The origins of other similarly imitated jokes are easier to pin down. One of the most popular on Twitter in recent months was written in December by a user named Kevin Farzad. “HEY IT’S ME your facebook friend from high school who never left our hometown & thinks Olive Garden is fancy,” it read. “Anyway here’s a racist article.” In the following weeks it was retweeted almost 33,000 times and garnered nearly 45,000 favorites. Then, a few days later, it was written again, and again the next day, and again, and again, and is probably being written right now, all by different users who stole the joke or altered it slightly, with no indication that it was anything but an original creation.
A similar thing happened to this tweet by David Hughes back in June. But the most egregious example of how pervasive this sort of theft has become played out for a Twitter user named Chris Scott, who posted this tweet about “Becky from 6th grade” and saw it lifted thousands of times. Jokes about old classmates with bad taste on Facebook tend to do really well these days.
To paraphrase some guy or other, good content is shared, great content is stolen. In fact, you might say the surest sign of success with a joke online is that people are stealing it. This isn’t just something that’s tolerated; it’s become incentivized, with those avaricious enough being able to leverage other people’s work into notoriety and even monetary gain.
Business Insider interviewed Scott about the bizarre feeling of watching something he wrote spread far and wide, detached from its original author. “It’s a genuinely fascinating and foreign concept to me, to see something that you connect with on some level and then decide, ‘Well, that’s mine now,’” he said.
Plagiarism isn’t just a problem in comedy of late. Sen. John Walsh (D-Mont.) canceled his campaign after it was found he plagiarized his thesis at the Army War College; Mary Burke, unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate in Wisconsin, featured copied material in her jobs plan. Interestingly, the site breaking many of those scoops is BuzzFeed, whose own viral politics editor Benny Johnson was fired after the site Our Bad Media revealed that Johnson had plagiarized much of his own work.
But in politics and journalism, plagiarism remains a serious, even career-killing charge. So why is it any different when it comes to jokes online, especially considering how grave a sin joke theft is in stand-up comedy? Consider this discussion on Twitter recently, in which @OZChrisRock was accused of lifting a joke from comedian Neal Brennan (who, to make this even more complicated, actually writes jokes for the real Chris Rock). For all the angry responses, there are just as many people asking what the big deal is. It’s the Internet, the argument goes. No one expects anything better.
Despite all of the respectability afforded BuzzFeed ‘s focus on serious reporting lately, let’s not forget what it was that got them so much money to spend on talented reporters in the first place: lists and lifted funny memes, a formula that inspired endless knockoff sites in the great clicks goldrush of the 2010s. Somewhat ironically, Ashton Kutcher’s attempt at a viral media site, Aplus.com, billed as “the fastest growing site in the history of the Internet,” was caught blatantly plagiarizing BuzzFeed’s content earlier this year. Offbrand site Playbuzz eclipsed BuzzFeed in Facebook shares back in October for the first time through its relentless meme recycling.
Perhaps even more notorious was the site Dose.com, one of many run by Emerson Spartz, who was recently declared by the New Yorker to be “the king of clickbait.” Spartz’s Internet concerns, like OMGFacts, have generated millions of dollars in ad revenue, and he raised $8 million in venture-capital funding last year, according to the story. Much of the content on these sites is stolen verbatim from others, or is similar enough for the distinction between plagiarism and aggregating to be moot, with a “h/t” buried beneath a piece that leads to a Russian nesting doll-style chain of attribution. One could theoretically follow the trail to the originator of the idea, although that’s not how these type of disposable meme-y jokes are consumed. The important thing isn’t who created it, but who shared it—you!—allowing readers to become purveyors of entertaining content to their friends. We’re all complicit now in the joke black market, each share an act of criminal fencing.
Spartz told the New Yorker that Dose no longer focuses on original content. “We’ve stopped doing that as much because more original lists take more time to put together, and we’ve found that people are no more likely to click on them.” Why buy the cow when you can steal the neighbor’s milk and sell it? Which seems to be exactly what a handful of folks are doing to achieve Internet fame.
Josh Ostrovsky, better known as @thefatjewish, has some 2.4 million followers on Instagram, many of them 20-somethings who find hilarity in smoking pot and eating a lot of pizza. Paper magazine recently lauded him in a profile, writing: “If anyone knows how to break the Internet, this guy does. Every day he trolls the bowels of the Web, shining light on the sickest, most hilarious and most shocking stuff he sees.” Ostrovsky is treated as Internet royalty, even on sites devoted to the more traditionally famous, like TMZ, and has leveraged his brand into a television pilot and lucrative endorsement deals.
