes is not serious. Stealing a song or logo can be admissible in court, but when it comes to humor and art, the lines start to blur. I also find it really interesting that T-Moblie reached out to the original creator for their Super Bowl commercial, indicating that perhaps more legal action will occur in the creative space. Great post!!

  2. Jaclin Murphy · ·

    I cannot put into words how much I love the idea of this blog post! Brilliant! I am fascinated by memes and the culture that surrounds them. I honestly think in the future it will be used as a tool to express/explore certain periods in time, specifically pop-culture, but also society at large. I think stolen jokes on the internet are an issue. I think twitter is where a lot of theft happens. It is very easy to retype those characters and pass it off as your own content. Usually, people will put in the comments if that user stole the content; however, as a reader, unless I’ve seen the tweet multiple times, I will assume it is that user’s original content. Photo memes are also interesting because if you take someone’s photo, but change the caption/joke, is that still stealing? Comedy is different than music, in that for some reason people don’t get in real trouble. I can remember comedians such as Amy Schumer getting accused of stealing jokes a few years back. Yeah, she got some backlash, but nothing really happened to her. Hopefully creators get credit (and backlash) where it is due.

  3. It will be interesting to see how the law evolves around licensing and branding of internet content. I would not want to be in the shoes of any high level marketing agency right about now. We live in a world that is full of inspiration that is one click away, but is this plagiarism? What seems small now could erupt later, great topic!

  4. This is a great topic that fits perfectly with this class, especially given the fact that a meme or two have already been utilized in some of our blog posts. Although memes have been around for a while, it seems as though they are really taking off and the possibilities for ways in which they can be used are fairly endless. It will be interesting to see what is done moving forward to help regulate the use of memes and giving credit where credit is due, but at the same time, how exactly will they decide on who deserves that credit?

  5. This is an incredibly creative and relevant topic, and quite frankly, it brings up a lot of points that just never crossed my mind before. I think that goes to show, as you mentioned in your blog, how easy it is for people to use, share, and ultimately forget about their posted content simply due to the fleeting nature of memes. Our society has gotten to a point where there seems to be a new viral sensation everyday. It’s hard to keep up with the meme culture, let alone its rightful owners. You mentioned another good question about where the law would even come into play in the rise of reposted content. It may seem absolutely harmless to us, but we don’t fully understand its implications. I’ve been a avid follower of @FuckJerry for many years now, but I always questioned if all of his content was either 100% original or crowd-sourced. And if it is purely crowd-sourced, why should this account get all the credit?

  6. After talking to a friend about Fyre Festival and the involvement of Jerry Media they told me about how the organization set up a bunch of burner accounts with pre-created memes to spam once the documentary came out. This was something I had never considered before but makes complete sense on why memes can go so viral so quickly. Before I even watched the documentary I saw multiple memes about Fyre Festival almost immediately after it came out and never noted which source I saw them from first. The tough part is users are trying to take in so much content at once that I think few are going back to the source tagged by accounts like Fuck Jerry because they’re too busy scrolling onto the next. I know I am guilty of this and never really looking into where the original joke came from so it should be interesting to see if legislation finds anyway to monitor this.

  7. This is such an interesting take on meme culture – my Instagram Explore page is drowning in textpost memes, but I’ve never thought of meme-making/posting as actual content creation. The fact that we need to have a conversation about whether or not memes deserve creative protections speaks volumes to how integral they are to our digital experience now. I think another potential side-issue around crediting memes is the idea of cross-platform content. Many of the memes I see on Instagram and Facebook, for example, are screenshots or images pulled from Twitter and Tumblr. At least for me, this blurs the distinctions between the platforms and decreases the importance of each platform’s unique use function – I wonder if this kind of content migration/reproduction/ubiquity has had any effect on people’s perceptions of each site’s brand.

    In general, I feel like meme creators would be hard-pressed to find a court sympathetic to claims of content reproduction violations, but I think there are definitely spaces where the meme is evolving into a “formal” type of intellectual property. Last year, the Library of Congress began archiving memes and meme-esque content sites in its new “Web Cultures Web Archives Collection,” which seems like a huge (although possibly begrudging) step toward recognizing memes as having legitimate cultural value and future historical meaning.

  8. I think this is i a great and very relevant topic considering how popular memes are with millennials and gen z, and how desperate advertisers are to reach them. While T-Mobile licensed the text conversation they used in their add, the very cut and paste format of many memes could blur the lines on what is and isn’t an original idea. The whole point of memes is that it’s supposed to be the same format and the same emotion/reaction conveyed and you never really know what’s going to take off and what’s going to fall flat. With so many advertisers desperate to “make their own meme” kind of like Fiji did earlier this year, it’s only a mater of time before intellectual property becomes an issue. It definitely relates to copying allegations in art too – there’s a fine line between “inspiration” and flat out imitation. Fiji water girl may be the first person to go to court essentially over a meme, but i’m sure she won’t be the last.

  9. mckeanlindsay · ·

    Great post! I think it will be interesting to see, as we have evolved very quickly from ideas being monotonously published in paper, to being rapidly published online, how people will respond to the new methods of content curation and idea sharing. Especially as humor becomes such a large part of the media we consume, I like how you raise the point of whether or not we take these ideas seriously. Additionally, were they ever really meant to be taken seriously? People make jokes every day, but will this idea of licensing jokes even change the way we exchange laughs? In this “meme” culture, it will be very interesting to see how people begin to take advantage of licensing deals like T-Mobile’s in the future. However, it’s also a little worrisome. Jokes and memes promote high rates of interaction online, and I wonder if all verifiable social media accounts will eventually be barred from using social media “fads” in their posts for the sake of preserving original content.

  10. matturally · ·

    There have been a few others that have found success with this style of “content”. I know “The fat Jewish” got pretty big off of this and got the same blowback.

    People, I think, don’t understand that they are actually providing a service, in a way. There is too much stuff going on on the internet for anyone to organically find a lot of this stuff. These sort of accounts act like Yahoo used to as a kind of “portal” or similar to how book publishers help people to find the good stuff. Once that mindset is taken, I think we’re going to see these accounts run in a way similar to Google News; nothing more than a curation system.

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