Ostrovsky’s secret is a sort of joke laundering that divests a piece of content from its source. That can mean screen-shotting someone’s tweet and posting it to Instagram or Facebook, and sometimes, more egregiously, chopping off the originator’s name altogether. Consider this post, with almost 90,000 likes, in which he shared someone else’s Twitter joke (@undergroundbby’s, incidentally).
If only there were some more efficient means of sharing a tweet that you found funny.
But using the retweet button defeats the purpose of this style of comedic theft Ostrovsky and others traffic in. As with a similar Instagram account (whose name cannot be printed here) run by Elliot Tebele (who has 2.2 million followers and was called “the man behind Instagram’s funniest feed” by the New York Post), it’s not about sharing enjoyable material with others, it’s about making them enjoy it through you as the delivery system. Much like the frequently groused-about technique of manually retweeting, it’s essentially setting up a toll booth on the Internet through which you extract value from followers for the privilege of enjoying someone else’s work. Granted, this is similar in kind, if not degree, to what plenty of blogging consists of, but at least blogging has a few clear standards: credit and link.
In the Internet comedy game, there are no rules. A typical post from Tebele looks like this, a cropped screenshot of someone else’s tweet. Whose? He doesn’t say. It appears to have originated on Twitter with a user named @romyrhoads, who pulled in 18,566 retweets and 26,653 favorites, big numbers that still pale in comparison to Tebele’s 167,000 likes on Instagram. That’s not to mention the hundreds of other people who stole the joke for themselves. Sometimes people message Tebele and explain that he’s using their photo, he has said. He’ll tag them in the photo after the fact, but admits “it’s really hard to find out who was the original creator when pictures go viral on Tumblr or whatever.”
That plausible authorial deniability is by design. After a while, an Internet post becomes so popular that the idea of it ever having been written by someone in the first place is lost. It simply exists, and has always existed. The current crop of savvy content thieves understand that the general public doesn’t care about this sort of thing, particularly those who’ve grown up as Internet natives, where all information is free for the taking.
The Fat Jew and Tebele are now celebrities in their own right, with diehard fans—among them many real-world celebrities—who can make serious money by operating their accounts. @OZChrisRock (and his other accounts, like @OZLifeAdvice) and many other parody accounts on Twitter almost always feature a business contact in their bios. When these accounts get popular enough, they can be sold to Internet marketers or attract paid advertisers.
Jon King, the operator of a handful of hugely popular Twitter accounts, including @willlllywonka, says he makes $500 a day. King isn’t the only content profiteer to engage in the practice, and many of them conspire in a sort of joke racketeering, purchasing RTs from one another or using one of their accounts to bolster a second. Unsurprisingly, much of the material is either stolen or recycled on these accounts, like this iteration of a perpetually repeated joke “written” by Sex Facts Of Life.
“Many posts have been done before; therefore if I see a tweet I like I will put it into my own words. Most of my posts are original though. I get some pretty good ones from my fans submitting them,” King explained to The Daily Dot. David Orr, the man behind the popular (638,000 followers) and horrifically unfunny Ya Boy Bill Nye account, has said it’s all about the money. “I’m definitely in this for the marketing aspect, and at the end of the day, obviously the revenue,” he told BuzzFeed. “I’m not a writer. I do not write most of my content. I find it [in] other places.” Recycling a joke you overheard at a cocktail party is still stealing, sure, but it’s a minor offense compared to the way these accounts operate, which is more akin to grand larceny, even if the audience doesn’t see the difference.
“My hunch is there’s a sizable chunk of people who don’t really grasp what plagiarism is or why it’s wrong, and they kind of regard Twitter and social media as this giant free-for-all where everybody’s just constantly taking and posting whatever they want from whoever they want,” Scott explained to Business Insider.
Spartz summed it up to the New Yorker: “The way we view the world, the ultimate barometer of quality is: if it gets shared, it’s quality. If someone wants to toil in obscurity, if that makes them happy, that’s fine. Not everybody has to change the world.” Never mind how often something gets shared. If you want a more accurate tabulation of how popular a post is, we need a plagiarized button next to the favorite or like one. If you’re not cheating, as someone somewhere once said, then apparently you’re not trying.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Josh Ostrovsky.